Finishing a novel by Iris Murdoch always leaves me breathless, swooning with happiness. My first encounter with Dame Iris Murdoch was The Sea, The Sea and then The Book and the Brotherhood. I do not re-read books if, for one reason or another, I do not have to, but both novels are high on the list of novels I’ll reread given enough time. With both novels it’s hard to point to what exactly makes them so great. An obvious answer is that the mind at work in both books is a wonderful and brilliant one. Iris Murdoch isn’t content with writing one kind of novel, her books are always several things at once, and all of them fully formed, complete. But it’s strangely hard to pin down. Novels like The Book and the Brotherhood are hardly dazzling linguistically. The writing is good, of course, but more on the elegant side of things than anything else, it’s put into service by the story and the ideas. The writing does draw you in, her language is warm, direct, emotional yet at the same time almost arch, a controlled writing, but what keeps you reading are the stories. And fuck yeah what stories these are. And The Book and the Brotherhood contains several kinds of stories.
One of these is a story about a group of academics and their involvement with Marxism. The story charts their youthful dreams and their subsequent falling-out with communism and communist doctrine. We don’t get many flashbacks, in a way what we see is how the story has been inscribed on the backs and faces and souls of the dozens of characters that populate the book. What we are not told, in Murdoch’s masterful dialogues (it needs to be said that Murdoch would’ve been an excellent playwright), we can infer from the obsessions and pathological problems of those we meet in the pages of The Book and the Brotherhood. And yes, most of what we glean of that story is negative; there isn’t a happy ending to that youthful enthusiasm for communism. In a way, it seems, at least initially, as if that particular storyline illustrated the infamous bonmot of George Bernard Shaw’s that “any man who is not a communist at the age of twenty is a fool. Any man who is still a communist at the age of thirty is an even bigger fool.” The surviving theorists are straight pessimists like Professor Levquist:
“All thought which is not pessimistic is now false.”
“But you would say it has always been?”
“Yes. Only now it is forced upon all thinking people, it is the only possible conception. Courage, endurance, truthfulness, these are the virtues. And to recognize that of all things we are the most miserable that creep between the earth and sky.”
“But this cheers you up, sir!” said Gerard.
As usual with Iris Murdoch, the case is, naturally, less clear. The book turns out to be a complex meditation on the assumptions hiding behind sayings such as G.B. Shaw’s. I admit: I feel somewhat overwhelmed by the task to go into details on Murdoch’s treatment of its ideas. Murdoch does three things. She engages a handful of her characters in a direct discussion of pertinent topics and ideas. Throughout the book these characters meet and debate, directly, issues like Communism, the revolution, hope and the like. Many writers do that. They may even do the second thing she does, which is create a story that exemplifies certain elements of that debate. What they don’t manage, though, or very rarely, is create a story that works perfectly as a story. The condescension of many writers of novels of ideas, who try to cheat the readers out of a great stories by making ideas paramount and characters merely puppets, to use that old expression, in the hands of a writer who fancies himself far more than novelist: he’s a philosopher now, don’t you know. And the word philosopher is instrumental here.
This is not about creating a story, often allegorical, to support an idea, it’s about telling the reader, often, explicitly, in the most annoying manner often, what your philosophical ideas are and then slapping a story in between the breathing gaps, a story which doesn’t deserve that name. See, the explicit philosophical lecturing is important, because in those instances, the writer gives his game away. In the hands of such a writer, awareness often drops by the wayside. Novelists such as Paolo Giordano (review of The Solitude of Prime Numbers forthcoming) scrub their texts until the norm disappears, hides behind eccentric characters; often illness, as the Other of ‘normal’ health, exemplifies a pathological emotional state. Or women. There is a disregard for your fellow man hidden in many of these stories. Iris Murdoch’s work shows us how a story, the writing and construction of a story, can buffer this effect. Murdoch’s work is multi-layered, it’s constantly shifting, it’s basically a mechanism which creates awareness, although that last phrase may sound barmy. A story creates its own momentum, the deconstructionists were not the first to find out about this, and in Murdoch’s novels, even in as slim ones as A Severed Head, different kinds of these thrusts created by stories, are colliding, producing contradictory effects.
This deft handling of the stories endows Murdoch with the liberty to throw raw chunks of thinking at us, and these are different ones in each book. As to The Book and the Brotherhood, it’s about some of the grand questions of left thinking, questions that are, today, in mainstream literature, raised in an at best ironic tone, if not downright derisory. Incidentally, it’s this state of things that made Hari Kunzru’s My Revolutions (2007) such a pleasant, even delightful surprise. Kunzru’s sidesteps the defensive attitude of many old-school Marxists today, not engaging in that discourse, because it’s of course the wrong categories. Murdoch does something similar but in a more hidden way. She does present us figures of the defensive debate, tropes and phrases that have been and still are part of many attack/defense rituals. Ultimately, however, she presents (and answers?) other questions, non-defensive ones. How and why do we adjust to the regime? And we’re including democratic regimes here, I’m just stumped for a better word, we’re living in and why do we subscribe to opinions and attitudes we attacked ardently in our youth? How does society reassert its grip on our minds? Not if, but how. The right presuppositions are already in place.
Both the futility of theory and -at the same time- the necessity for it and both the entrancing beauty of serious thought and, oh, let’s just call it: inconvenience of said thought, these are all important in the narrative. Thought is merciless. Brutal. Conclusions are temporary, and likely, merely by virtue of being conclusions, wrong. Here are two particularly salient passages that relate to this issue:
“I don’t know whether Crimond is “really” a Marxist, or what that means now, they don’t know themselves. I suppose he’s a sort of maverick Marxist, as their best thinkers are. The only good Marxist is a mad Marxist. It’s not enough to be a revisionist, you’ve got to be a bit mad too – to be able to see the present world, to imagine the magnitude of what’s happening.”
“You think of yourself as an open-minded pluralist – but you’ve got a single compact little philosophy of life, all unified, all tied up comfortably together, a few soothing ideas which let you off thinking! But we must think – and that’s what’s such hell, philosophy is hell, it’s contrary to nature, it hurts so, one must make a shot at the whole thing and that means failing too, not really being able to connect, and not pretending that things fit when they don’t – and keeping hold of the things that don’t fit, keeping them whole and clear in their almost-fittingness – oh God, it’s so hard -”
Apropos of “God”, I should mention another thing: faith is another important and central topic. Murdoch is a deeply generous writer. You will not find her attacking, with a red face and hoarse lungs beliefs that other people may find important, not least because it’s clearly important for Murdoch to respect her characters and the strata of human life they stand for. There are people falling off the Christian faith, there are people entering it. As she did in The Sea, the Sea, Murdoch, although she’s clearly capable of scrutinizing all kinds of ideas and topics, places faith on the periphery of rational inquiry, perception. It’s never ludicrous, as so many cruel and stupid people would paint it. Instead, she creates two roles for it. One is faith as something mystical, something vaguely incomprehensible to the uninitiated, something that needs to be experienced in order to understand it. Murdoch doesn’t attempt, as a novelist, to follow Locke’s doomed example to demonstrate The Reasonableness of Religion. Instead, she shows us religion as mystical, as beyond the reductive grasp of anatomy and reason. In a way, she reads religion on its own terms, gives it breathing space on its own turf. The second role of faith is as an element of social cohesion, or private solace, as something that can provide some persons with strength, resolve (There is an extraordinary novella by A.L. Kennedy, Original Bliss, that explores a similar topic. Review up soon). Murdoch privileges neither role, and does not present either as exoticism. On the contrary, she frequently suggests that many of our preoccupations may tie in with faith, not just by association, even causally.
However, I did say earlier there were several kinds of stories. The other major strand, apart from the ideas just mentioned, is love (and death). This one, it’s melodrama. A group of friends, some in love with others, some becoming pregnant, some dying, some married, some divorcing. A smorgasbord of relationships. Like a soap-opera, honestly. The Book and the Brotherhood’s a long book, 600 pages, full of life. That part of it isn’t remarkable yet. What’s remarkable is the attention to small personal detail and the amazing gift Iris has for imbuing her characters with life. After a few dozen pages, these characters get into your head. Even now, thinking back on the book, it’s like a complex world I feel I could slip back into at any given time. That’s the strange thing. The story is so well done, so much developed through these complex characters that it feels real. Like a novelized documentary. I never got a feeling of getting fed a formula. Any addition felt like the writer honing the picture, knowing all the while where she needed to go. In a way that I have rarely read before. I haven’t read a novelist who is this interested in people in ages. Not people. Her brothers and sisters. We are all family, and Murdoch understands this, accords all of us the respect we deserve. The storytelling is always compassionate, engaging, and moving. Iris Murdoch is an amazing, amazing writer and one of my very favorite novelists. ISBN
(If parts of this review sound familiar to you, its because I based it on notes that I took for an older review that I posted more than a year ago, but which apparently got lost when I moved to wordpress. I was in no shape to write a new review today, but an update/rewrite, yep, that works. From how I remember the old review, this one’s a bit longer, and is more digressive. Sorry. That also explains the unevenness. Sorry, again. I was out drinking with a few friends.)