This review is late, and I’m sorry. I actually finished the book a good few days ago, at the weekend (still a bit late) and then I’ve been shillyshallying over writing up my review. I feel a bit intimidated because this feels to me like the first time Murdoch spreads her wings and fills a book with a million details and thoughts and feels and I have SO MANY post-its stuck in the book and I’m going to have missed all the stuff. And yes, I’m writing informally because I’ve reverted to my basic flippancy when under stress. At least I didn’t get THAT out of a blooming IM novel (see below).

So I hope my lovely Read-Along-ers come into play with some insightful comments and readings. Please. Right, here goes …

Iris Murdoch – “The Nice and the Good”

(August 2018)

As I mention above, this felt to me this time (and I’m not sure it’s happened in other chronological re-reads) that this is a point where IM really expands to fill the space allowed. Maybe it’s because it’s expanded into multiple locations, so many characters and scenes with more than two people in it (thank you to Peter Rivenberg for pointing out that doesn’t happen often in “The Time of the Angels“) so feels a long way from the claustrophobia of “The Time of the Angels”.

First off, so sorry to announce this, but we don’t (as far as I recall and now I’m fretting) have a woman in a white dress being pursued through the dusk. However, we do follow McGrath and the shine of his shirt through the under-office tunnels, so all is not lost. Incidentally, whenever I get to these tunnels, I can’t help thinking about the sub-sub-basement at the library I used to work at. I’m sure there were tunnels there.

With our usual themes, stones and shells must be mentioned first. Poor old Pierce gets his first of many setbacks when Barbara sweeps his shell-woman off her dressing table. Then of course he gets his sour “revenge” with the ammonite fossil. The uncanny twins are obsessed with stones and fossils: they’re uncanny in a good way of course (of course?). Hair is everywhere, from Willy’s white wisps to Kate’s pre-Raphaelite fuzz. Barbara has an “elaborate filigree head-piece” for hair, which is along the lines of previous Murdochian hair. Weird siblings we have of course, and a good pair who have special games with special rules and ask the most marvellous questions.

The sea and water are of course a major theme in the Dorset portions of the book. So many beautiful descriptions that are simply heart-stopping. Contrasts are there in the two main locations, office and outdoors, London and Dorset, town and country (the Grays have homes in both and most people move between the two), and we also have an explicit contrast in the discussion of the “chequer-board” of contrasting atmospheres in weekday and weekend/holiday Dorset. Dry, cool Paula is set against muddled Mary. Two women let themselves into houses (Biranne’s then Ducane’s) in front of horrified observers and both Mary and Paula take trips to London to revisit old haunts.

I found the description of Ducane’s thoughts when walking to see Willy with Kate very interesting:

Thus he walked on with Kate at his side, conveying along with him his jumbled cloud of thoughts whose self-protective and self-adjusting chemistry is known as mental health. (p. 46)

It feels like this is a contrast with all the talking and machinating that goes on in the book and also all the thinking and machinating provided by psychoanalysts in others of her books.

The animals in this are superb: Montrose with his “bird look” and silly old Mingo, both providing plot points in their own way, and then signifying the resolution of the midsummer of madness when they finally curl up in the basket together. I’d forgotten that Montrose appears on the breakwater and on the beach, wandering further than the house and garden, and liked this touch very much: he’s an observer, contrasted with Mingo’s eager participation.

The humour is back, muted but definitely there, from Pierce and his strokable nose which as “already troubled, in half-conscious form, a number of people, including some of his masters at school” (p. 22). Barbara is gently laughed at with her new pretensions and pony-madness. Ducane and Kate have conversations where each misinterprets the other, and he says how lovely it is to be so “rational” while really being nothing of the sort (p. 49). McGrath’s unpleasant colouring, or rather Ducane’s attitude to it, is jarring in a funny way: “McGrath was in very bad taste” (p. 64). Uncle Theo wanting to end up placing a pebble on each of Pierce’s buttocks makes me giggle every time I read it – but is is meant to be read like that or am I just being silly? Of course the cat and dog bring humour: when Montrose is defending his basket, “He lounged with the immobility of careless power” (p. 102) and of course the twins’ questions (and the questions the adults dare not ask them) are hilarious at times.

Do we have a saint and an enchanter? It’s not so clear-cut as it sometimes is (though will be again in later books, I think). Lots of people have saintly attributes: Kate “herself undefined, was a definer of others” (p. 18) and has a stammer and she and Octavian have “an indubitable virtue of generosity” (p. 19), but she’s not so self-effacing as to almost disappear. Jessica’s messy and makes weird art that she destroys; she is eventually free but doesn’t seem to actually help anyone. Is she an echo of Dora from “The Bell”?  Ducane wants to be cool and collected and help people and not get messy, and he’s also told repeatedly that he’s come to save people or help them; he is changed by the end of the novel, more messy and contingent, but I don’t think he’s the saint. He has a passage on p. 75 where he is shown as having “quite explicitly set before himself the aim of becoming a good man” and of course one of the rules for being good is not trying. On the other hand, Kate thinks that being good is “just a matter of temperament in the end” (p. 122) and something to do with being a happy, breast-fed baby.

I feel Mary or Willy might be our saint. Neither passes on their pain, including Willy never discussing his life in a concentration camp except to Theo, who sort of absorbs and doesn’t listen. Or maybe Theo’s the saint. He’s described as being invisible (which might be a curse, according to Mary) and

Theo also had a considerable gift for being physically relaxed. He seemed a totally non-electric, non-magnetic person. Perhaps it was this air of blank bovine ease which made his neighbours rightly so incurious. There was nothing to know. (p. 87)

He even has eyes whose colour you can’t describe. Mary is described thus: “… the mediocrity and muddle within Mary felt to be her own natural medium” (p. 20) and she has a self-effacing need to prove her place in the world by serving:

Mary depended, more than she might have been willing to admit, on a conception of her existence as justified by her talent for serving people. (p. 88)

(I had a jolt reading this, read first when I was around 14 and something I have built myself around, too: did that come from here?). Willy is “affectionate, detached, passive, absolutely passive” (p. 107) and although Mary has been subservient to him, that’s described as being entirely her doing (however, it’s worth noting that almost everyone seems obsessed with trooping to his cottage; so is he a quiet and ‘good’ enchanter after all?). Theo describes Willy’s book as “It’s not great, it’s not even necessary. It’s mediocre, it’s a time-filler” (p. 124) but is that a comment on Willy or Theo? Theo also tells Pierce to “Keep the blackness inside yourself then … Don’t pass it on” (p. 155) and that’s only after being pretty well asked for advice by Pierce. But he has had a difficulty involving a young boy who drowned, his master is now dead and he is “sunk in the wreck of myself” (p. 347) and knows what he must do but “cannot bear” to.

However, Willy, our other candidate, has this to say to Ducane:

Happiness … is a matter of one’s most ordinary everyday mode of consciousness being busy and lively and unconcerned with self. To be damned is for one’s ordinary everyday mode of consciousness to be unremitting agonising preoccupation with self. (p. 179)

However, just after this Ducane comes to the conclusion that he can’t stick with his view of himSELF as a strong helper, but is “enervated by all this mess and guilt” – so if he’s not become the good man or saint that he hoped to be since childhood, maybe he’s on the way to being good now he’s accepted and been subsumed by mess and contingency. He moves further forward in the sea cave, having an Effingham-like revelation

To love and to reconcile and to forgive, only this matters. All power is sin and all law is frailty. Love is the only justice. Forgiveness, reconciliation, not law. (p. 305)

and he takes this forward in his successful dealings with Biranne.

IM has an interesting explicit description of goodness, in that a saint might “possibly … be known by the utter absence of such gaseous tentacles” (p. 144) meaning their mysterious agencies which cause pain and mutilation to others without them even knowing, and the ability to insert themselves into people’s dreams. There’s a whole study of who appears in whose dreams there, isn’t there.

Is Kate the enchanter? She’s the centre of the Dorset group and says, “You are all my dear – children”, described by Ducane as “Slaves” (p. 258)

Echoes with other books: when Carel said in “The Time of the Angels” that maybe life boiled down to some dusty feathers in a cupboard, I thought of Radeechy’s poor old pigeons and there they are. Also like in “The Time of the Angels” and I’m trying to think what other novel (I think one yet to come), Jessica, as a Young Person, is shown as ignorant of religion and only part of a cult of the young. Fivey is a mix of Eugene from “The Time of the Angels” with his brown moustaches and Jake’s Finn in “Under the Net”. Kate and Octavian’s brisk and open discussions about Kate’s fancies remind me of all the self-justification and attempts to be objective in “A Severed Head”; however, here, they do seem to be genuine and not to be skating over the surface of some awful chasm. How has this changed? Octavian certainly “reclaims” Kate while on holiday and is triumphant, so maybe that’s it. I find them more and more peculiar as I get older (this is the first time I’ve read them while married myself, which I think makes a difference). The spaceship at the end echoes another spaceship at the end of another book which is such an important plot point that I hesitate to name the book here for fear of planting spoilers, as well as the more well-discussed sea serpent in “The Sea, The Sea”. The trial by sea in the cave reminded me of the weir scene in “Nuns and Soldiers” (weirdly, that scene comes way later in the book than I’d remembered). The word “rebarbative(ly)” appears for the first time since its sight over-use in “The Bell”, I think (p. 57)

So, have I really said what I need to say about this book? I don’t know. Who is the saint, who the enchanter? I don’t know. Theo and, more, Ducane, certainly grow towards goodness. Montrose, Mingo, Mary, Willy, Casey even are essentially “good”, aren’t they? The blurb on one of my copies says no one in the book is good, but I don’t agree.

Oh, and it’s a really good read with an exciting sub-plot and surprising and exciting events. Did I miss that aspect in my review?


Please either place your review in the comments, discuss mine or others’, or post a link to your review if you’ve posted it on your own blog, Goodreads, etc. I’d love to know how you’ve got on with this book and if you read it having read others of Murdoch’s novels or this was a reread, I’d love to hear your specific thoughts on those aspects, as well as if it’s your first one!

If you’re catching up or looking at the project as a whole, do take a look at the project page, where I list all the blog posts so far.