I’ve finally finished this one – the longest of her novels, surely, with my Vintage edition coming in at a round 600 pages. Yes, it’s baggy, and that’s about all the introduction really says, but I do so love this one and thank goodness it didn’t disappoint this time around. This book is notable for including the best animal in the whole of Murdoch’s oeuvre, and my favourite character in Murdoch. One of these is Grey the parrot, one of them isn’t.

There are spoilers in this review because there can’t not be, so don’t proceed unless you’ve read the book (please save it and come back to it, though!).

If you’re doing the readalong or even selected books along with me, or of course some time afterwards, do share how you’re getting on and which have been your favourites so far.

Iris Murdoch – “The Book and the Brotherhood”

(31 December 2018)

The premise is such an excellent and strong one, isn’t it. A circle of friends, all Left-leaning, decide to pay into a fund to keep one of them, Crimond, while he writes The Big Book of … well, of what? As the years wear on, everyone moves to the right, as it’s claimed that people do (maybe not Jenkin) and as Murdoch herself is recorded as doing, Crimond has messed with Duncan and Jean’s marriage twice now, most recently at the start of the book, when he claims her in a wild dance, an enchanter indeed, and the original circle wonders if they should keep supporting him. Meanwhile, several incidental cousins and aunts and hangers on are in orbit around the gilded circle, who are themselves linked by ties of sex, love and death. Yes, everyone seems to have a couple of houses and they don’t really have jobs as such, but their emotions are real and the book has a lot to say about friendship as well as love and lust.

Our themes are all here. We have an ancient scholar with a large head and wrinkly face in Levquist, and Duncan also provides us with a bear-like man with hunched shoulders. There is various mop-like women’s hair and of course the horrible dust bunny of Crimond’s red hair. Shockingly, we have a finished book with Crimond’s great work (which we never see except in the form of notebooks). This is only the second finished book in the oeuvre, I think, after Harry Cuno’s novel. Of course Gerard comes up with ideas but no book, and Levquist doesn’t appear to complete his “interminable book on Sophocles” (p. 20). There are stones scattered through the book, including Sinclair’s collection at Boyars, but individual ones, too, one of which is a present from Rose to Jenkin. Gerard has a soapstone seal and there’s a standing stone near Boyars.

Doubling is all over the place: two fathers die (Gerard’s and Crimond’s), Crimond runs off with Jean twice, the snails of course. Gerard makes two proposals, both of which are laughed at. Crimond puts people through two trials or duels, and causes Duncan to fall twice. Jenkin and Father McAlister both do a weird and non-standard blessing over Tamar. Echoings in Violet and Tamar’s access to abortion. We don’t have anyone staring in a window, but we have Gerard, “who disliked being looked in at by hypothetical entities in the garden” (p. 152). The only night time chase is when Rose tries to go over Crimond and nearly falls over on the frosty pavement. Water in all its forms is of course there, from ice to rain, and the pool in France where Duncan disposes of the bullet blanks.

Contingency looms large here – if Tamar hadn’t come round to see Jean … in fact about four characters have reasons to blame themselves for Jenkin’s death through long strings of causality and Rose says, “How accidental everything was” (p. 533). Being good is more shown than told, but I do love Rose’s simple statement when she at last displays actual emotion to Gerard:

Our lives are quite long enough to have some fun, do some work, love a few people and try to be good. (p. 562)

Crimond is fairly obviously the enchanter, having a weird effect on women other than Jean, with Lily drawn to prostrate herself embarrassingly in front of him and Rose so disturbed by his announcement that she has to hold herself firmly in check. Gerard thinks of him as a demon who comes around like Halley’s Comet. Who is the saint? Jenkin is the prime candidate here, isn’t he, absorbing everyone’s stories and emotions and not passing them on unless absolutely necessary, and even effectively giving his life for the group. It’s interesting that he’s looking into new branches of spirituality, and is also aware of a big change or challenge coming – these forebodings and portents were distressing, reading the book knowing what was coming. When crises hit, he doesn’t get involved but sends off postcards and is there to run to. His passivity reminds me of Tallis:

I think we shouldn’t wonder so much … sometimes we try to think in too much detail about other people’s lives. Other people’s consciousness can be so unlike our own. One learns that. (p.127)

Crimond says he’s the only person worth anything, “and he’s a fool” (p. 338) and Gerard’s view of him is so touching: “Gerard, seeing his back, the set of his shoulders, the particular way that the tail of his jacket was always so hopelessly crumpled, felt a wave of emotion which almost made him exclaim” (p. 357). And a vitally important point about him, remembered by Gerard, is that he was always giving people his attention, so key in Murdoch:

Jenkin always walked the path, with others, wholly engaged in wherever he happened to be, fully existing, fully reael at every point, looking about him with friendly curiosity. (p. 579)

Gerard’s father is yet another (portrait of IM’s father?) kind, saintly and self-effacing person, like Charles Arrowby’s, so another upper-generation saint.

Gerard in fact respected and approved of his father, saw the simplicity and truthfulness of his nature, but was used to finding these qualities invisible to others. His father was not brilliant or erudite or witty or particularly successful, he could seem mediocre and boring, yet Levquist, who despised mediocrity and ruthlessly refused to allow himself to be bored, had at once met Gerard’s father upon the ground of the latter’s best qualities. (p. 21)

… he began to think about his father, and what a gentle, kind, patient, good man he had been, and how he had given way, out of love, to his wife, sacrificing not only his wishes but sometimes even his principles. (p. 583)

Gerard himself has Japanese pictures which is usually a sign of saintliness, but he’s unfortunately become egocentric with the passing of the years (he’s very cross with himself when he assumes Tamar has run to find him, not Jenkin), and can’t be an enchanter really, more someone who connects people. Tamar has made a decision between being a saint and being a demon (p. 108) but in the end she’s an ordinary confused student, isn’t she, and she very much does not absorb people’s problems, however much they think she can and project their need onto her. Maybe she’s an enchanter in that aspect.

There isn’t much humour in this, apart from Gulliver’s social embarrassments (“Skating is a ruthless sport …” (p. 252), although I like the wryness of the little recaps, “As x was doing y, and a was doing b …” There’s also a wry bit about who knows what about whom out of Duncan and Jean. But it’s more a deeply ironic than a funny novel, I think.

The feminist notes I’ve been noticing this time round are there again. Lives are changed by legal access to abortion (even though Tamar has a private one, it’s legal now) and the right to choose, mentioned specifically. LIly gives an impassioned speech on the still-bad position of unmarried women in society (p. 329). Jean is said to have wasted her considerable power with Duncan (she doesn’t do much when she’s with Crimond, in fact being reduced to sewing in a corner):

She would go away and work and think, take counsel with her powerful father in America, discover some world to conquer, go to India or Africa, run some large enterprise, use up elsewhere all that restless clever power which, as his wife, she had wasted on happiness. (p. 76)

Tamar seems to experience sexual innuendo at her publisher’s office. And Duncan’s night with her seems very unpleasant this time round, especially as he indulges in a bit of victim blaming when going over his guilt: “Of course she started it … what a minx, what a temptress” (p. 232)Interestingly she doesn’t concentrate so much on women ageing now as men, with Gerard getting haggard and Duncan fat like a gross baby.

Reminders of other novels come in the influence of Levquist on his pupils, reminiscent of Rozanov in “The Philosopher’s Pupil”. Duncan goes through the ordeal of almost losing his eyesight, and physical ordeals have been prominent since “Nuns and Soldiers”. Gerard’s soapstone seal resembles Hattie’s in “The Philosopher’s Pupil” and Crimond likes to see Jean sewing in a corner, like Thomas and Midge in “A Good Apprentice” and someone else, I’m sure. There’s a stone in the wood near Boyars, like in “A Good Apprentice”, though no one goes to visit it. There are more birds, this time redwings with “little demonic faces and sharp probing beaks” (p. 277) and I feel I’ve missed a big bird theme (one for the next read!). There are foxes mentioned, too. Father McAlister joins a small coterie of priests without God. Rose is one of the several women who have had a servant in a big house since the servant was a girl. And finally, Gulliver, in the tradition of wanderers in London in IM, finds himself by the Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens when he’s trying to put the snail down somewhere kind.

Pleasingly, there are lovely actual overlaps with other novels, coming in very early on. Robin Topglass, an original member of the circle at Oxford, is stated to be “son of the birdman”, who must be Peter Topglass from “The Bell”. And the band playing at the opening party is The Waterbirds, which is the band formed in “A Word Child”. It would be hard to love these little mentions more! Marcus Field isn’t of course Marcus Vallar from “The Message to the Planet” but he has a “shocking conversion” and you do wonder if that’s the seed for the next book.

On re-reading this one, I didn’t as usual have so much sympathy with the younger generation as with the older one, although I felt more compassion for Tamar than I recall previously and certainly the detail of her disordered eating is presented very accurately and affectingly. Gulliver seems a really annoying fop this time round, with his over-described outfits (the introduction writer seems to think the outfit descriptions are a failing of the book, but I think they, as usual, show facets of characters). I really loved Rose this time round and very much cheered when things worked out as they did for her, a tiny detail I hadn’t recalled. Good for her, steadfast and keeping herself controlled.

A happy re-read, just as good as I remembered, baggy, yes, but satisfying as anything.


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.