“The Green Knight” round-up and “Jackson’s Dilemma” preview #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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Iris Murdoch's The Green KnightWell, it’s time to round up our reading of “The Green Knight” and I’m feeling quite sad that this is the second-to-last round-up post and the LAST preview! I’m glad that I have my new challenge planned for 2020, and I’ve also got two super books – the Centenary Celebration and Chris Boddington’s A-Z – to read after I’ve read “Jackson’s Dilemma” in December.

Back to “The Green Knight”, though. I really enjoyed my re-read of what is staying as one of my favourite of all the novels (although I’d managed to forget some pretty major plot points, as usual I remembered quite a few small details!). A couple of our usual suspects have posted comments on my review, and I am hoping for a few more. It’s been such a pleasure to have three people who have accompanied me on the read through all the novels over more than two years, and I have heard from other people that they’ve read and enjoyed my reviews and the comments. Your comments on any of the posts are  of course gladly welcomed at anytime! Jo has done another great review on Goodreads (and I’m thrilled she’s mentioned looking forward to her re-read, as she’s been reading all the books FOR THE FIRST TIME with us!). I will add links to other reviews as they come in.

Peter Rivenberg has stalwartly and as usual sent me a picture of his American first edition:

They’ve clearly used the same image as on the UK first (is this a first?) but held it in a frame, and I quite like this one. I wonder if there are any other editions out there – let me know if you have one.

 

If you have any fun paperbacks or alternative covers, do send me covers to include as I love seeing all the different ways the books are interpreted.

“Jackson’s Dilemma”

Well, here we are with the last novel. As with “The Green Knight”, Vintage didn’t republish this one (I really do wish they hadn’t tailed off, although having shelved all my paperbacks together you don’t notice the oddness so much.  I bought the paperback when it came out in 1996, and added the hardback first edition to my (very small then) collection on 17 May 2008 from the Sensible Bookshop in Hay-on-Wye.

Two very different covers but both effective at getting the book across in their own way.

Here’s the blurb from the first edition:

I’m not sure the first paragraph makes it sound like an IM: maybe we’re reminded of the grounds with the summer house in “The Philosopher’s Pupil” or the big house in “Henry and Cato” (or maybe I’m just being sentimental).

And from the Penguin paperback:

I can remember being pleased there was to be another enigmatic servant, and I love seeing Jane Gardam’s (another favourite author) name on the back, but I think Julie Myerson’s quote has perhaps been taken from a longer and more critical review.

It’s fairly well-known that this last novel was published around the time that Murdoch’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s came to the public attention, and I think I realised at the time it was going to be the last one. There’s lots of discussion about reading Alzheimer’s into the book which you can find with a search: I’m going to try to apply my beloved reception theory to this re-read (I think I’ve read it twice before, once after Paul Hullah redeemed it for me by giving a talk about the animals in it at one of my first Iris Murdoch Society Conferences) and read and react to it as it is. There’s certainly still much to love in it.

Are you going to be reading or re-reading “Jackson’s Dilemma” along with me? Are you catching up with the others? What’s your favourite so far? Your least favourite? Do you have a photo to share of you reading one of the books, or where you read it?


You will find a page listing all of these blog posts here, updated as I go along.

Book review – Iris Murdoch – “The Green Knight” #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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Iris Murdoch's The Green Knight

It’s time for us to talk about “The Green Knight” – this was always one of my favourites and happily remains one. I bought my paperback copy on 19 Jan 1995, so presumably not long after it came out, and I presume this was my fourth reading of it. Although I felt a bit of confusion around who exactly was reading the John Cowper Powys novel that’s mentioned, I don’t see any lessening of IM’s powers here and it’s a great read with some memorable characters – and, like “The Philosopher’s Pupil”, some scenes narrated by a dog. I read it in my original Penguin paperback as there’s no fancy new Vintage edition; this proved to be useful as I could bung it in my holiday suitcase without worrying, as it has the rings of multiple cuppas on it!

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 Green Knight”

(18 January 1995)

Loosely based around the Arthurian legend of Gawain and the Green Knight (it’s almost a shame when Clement realises this and spells it out), we come in in the middle and go back to the beginning, having learned that Lucas Graffe has unintentionally killed a man, then going back to the scene, witnessed by his brother (by adoption) Clement. When a man returns and claims to have returned from the dead and now to want retribution, Clement and Lucas have to work out what to do. Is there a miracle? Is there a saint? There’s certainly a big fancy party and lots of rather strange goings on. And alI the while, Louise is waiting for her three daughters to find their fates and leave her, while other characters move between various handy flats and think about religion. I think his book revolves around whether people are who they say they are and counters of retribution, injury and fate. There are two brothers and three sisters, related folks and their offspring in one of those courts that exist in IM’s novels, plus a seeker of truth and religion and his self-created guru. So lots of classic Murdochian stuff.

Lots of pairings and oppositions exist, from Aleph and Sefton the intellectuals versus Moy, the arty, fey sister through Lucas the sneering professor and Clement the people-pleasing actor to Louise the good mother (and girl) and Joan the bad mother (and girl). There are innumerable fatherless people, including Bellamy, who loses his spiritual father. Louise and Clement meet originally in an empty theatre and then their pivotal encounter occurs in another one. Clement, Anax and Bellamy all fall asleep in cars. Clement faints in his sleep and then when Mir challenges Lucas. Bellamy loses his faith and so does Father Damien, although Mir regains his Buddhist faith. Of course the plot includes double encounters for the Graffes and Mir.

Water exists in terms of tears, fog, and rain, and also the sea at the cottage everyone thinks Bellamy is going to give up. Stones are mainly concentrated around Moy. She also makes masks, a small theme which crops up in almost every novel. London is a strong character with lots of different routes taken and described in detail so you could map them. Harvey and Joan provide hyacinthine curls and red tresses, and Moy cuts off her plait as she matures into her next stage in life.

Characters are divided into those who open windows and those who don’t, and now I feel the need to check the whole of Murdoch to find out if this was a theme I’d not noticed in the rest of the novels.

We have a man waiting outside houses looking in, in this case Peter Mir and various houses, and he’s seen by people looking out. Bellamy chases Mir through the wet streets, providing that common aspect of the novels. Harvey watches outside Lucas’ door and thinks he sees his mother, echoing a similar scene in most.

There is humour in the book – some savage irony e.g. Harvey damaging himself at the end of his ordeal, not during it, but also some funny moments, as when Clement puts on a pompous voice to give his speech which reminds him of the one people put on to play Polonius. The pub landlord is also amusingly very Australian.

Who is our saint? I rather think it is Louise. She is described as leading a life which

even after its great catastrophe, was quiet and calm, a sensible rational life, a decent satisfactory cheerful life, as presaged by her kindly gentle parents and her orderly high-minded school. (p. 3)

and she has a classic IM saint characteristic, there in the books since at least “An Unofficial Rose”:

… her kindness, the way in which … she instinctively made things better, speaking no evil, disarming hostility, turning ill away making peace: her gentleness which made her seem, sometimes, to some people, weak, insipid, dull. ‘She’s not exactly a strong drink!’ someone said. So secretly did she work in her courtesy. (pp. 64-65)

Clement craves her company, “to get a whiff of ordinary good life” and she absorbs his and Harvey’s emotions while not interfering in her daughters’ lives (although she humanly wonders if she should have).

She says Clement wants to suffer for Lucas, but in fact Peter “dies” “for” him and not only once. But I’m not sure Peter is a saint, as he seems to enchant and live in enchantment, and he’s “other” to the characters and their world, like an “alien”. Bellamy is described by Clement as a muddler, which is another saintly attribute, but that doesn’t really go anywhere. Emil exhorts him to “attain your open busy life, helping other people. Why not have innocent happiness as well?” (p. 426) and I feel like Emil echoes N from “The Philosopher’s Pupil” helping others behind the scenes while remaining unencumbered.

Who is the enchanter? Lucas has certainly been created as that by at least Aleph, Sefton and Clement, Harvey, who is “fascinated” by him, and perhaps Peter. It feels in a way that everyone’s been looking for Mir to appear in their lives, but he’s very much a paper tiger or a voice behind a curtain. Is it just that everyone’s seeking something to believe in and control them.

In relationships to other books, of which I found many, as you’d expect near to the end of our project, the girls’ tears might recall the Tears of Blood of Moy’s children in The Sandcastle, who cry at will. Moy’s ducking in the sea recalls the weir scene in “Nuns and Soldiers” and the near-drownings in “The Nice and the Good” et al. The seals at the end which give Moy and Bellamy enlightenment echo Charles Arrowby’s in “The Sea, The Sea”. Moy’s telekenesis links to other novels with supernatural elements – “The Nice and the Good” with the UFOs and “The Philosopher’s Pupil”. The standing stone Moy returns the smaller stone to recalls the stone in “The Message to the Planet” and the lingam stone in “The Good Apprentice”. Anax missing Clement in the park recalls various missed encounters, including in “A Word Child”. The various ordeals gone through by the characters recall again the weir scene in “Nuns and Soldiers”. Tessa’s left-wing writing and women’s refuges reflect various other women who do good on the margins in several other novels. Clement watches Louise sewing and, although he doesn’t say so, we know he likes to. Thus she joins the ranks of Murdochian women observed with a needle and thread. Clement dreams of playing Hamlet, taking us back to “The Black Prince”. The broken telephone, fizzing away, recalls a litany of broken telephones from “The Black Prince” through “The Book and the Brotherhood” and elsewhere. Is the empty, small, steeply raked theatre where they meet Sadie’s theatre from “Under the Net”? I’d love to think so. Going back to this novel, in Clement’s car dream, the darkness is like “lots of knitted steel nets” (p.84). The hospital recalls the one in “The Message to the Planet” and Bellamy is described as a “seeker” which links it, too – maybe this novel is ‘about’ an inmate come out, whereas the previous novel is about being an inmate?

I don’t think my reading of this one has changed that much, although I took note of Louise and her reality a bit more and was less forgiving of the machinations of the younger characters, perhaps. I had forgotten some key outcomes while remembering little details like Moy’s plait.

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.

“The Message to the Planet” round-up and “The Green Knight” preview #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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It’s the last day of the month, so time to round up our reading of “The Message to the Planet” and turn our attention to “The Green Knight”.

Some of our usual lovely suspects have posted comments on my review, and I am expecting (hoping for) a few more. People are generally happy that I enjoyed it more than I thought I would! Your comments on any of the posts are  of course gladly welcomed at anytime! Jo has also done her usual great review on Goodreads and I will add other reviews as they come in.

Peter Rivenberg sent me this rather odd cover from the American first edition:

24 nessage planet Peter Rivenberg US ed

If you have any fun paperbacks or alternative covers, do send me covers to include as I love seeing all the different ways the books are interpreted.

“The Green Knight”

Well, I’m sad to say that from now on there are only two books to share per novel, as Vintage don’t seem to have reissued this or “Jackson’s Dilemma” at all. So here are the two, my first edition and my paperback, bought when it came out:

Iris Murdoch's The Green Knight

The blurbs are quite similar, as you’d kind of expect. Here’s the first edition one:

And you know what, I think it IS triumphant: I’ve read this one just the three times but it definitely went high up in a favourite slot last time round. Here’s the Penguin:

Jilly Cooper, indeed! Well, I’m looking forward to re-reading this one. Although I’m sad we’re drawing to a close.

Oh, a PS: I bought a new CD/bookshelf (well, new to me, from a charity shop locally) and look, I’ve got all my Murdochs together!

Are you going to be reading or re-reading “The Green Knight” along with me? Are you catching up with the others? What’s your favourite so far? Your least favourite? Do you have a photo to share of you reading one of the books, or where you read it?


You will find a page listing all of these blog posts here, updated as I go along.

Book review – Iris Murdoch – “The Message to the Planet” #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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Well, well well – I was worried about getting to this one as it’s traditionally been ‘the one I don’t really like’ but you could knock me down with a feather this time round (the third time of reading at very least; I can’t remember when I read them all before the time before last, unfortunately) as it wasn’t horrible! It was terribly Murdochian, full of themes and little echoes of the other books, and really not bad at all. OK, it’s never going to be my favourite, but I’m glad I ignored the friends who said, “If you don’t want to read it, don’t read it” and persisted with my Challenge!

A note on the edition: I’ve got the hardback and paperback first editions (Chatto & Windus and then Penguin) and I feel this is the only other one, a Vintage Classics one but one of the ones they didn’t do with a red spine, and with no additional introduction. It’s even the same print on the pages. Not great value and I sort of wish I hadn’t bothered. They certainly aren’t going to do this in their fancy new-new edition. Mind you, from now on it’s a first and a Penguin for all of us, as Vintage don’t appear to have ever published the final two novels.

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 Message to the Planet”

(28 December 2018)

As in “The Book and the Brotherhood”, we have another loose group of friends and their friends who met at university (or art college), only this time one of them is apparently dying, believing himself cursed by Marcus Vallar, a sort of Crimond-in-overdrive who turned his hand to maths and painting then vanished. But one of the friends has tracked him down and wants to bring him to the house where Jack, successful painter and trying to introduce his latest mistress into his house, is waited on by the ever-patient Franca, the worm who will never turn. Will Marcus return and un-curse Patrick? Is he a visionary or a madman? Set between London and a very posh psychiatric hospital and the village it’s near, the book examines truth and madness, Jewishness and faith, marriage and adultery.

In themes, we have hair, with Franca’s great big complicated bun coming down at moments of stress and Marcus’ red-gold hair, cropped savagely but still shining, as does Alison’s, growing out from one of those Murdoch pixie cuts. Water is always present, sheets of it front of grand houses and and characters talk by the Thames when in London. Marcus swims in the pool while Franca and Maisie indulge in some wild swimming in the river. Stones, of course, the Axle Stone the main one and lots of stones given as gifts or picked up and chinking together in Ludens’ pocket. As usual, people give each other stones, too. Maisie loves stones and collects them at her house: a good person, if not a saint. There are no animals until the dog at the end which signals and makes real Irina’s new situation – a really beautifully drawn dog, though!

There are lots of echoes – Franca burns papers when she moves in the house, Marcus and Irina when they move from the Red Cottage. Franca and then Alison proposition Ludens. Ludens and Patrick are doubled up as servants and devotees of Marcus (although Ludens does all the work afterwards). Ludens is given two stones, and there are two great houses with ponds in front of them. Ludens thinks of Marcus as his father, so he has two fathers (both true) as well as two mothers (one dead, true, one stepmother, false).

The book has the usual foreshadowings and doominess. We are told that Ludens’ last encounter with Marcus was somehow horrific and never spoken about (and find out what it was) and this extends to Ludens’ lodger writing to him with something to tell (which does eventually come out), and Ludens feels as if he is waiting for something to happen.

Marcus is clearly the enchanter figure here. He’s introduced as such from the beginning:

‘He damaged you,’ said Jack. ‘He was a bit of a cold fish. But he didn’t harm Ludens, and he positively helped me, he set me up!’ (p2)

He is described as having “stunned admirers” (p. 8) and we continue to see him from lots of different viewpoints, stressing the effect he has had on people, with his “air of superiority” (p. 9) although it’s noteworthy that women tend to find him “awful” (IM’s emphasis). He bewitches Fanny and then of course there’s the sort of collective hysteria of the Stone People and village folk (although the woman from the pub remains unconvinced and Ludens says it’s making him in to a charlatan). Jack even calls him “That old enchanter” (p. 348)

Who is the saint? I rather think it is Franca. Surely the fact that she is described as “concentrat[ing] her attention” on what Marcus is doing when he’s reanimating Patrick is significant, given IM’s insistence on attention as a virtue. Patrick has described Franca as a saint to Alison and Alison is infuriated by Franca’s “genuine – genuine goddamn unselfishness!” (p. 447). (However, this selfishness does win out in the end). Alison later, in her letter leaving Jack, refers to her “humble, I suppose saintly is the word, courage which enables her to stay in place” (p. 525). At the end, Franca has fought the battle “and been perfectly defeated” and has not a triumphant but a “relieved exhausted defeated smile” (p. 539) and perhaps this is what gives her her sainthood. However, it is Ludens who says “We just live in bottomless chaos and have to help each other, that’s all” (p. 166) which is a good portrayal of IM writing on how to be good. Wanting to be a saint, maybe, Marcus talks about the need to be “empty yet attentive” (p. 353) but I’m not sure he achieves this. Marzillian describes Marcus in terms of what “great saints and mystics” experience, but I don’t think he can be a saint, however much he’s worked miracles, as he doesn’t absorb pain and other people’s experiences but seems to upset and control people instead. Then, what about Gildas, defrocked priest, on the edges taking in things and not passing them on, and ending up evicted and poor but planning to

try out life at the bottom and see if it is possible to help other people, a thing incidentally which he never tried to do. (p. 560)

I very much liked Marcus’ amazement at what people saw in his paintings: he “could ‘see nothing’ of the so-called ‘meanings’, some of which shocked him very much” (p. 11) which echoes IM’s own comments on the reader seeing what they want to see in her novels (cf my work on Iris Murdoch and the Common Reader).  This flash of humour is an admittedly rare one in the book. The threatening figure of Marcus’ Japanese teacher, always looming around in his last flat, does raise a smile, but there’s little other outright humour that I could find (though some farce with letters, a mess made of moving Franca’s divan and some savage irony with leavings and settings-up-with). Maybe Franca is a bit amusing in a horrible way with her dead grey faces in the waves and image of dead babies while she watches Alison eating cake, and Ludens’ struggle with his trousers when preparing to go to bed with Irina is also funny for a few paragraphs. Ludens again gives us a smile as he approaches the fringes of madness:

When he had an image of the two stones fighting in his pocket Ludens decided to close down this line of thought unless he wished to become one of Marzillian’s patients. (p. 370)

IM’s feminist comments, long denied by me now seen everywhere rotate mainly around Franca and her situation. What seems almost natural in their Bohemian world is criticised strongly by the rather wonderful Maisie Tether, who also gets Franca painting again. Franca’s own art was lost when she married, and she’s seen as having lost the ability to stop all this mistresses by not putting her foot down at the beginning, although why she did not is plausibly explained: “Oh the lies women believe, and will to believe and want to believe!” (p. 171) or “too tired and too silly to realise you are able to go away” (p. 268). She has had her mother’s example, too, of course: “Her mother’s miserable docile life with that cruel man” (p. 406). The strongest words indeed are put in Maisie’s mouth:

I know about husbands, I know their little ways, I’ve watched them at work, thank God I never had one. He loves you and cherishes you but two painters in the family won’t do. You got married and decided you weren’t much good! That’s our history in a nutshell! Now isn’t it time for you to fight back? (p. 248)

So you prefer a permanent unfaithfulness to an occasional one, you collude in a situation which demeans you, and exposes him as a rotter! And if the girl enjoys it she must be a vulgar hussy! Are you living in a dream world? I find this disgusting, I pity you! (p. 250)

She even has something to say about education:

I can’t see the point of co-education, it’s always the girls who suffer, they have enough trouble with men without positively asking for it. (p. 266)

and I do like her complaint about nuns in short skirts! Alison takes to drink when she discovers “what a swindle it all was” (p. 448)

In links to other books, once again poor old Franca finds that Jack likes to see her “sewing or cooking or doing anything quiet and rhythmical in the house” (p. 22-3): I’m not sure when this sewing thing starts but it’s come up again and again in the more recent slew of the books. Patrick’s song about the silver spoon echoes the dying Guy’s song in “Nuns and Soldiers”. We have several instances of looking in and out of windows – Ludens looking in at Marcus, then Irina seen on the lawn with a bicycle. Then Ludens actually follows Irina through the twilight, and runs after the white figure of Fanny at the stone, so we’re back to flitting figures and their chasers, then Irina sees Fanny standing on the grass and later still Ludens follows Marcus through the dewy grass. There is talk by Marcus of metamorphosis – a big challenge –  and Ludens wonders if he’s having to go through an ordeal (cf every main character since about “Nuns and Soldiers”) and at the end is back in London, his quest over. Marcus describes his mind as being “like fishes in a net”, harking back to the first novel, perhaps (p. 167). Jack has a bronze dancing shiva and isn’t that mentioned in “The Book and the Brotherhood” or is it just on the front of the paperback? The large grey stone on a plinth echoes the Lingam Stone in “The Good Apprentice”. We have another saintly father in Maisie Tether’s and I wonder if this is another nod to IM’s beloved father. A paragraph setting everyone in their place (p. 282) echoes a set of similar ones in “The Book and the Brotherhood”. Maisie is a lapsed Quaker, a nice link to “The Philosopher’s Pupil” where I think our last Quakers were.  Another link to “The Philosopher’s Pupil” comes when Marzilian says that something like this, connected to the Axle Stone, has happened before, “something less extreme” (p. 333). Part Six, made up almost entirely of letters, recalls epistolatory chapters in other books and reminds us of IM’s art again, each voice distinct and preserved in a letter. Almost at the end we have one of IM’s prosaic explanations for mysterious thoughts or phenomena (like the bent knees of the skiiers in whichever novel that was in) – the booming Ludens hears is military manoeuvres on Salisbury Plain, Fanny tells him.

Feelings on re-reading this. I noticed and admired Franca a lot more. Once again, although their ages weren’t given, I feel I was the same age or older than the main characters. I hadn’t really noticed before that we see almost all of the action through Franca’s and Ludens’ eyes and experience their inner lives, without either being a first-person narrator, something the mature novelist IM is has the ability to carry off: I was impressed this time when we appeared to be in Ludens’ head on meeting Marzillian only for him to say with no warning that he might be Armenian. I really liked Daniel Most, the rabbi, too, someone I had hardly noticed before, although I’d remembered his name. Irina seems silly and the Stone People a bit facile, too. This has always reminded me of the last book in “A Dance to the Music of Time”, which features a guru, followers, stones and the 1980s, and it still does. Little details reminded me it is set in the 1980s – they discuss whether Patrick has Aids or “an obscure African virus” (which made me think of Bruce Chatwin and his obscure virus).


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.

“The Book and the Brotherhood” round-up and “The Message to the Planet” preview #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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It’s the last day of the month, so time to round up our reading of “The Book and the Brotherhood” and turn our attention to “The Message to the Planet”.

Our usual lovely suspects have posted comments on my review, but I’ve also received notes from another reader on “Henry and Cato” and “The Sea, The Sea” recently, and I hope to collect more and more over the coming months and years. Comments on any of the posts gladly welcomed! Jo has also done her usual perceptive review on Goodreads and Brona has a great review up on her blog.

If you have any juicy paperbacks or alternative covers, do send me covers to include as I love seeing all the different ways the books are interpreted. I always welcome reviews after the month I happen to have read the book, so do comment away if you’re coming to this at some other time! It’s always good to talk about Iris Murdoch!

“The Message to the Planet”

Now on to this one. Hm. This is the one I’m a bit nervous of reading, as it’s traditionally been the one I liked least. I hope to change my mind on it a bit this time, though!

I have three copies and this is the last one I can say that about, as Vintage didn’t re-issue “The Green Knight” or “Jackson’s Dilemma”. I picked up a first edition quite cheaply and I have the same edition in paperback from when it came out, plus my new Vintage one.

Blurb wise, we have a mottled inside flap from the First …

Not too different on the Penguin paperback …

… and we get more of the A.N. Wilson quote before the same stuff again on the Vintage.

Are you going to be reading or re-reading “The Message to the Planet” along with me? Are you catching up with the others or have you given up? What’s your favourite so far? Your least favourite? Do you have a photo to share of you reading one of the books, or where you read it?


You will find a page listing all of these blog posts here, updated as I go along.

Book review – Iris Murdoch – “The Book and the Brotherhood” #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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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.

“The Good Apprentice” round-up and “The Book and the Brotherhood” preview #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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I really enjoyed re-reading “The Good Apprentice” and it’s stayed near the top of my list, even though I have switched allegiance on a few characters. Here’s my review with the usual comments and discussion (I will admit to have not replied to the lovely long comments yet – sorry!). Jo has contributed a very interesting review on Goodreads which pulls out some very good points.

If you have any juicy paperbacks or alternative covers, do send me covers to include as I love seeing all the different ways the books are interpreted. I always welcome reviews after the month I happen to have read the book, so do comment away if you’re coming to this at some other time! It’s always good to talk about Iris Murdoch! I just added one from someone who’d read and reviewed “Henry and Cato”, for example

“The Book and the Brotherhood”

This has always been one of my top favourites, and includes my all-time favourite character, so no pressure for this one to live up to, then. It also has the best parrot, though brace yourselves …

I have the usual three copies although I fear this is almost the last time I’ll be posting three as the final two books didn’t get republished by Vintage. Can you believe I was pulling a book off the bottom shelf of my IM first editions? I will be very sad when this readalong is over.

The first edition is very special to me, because it was the first IM first edition I bought! I went to a shop in Cecil Court in central London and bought it for £16 in January 2004, a birthday present to myself. I had a vague plan of buying them all, birthday by birthday, but the prices were still a bit high – I’ve amassed most of the rest of them over the last two years. I have the slightly more modern (and very 1990s somehow) Penguin, which I bought on 30 December 1994, presumably using Christmas book tokens. And I have to say I do love the cover of the Vintage edition.

The blurbs are quite similar … here’s the first:

Here’s the Penguin:

and here’s the Vintage:

which is less derivative than some of them and concentrates on the opening – which is marvellous. I can’t wait to get stuck into this one!

Oh, and I finally got round to buying this lovely:

It is available from the Second Shelf Bookshop in particular, and other real-life bookshops of course, in person, or the usual online booksellers, and has new photos and lovely-looking pieces by people who knew Iris Murdoch. I’ve decided to save it to read after I’ve finished “Jackson’s Dilemma” in December, to give a nice treat to the end of the year. Who else has it?

Are you going to be reading or re-reading “The Book and the Brotherhood” along with me? Are you catching up with the others or have you given up? What’s your favourite so far? Your least favourite? Do you have a photo to share of you reading one of the books, or where you read it?


You will find a page listing all of these blog posts here, updated as I go along.

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