Monday, July 04, 2011

The Book and the Brotherhood

Sometimes I appreciate Iris Murdoch's novels.  Sometimes I don't quite.   The Sea, the Sea, a poetic, philosophical novel about a retired actor and his obsessions, won the Booker Prize in 1978 (I reviewed it here) and is truly a classic.

The Book and the Brotherhood, published in 1987, is richly chaotic and intellectual, if you like this kind of thing.  A radical group of middle-aged friends who have known each other since Oxford have long supported Crimond, a brilliant impoverished political writer at work on a very long book.  The group's interactions, obsessions, and love affairs are sometimes fascinating, but the talk can also be wearing. Although I liked the odd conversations in The Sea, the Sea, I found parts of The Book and the Brotherhood tedious and repetitive.

The novel begins at  Commem Ball at Oxford, and for the first 53 pages we observe the friends' relationships and learn their history. There is dancing, but they also talk about Marxists, Platonists, Liberation theology, and the New Philosophy. 

Gerard, the leader, is gay; the wealthy Rose is in love with him; Jenkin, an unmarried schoolteacher, is sexless; and Duncan, a diplomat, was half-blinded years ago in a fight with Crimond over his wife Jean. 

Crimond, who is insane and enjoys Russian roulette,  ruins a few lives.  After he dances with Jean at the ball, he runs away with her again.  Eventually he tries to persuade Jean to drive her car into his at top-speed so they can preserve their happiness in death. 

Murdoch also describes the younger generation: Tamar, Gerard's young cousin, is persuaded by her mother, Violet, to leave Oxford; Gulliver, a failed writer, is slightly older and self-destructive; and Lily, a wealthy woman,wants to get to know the intellectual group.

What is to be done now that Crimond has destroyed Duncan's marriage?  Will Crimond's book ever be finished?  The committee meets and cannot decide what to do with him.

Murdoch's writing is excellent, but 607 pages is too long.   You have to read a lot of dialogue like this:

"I am left to burn, I am left to die...For God's sake, Tamar, don't leave me, stay with me, tell those wicked wicked people to go away!  What have they to do with us?  You're all I have--I've given you my life!"

Perhaps three books of Murdoch's (I also read The Bell) are enough for this year.

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