What a lucky person I am, not only to have been given Iris Murdoch’s 23rd novel (yes, *23rd*) The Book and the Brotherhood by the lovely Bloomsbury Bell, but to have read it, mostly on a beach at Byblos in the eastern Mediterranean. Not necessarily a natural consumption spot for a book which is largely based in chilly London town houses and narrow country lanes and summer evenings in Oxford when one needs a shawl. Yes readers, this is a profoundly English book with English landscapes and peculiar mores and very English characters.
Of those characters there are certainly plenty. Murdoch is fond of large casts and this book is no exception. The “brotherhood” of friends who form the central focus of the story are a gaggle of late middle aged Oxford graduates who met at university. Their ties are not those of polite friendship but full blooded commitment, even love. The acknowledged leader of the pack is the patrician and rather controlling Gerard, whose great true love, we learn has died years earlier in a freak accident. His juniors are his dear friend Rose, the sister of his deceased love, and the measured and intelligent schoolmaster, Jenkin. Their circle also includes the drunken shadow of a man, Duncan Cambus and his wealthy, restless, aimless wife Jean. Via Gerard’s family the central group also takes in vindictive Violet, a character as pitiful as she is unpleasant, her impressionable daughter Tamar, a rather silly man called Guilliver, and, needless to say, a whole host of others.
If the book can be said to have a central character, then that character would be the man who is not a member of the “brotherhood”, but who is bound to it in ways that are strange and unbreakable and just a bit scary. David Crimond is a monomaniacal, ascetic Marxist who has an apparent death wish. I think that the idea is that he lives as purely as he thinks – and as such is cut away from normal mores when it comes to friends and lovers. He certainly causes chaos among the other protagonists. He causes them intellectual chaos by consistently extracting support from them for something – a book - which they do not agree with. He causes moral chaos by spotting the weakest of their relationships and breaking it up. He causes chaos of the most heart rending kind as the novel reaches its climax. He is able to do this not simply as a result of frightening charisma, but because he is simply far more incisive than anyone else around him.
The cast is rich and colourful, without being especially likable. Murdoch does a good job of keeping them all in good focus while life plays a pretty tragic game with them. That is the true value of this novel: it is a modern day tragedy without seeming too ostentatiously to be one. Each of the characters seems locked into a date with fate. Each of the women in particular are fated to “fall” for things, whether they be men or religion or a combination of the two. The women are so old fashioned – they seem to be crying out for domination and constantly turning down the opportunity to author their own histories. At the climax of the novel, an important character will die, but the person who actually kills them is the character who feels the least guilt. There is a strange disconnection between the characters as moral actors and what happens to them: they are somehow out of the world and there is nothing that they can do.
The truth is that behind each sorry love in this story lies a lie or a betrayal. There are emotional betrayals but there is one which is much greater. This book is about the generation of thinkers who were let down by Marxism. Those for whom communism began as a hopeful idea and ended as a demonstrable disaster to which no thinking person could subscribe. What the book deals with is the nuclear waste ground that is left behind when flimsy loves and discredited ideas have broken down. Fortunately for the would-be reader, Murdoch seems to have believed in regeneration after both.
There is an excellent review by Paul Gray online at Time. I have included a picture of the Vintage cover and the author, as well as evidence of my beach side reading....