It’s just as well Netty and I have decided to scale the Reading Challenge back a bit for 2015 (more of that in a week or two), otherwise you’d be reading about the last of this year’s books sometime in 2024. We derailed a little towards the end of last year, and it’s kind of embarrassing that we’re finally getting around to wrapping up 2014 in the last week of February. Actually, the first week of March, more like, once we’re done.
I finished The Book and the Brotherhood in December, so will only be able to give my thoughts in fairly broad brushstrokes. Set roughly in the early ’80s it revolves around a group of middle-aged friends who met at university three or so decades earlier, as rabid, radical leftists – the “brotherhood” of the title. At some point in their youth they decide one of their number, Crimond, is such a remarkable mind that he must be paid to write a book about the future of the Left and society in general. So they form a committee, agree to donate a certain amount of money per year to support Crimond in the writing of the book so he doesn’t need to worry too much about looking after himself. Crimond then stuffs all this up by temporarily seducing the wife of one of the “brotherhood”, and then stuffs it up even more by remaining a rabid, radical leftist while his colleagues move towards, er, perhaps not quite Malcolm Turnbull’s “sensible centre”, but you get the drift. Curiously, despite the growing differences between them, they continue to support Crimond financially – even when, as the novel opens on them all in middle age (yes, that was all back story), he seduces the same woman, who is still married to the same man.
The philosophical underpinnings of The Book and the Brotherhood are, I think, similar to most of the other Murdoch books I’ve read over the past 12 months – the importance of striving to be a good, or ethical, person in a secular world, and the conundrum of figuring out exactly how the fuck it should be done. Interestingly Murdoch does not automatically associate “goodness” with the political left – this isn’t a political novel, it’s a novel in which politics plays a role and they’re not the same thing. Crimond is a “bad” person, and his radicalism feeds that “badness” – if the “badness” isn’t feeding the radicalism. He tries to set up a quite disturbing mutual suicide scenario, which fails, and then, while playing an absurd little machismo game, accidentally manages to kill someone else anyway. Iris Murdoch was very obviously no Tory, but she apparently wasn’t too fond of the far Left, either. Although as I said, this novel is not a political one, and arguably Murdoch has used communism, or Marxism, or socialism, or whatever, in the same way she’s used Christianity and Buddhism in other novels to explore her central concerns.
If there is a “good” character in The Book and the Brotherhood, it’s Jenkin, an academic (like most of the characters here) who to some extent lives on the edges of the story’s action – although not as peripherally as some of Murdoch’s other “goodies”. Jenkin lives a slightly odd, vaguely asexual, rather ascetic life, although he has his pleasures. He doesn’t see himself as good, necessarily, but to the reader there is a clarity to him that many others in the novel lack. In fact many of the other characters are far more interested in getting through life, never mind high falutin’ philosophical considerations, and there’s nothing wrong with that – although Gerard, arguably the novel’s main protagonist, is sometimes cavalier with the lives of others, exploiting them in hopes of bringing about what he thinks might be the greater good. In that he may have something inadvertently in common with Crimond’s politics – politics that Gerard consciously rejects.
I enjoyed The Book and the Brotherhood a lot, in some ways more than some of the other books by Murdoch I’ve read. But ultimately I think it’s probably the weakest (of the books I’ve read, not Murdoch generally, since I haven’t read her exhaustively). It was apparently one of her favourites, and perhaps as she was pulling it together she allowed her affection for the material to cloud her better judgment. Perhaps also, by the mid-’80s, she was such a successful writer that no editor dared stand up to her (there are some elements, though fewer, of this in The Sea, The Sea, too). The Book and the Brotherhood is flabby. It needs a good edit. There are probably a couple of sub-plots the novel could do without and there are certainly at least two characters who should have been jettisoned – whatever they have to say or do that is essential could easily have been divvied up among the many, many other characters here.
Still, the frenetic Dickensian narrative drive is immensely involving, and what with dead gay lovers and unrequited passion and family skeletons and suburban squalor and sibling rivalries and anorexia nervosa and parrots and ice-skating and dancing and guns and cars and Guy Fawkes Nights and – yes, I’m pretty sure there is a kitchen sink in there somewhere, too. The Book and the Brotherhood is not great, in the way other novels by Iris Murdoch are. But it is fun and mostly gripping and rather thought provoking, and you could do a hell of a lot worse.
Oh! And there’s a whole chunk of it set in Ireland! You’d love it, Netty.