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The Nice and the Good – Andy and Iris go to Smuggler’s Top

September 24, 2014

“I am sunk in the wreck of myself, thought Theo. I live in myself like a mouse inside a ruin. I am huge, sprawling, corrupt and empty. The mouse moves, the ruin moulders. This is all.”

Well, look, I’m pretty sure we all felt that way the time we read our last Famous Five novel.

The Nice and the goodThe Blyton reference is slight. Iris Murdoch’s 1968 novel The Nice and the Good is set, mostly, by the sea (more about that in a bit). There’s a smuggler’s cave in there, not a smuggler’s top, but you get the connection. And there’s a mystery to solve – a murder mystery (did the Famous Five ever do murder mysteries, or was that a bit too Adults Only?), and a murder mystery embroidered with Satanic rituals and bureaucratic weirdness – Actually it’s not a murder mystery, it’s a suicide mystery – but then maybe it is a murder mystery – but then –

You get where I’m going, hopefully.

There is bureaucracy, anyway, and not all of it’s confined to the office. There is a Big House in the Country story, there is mystery and there is metaphysics – although, as the aforequoted Theo says, “All metaphysics is devilish, devilish.” Was this the view of Murdoch, novelist and philosopher? Or was it perhaps the view of Murdoch the one, but not the other?

No idea. Soz.

The Nice and the Good’s main character, essentially, is John Ducane. A middle-aged, middle-class bureaucrat, probably an atheist, certainly an agnostic, but with a strange Calvinist twist to his morality. He seems to believe in an ethics that is above the realm of existence, without actually believing in realms of any sort. He likes women, his age and younger, but he also likes his butler, although he is offended – deeply – by suggestions he might be “queer”. He is regarded by his friends, many of whom he congregates with at a family home on the coast, as a supreme moral arbiter. Except he’s not, and when he’s honest with himself he knows that. He’s called upon by his boss, who is also the owner of that coastal family home, to investigate a suicide by a bureaucratic odd bod who turns out to have had a side line in strange, demonic rituals, involving prostitutes and – er – pigeons.

Like A Severed Head before it, The Nice and the Good is regarded by many critics as one of Murdoch’s explorations of “the ’60s” and, like A Severed Head, I don’t swallow it. Buy it. Sorry. The Nice and the Good involves a crew as bourgeois if not more so than A Severed Head, and what they get up to is timid in comparison to what I am led to believe was par for the course in that Mythical Decade. Murdoch does, though, touch on (sorry!) gay sexuality in an interesting way, tangentially perhaps, but it’s there. At the end of chapter three Ducane feels, “not for the first time, a distinct impulse to lay his hand upon” his butler’s shoulder as they drive home. At the end of chapter 16 he just does it. “He even shifted it a little so that his fingers curved gently, without gripping, over the bone of the shoulder. The contact brought to Ducane the intense and immediate comfort which it now seemed to him he had been seeking for all day.” Ducane’s butler, for his part, “gazed impassively straight ahead.”

In the previous chapter something similar happens to the aforequoted Theo, “uncle” to the precocious Edward and Henrietta who read like the precursors to a couple of especially obnoxious Blyton characters. Theo spends all of chapter 15 philosophising with his friend Willy, a survivor of the Holocaust, and this is the chapter from which the “devilish” quote comes. Willy lives in a shack up the back of the country house’s garden, and is impotent (well…). A discussion about forgiveness and absolution towards the chapter’s end culminates as “Theo leaned down, until his brow was touching” Willy’s “silky white hair. He closed his eyes and let his arms slide forward over Willy’s shoulders to receive the comfort he had come to receive, the close caressing pressure of Willy’s hands upon his.”

Theo, it transpires, is definitely gay, and this is at the heart of his tragedy. Ducane almost certainly isn’t, although I suspect Murdoch was writing about him within a ’60s context where sexuality, to the more enlightened, was more fluid than most of us now understand it scientifically to be. These are not remotely important elements of the book but, me being a poof and all, they intrigue me.

The sea is almost a character itself in this book, as the Thames was in Under the Net and as the lake by the convent was in The Bell. I don’t remember there being an especially significant body of water in A Severed Head, but I might be wrong. The next Murdoch novel I’m planning to read is The Sea, The Sea. Perhaps I’ll have more to say about bodies of water after that.

Metaphysical discussions about this novel focus on the title, and the idea that “the nice” refers to sex, and “the good” refers to decency – well, that’s my word – but let’s say. living ethically. Ducane is a man who can get sex, or at least physical intimacy, but who also struggles to understand how he should behave in a moral sense. Most of the other characters don’t quite engage on the ethical level in quite the same way – Octavian and Kate, for example, owners of the country house and, initially, by Murdoch’s clever sleight of hand, the book’s moral centre, are actually kind of appalling, if slightly likable, human beings. The last chapter, though, seems to me perhaps a key to what Murdoch is saying.

It begins with sated teenage lust, and progresses through late middle-age compromise, early middle-age happiness (or possibly compromise), the hint of cross-generational sexual happiness, discussion of a divorced couple’s reconciliation, Theo’s remembrance of a boy he knew in India, when he was a boy himself; and finally Henrietta and Edward, brother and sister, fantasising about the flying saucer they bragged of in chapter two. “They never spoke when the saucer was present.” Murdoch’s depiction of the children and the flying saucer in the final scene is perfect. The flying saucer’s “real”, and the children really see it. And then: “Hand in hand the children began to run homeward through the soft warm drizzle.”

So, to outrageously misrepresent Ms Murdoch, is her final scene suggesting that the search for “ethics” is as meaningless as the search for flying saucers? That yes, we can all see them, if we want to, but they don’t actually exist? That the desire to understand the “nice” and the “good” and the difference between them is in fact “devilish, devilish”?

I don’t actually think so. The conclusion of this novel led me to think Murdoch was leaning towards a Buddhist understanding of morality.. But I’m probably wrong with that, too. What is more important than all that nonsense is that this is an awesome novel. The Bell is probably better, but only just. The Nice and the Good is terrific.

Although yes. I do realise I may have sprinkled some spoilers, here and there. Sorry about that.

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