The Book and the Brotherhood
Reading Iris Murdoch, one is reminded of Sir James Jeans’s observation about the universe, that it is not only stranger than we imagine but also stranger than we can imagine. So it frequently seems with the characters and events that make up Murdoch’s fictional universe: They are not only strange, but stranger than many readers can imagine. When asked in an interview about the perplexing improbabilities which have become almost a hallmark of her fiction, Murdoch replied that a novelist is a “privileged person, who can see into the soul and know the secret thoughts.” A novelist may be accused of exaggeration, but she believes that “you’d be surprised if you could know what other people are thinking and suffering. Of course, there is a surface of ordinary social life. All the deep and extraordinary and grotesque things are concealed.”
It is perhaps Murdoch’s interest in and her fascinating fictional dramatizations of the deep, the extraordinary, and the grotesque which have made her one of the most discussed major contemporary novelists. Her work has been the focus of intense critical scrutiny, at least some of which has been occasioned by what some readers see as violations of realism: sudden, melodramatic turns of plot; stereotyped and/or unbelievably eccentric upper-middle-class intellectuals who behave in bizarre ways; a discursive, at times almost rambling narrative style which seems designed to tax a modern reader’s patience; conclusions which do not seem satisfactorily to conclude. Yet Murdoch denies that she writes fantasy or gothic romance or metafiction of magic realism. She steadfastly places herself within the tradition of the realist novel, and expects her novels to be read as realism, however strange they initially may seem. The Book and the Brotherhood, Murdoch’s twenty-third novel, is still another of her complex fictional amalgamations (the metaphysical, the psychological, the moral, the social) which inevitably will challenge but perhaps also may enlarge her reader’s sense of reality.
The novel, as the title suggests, is about a book, but it is also most centrally about a “brotherhood,” a clique of middle-aged intellectual men and women who have been friends since their student days at Oxford. Gerard Hernshaw, a complacently shallow but handsome well-to-do bachelor, is the center of this elite circle, and Rose Curtland is his chief worshiper. At Oxford, it seems that everyone was in love with Gerard, including Rose’s brother Sinclair, who was killed in an accident while still a student. During the intense grief that followed Sinclair’s death, Gerard and Rose were briefly lovers. Since then, Rose, a well-connected woman of independent means, has spent her life hoping that Gerard will again be interested in her. Instead of the passion she dimly desires, she finds only the camaraderie of the brotherhood and its concern with their memorial to Sinclair: a political and philosophical book supposedly being written by another member of the group, the brilliant Scottish fanatic David Crimond. Many years earlier, the group had pledged financial support to Crimond to free him to write “the book that the age requires,” but in the meantime their sense of what the age requires has changed. Crimond has persisted in a youthful Marxist radicalism which the group now finds embarrassingly inconsistent with their own middle-aged bourgeois views, but they nevertheless feel honor-bound to continue subsidizing him, even after Crimond twice seduces Jean Cambus, the wife of a member of the group, and even though there is growing doubt about whether the estranged Crimond is even writing a book. Afraid to confront him, the group finds it easier to go on paying the stipend, at the same time thus cheaply purchasing self-esteem as...
(The entire section is 1551 words.)