Nice But Not Good

Orchestra and Beginners

by Frederic Raphael
Viking, 533 pp., $6.95

Gone a Hundred Miles

by Heather Ross Miller
Harcourt, Brace & World, 240 pp., $4.95

Iris Murdoch’s annual novel now seems to have become an established British institution: in private it may be derided or dismissed, but in public it gets the respect customarily given to venerable traditions. Some such theory, at least, is needed to account for the fact that reviewers tend to receive her novels in an awed and intimidated fashion, and critical comment is restricted to a narrow spectrum of remarks, ranging from uneasy approval to mild and nervous dissent. The review in the Times Literary Supplement was a case in point: at the end of a long and unenthusiastic piece, which accurately pinpointed the faults of The Nice and the Good and of Iris Murdoch’s fiction generally, the anonymous reviewer felt obliged to say, in words which betrayed extreme critical discomfort and evasiveness, “Despite a conclusion which is not far from being soppy, The Nice and the Good remains oddly undismissable,…unusual if often recklessly trusted power of imaginative invention, and a serious, generous, and indefatigable attention to the problems of the moral life.”

Without doubt The Nice and the Good is an unimportant book: readable, certainly, but with all the triviality and pretentiousness that have characterized Miss Murdoch’s novels since The Bell appeared about ten years ago. It repelled me in a number of ways, and I found it totally incredible from beginning to end. I am, I hope, as good at suspending disbelief as the next man, but for nearly 400 pages I found nothing in this novel I could believe in, no matter how tentatively. I could not, for instance, believe in Octavian Gray—“a lazy fat man, a perfect sphere his loving wife called him”—a top civil servant, in whose office, one hot afternoon, an employee called Joseph Radeechy is suddenly shot. Nor in Kate, his handsome, bland and complacent wife, queening it over a country house in Dorset, which houses such various inmates as Barbara, the Grays’ snooty teen-age daughter, just back from a finishing school in Switzerland; a widow called Mary Clothier, whose adolescent son is in love with Barbara; a divorcee called Paula Biranne, and her precocious nine-year-old twins, Edward and Henrietta; and Theodore, Octavian’s semi-invalid brother. Nor, to continue the list, could I believe in John Ducane, a Whitehall legal expert who is called in to investigate the death of Radeechy (subsequently found to be a practitioner of black magic). Ducane is the book’s nearest equivalent to a hero, and we are heavily involved in his efforts to withdraw himself decently from a longstanding affair with a schoolteacher called Jessica, and in his semi-platonic love for Kate Gray. These characters are, as usual, interrelated in various ingenious ways (though restrainedly; there’s no incest in this book), and the total effect could be summed up in the words I once heard a San Francisco Disk Jockey use about the Rolling Stones: “Are they putting us on, or what?” The title points to the portentous moral division we …

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