Iris Murdoch seems headed toward an almost Trollopian record of productivity. Like Trollope but unlike, say, Dickens, she has become, since the early, “experimental” phase of Under the Net and The Flight from the Enchanter, a novelist of remarkably even achievement and pleasurable predictability, one who can be counted on to marshal her characters and put them before us with dispatch and ease, to comment sharply on their antics, and to win our light-hearted curiosity about “the way everything is going to turn out.”
That said, the differences between the fictional predilections of the Oxford philosophy don and the Victorian postal official are so great as to be nearly unspeakable. One need not have read all of Iris Murdoch’s novels (as I have not) to expect a cast of mostly upper-middle-class, often sexually amorphous characters with cultivated tastes and a marked degree of emotional changeability. Among them are likely to be one or two sorcerer-like figures who cast an ambiguous spell over the others. The plot—or rather multiplicity of plots—will be so full of reversals as to keep the reader constantly off balance. One can further anticipate a succession of long, vividly narrated scenes, an elegant juggling of moral or metaphysical themes that remain unresolved, and a sprinkling of magical or supernatural elements that seem somewhat gratuitous but add to the gaiety of the performance. In my case, the books and their titles tend in retrospect to blend into one mega-Murdoch fiction, from which only A Severed Head and The Sea, The Sea emerge with real distinctiveness.
All of one’s expectations are amply met in The Book and The Brotherhood, Iris Murdoch’s twenty-third novel and, at more than six hundred pages, her longest. It opens with one of her striking set pieces: a midsummer night’s dream that takes place at a “Commem Ball” at an Oxford college (presumably Magdalen). In a boozy wilderness of striped tents and dance bands, ancient floodlit buildings, intensely green illuminated trees, a deer park, college rooms, and the river Cherwell, the characters—as in Shakespeare’s comedy—appear and drift off, encounter and lose one another, and undergo striking amatory transformations. They are introduced briskly, with physical descriptions and bits of biographical information, but they are so numerous and they come and go at such a rate that the reader becomes nearly as muddled as any of the drunken dancers at the ball.
The ones we meet are not (with two exceptions) undergraduates but a band of middle-aged men and women who have known each other since university days. The leader is Gerard Hernshaw, a well-to-do former civil servant with a handsome “cubist” face who likes arranging things; having chosen early retirement, he may or may not undertake various projects, among them the writing of a book on Plotinus. He has come to the ball with his dearest friend, the Honourable Rose Curtland, a spinster with a little money from her titled Yorkshire family. Years before, Rose had a …