Tuesday, November 16, 2010

June Starr: Irish Murdoch's The Nice and the Good (1969 short list)

Hi, Bookers. I'm June Starr and for the next year at my blog Reading the Bookers, I'll be reviewing all of the books short-listed for the Bookers from the prize's inception to the present. Don't worry, I won't be posting every review here, but Laura persuaded me to post on a couple of Iris Murdoch novels I just read.

Read this review of The Nice and the Good before moving on to the one on Bruno's Dream below. They'll make more sense that way.

Thanks for having me here. I'm looking forward to being a member of the community.


And now--Iris Murdoch.

I had a thing for Iris Murdoch after I finished The Sea, The Sea in 2001. I decided to read all of 26 of her novels. I bought and read Under the Net and The Bell before I got too busy and my intentions faded away--to be revived, I imagined, during some mythical lazy summer (when I would also finally learn German. That’s another story). Since Murdoch has been the most frequently short-listed writer for the Booker with seven nominations (and one win), it looks like that revival is now in order. I’m looking forward to rereading The Sea, The Sea—since I remember NOTHING about it at this point beyond the fact that it was my favorite novel for awhile. I’ll be interested in seeing if I’m still smitten this time through.

But that’s another shortlist—1978’s to be exact—so let’s get back to the matter at hand: The Nice and the Good. Which I also liked very much.

For one thing, the novel is right up my alley: a big, shaggy realistic novel with lots of characters who talk and think their way through a variety of interpersonal dilemmas.* The Nice and the Good has a cast of characters so big that the publishers put a “playbill of the principals” on the flyleaf for handy reference. Since Murdoch is herself a philosopher, it’s no surprise that there’s thought and discussion aplenty. Characters contemplate themselves and others, mulling over their own sense of integrity and identity, their motivations and behavior, and, as the title promises, over what “separates the nice from the good” in both “the self-seeking and the blank impersonal face” of love (378, flyleaf).

The novel begins on a violent note—with the apparent suicide of British government official, Joseph Radeechy. But while uncovering the facts surrounding Radeechy’s death gives the book a plot to work with, his death is less important than the effects it has on other characters, most of whom knew him little, if at all. Radeechy works in a Whitehall department for Octavian Gray--and it is Octavian’s friend and department legal advisor John Ducane, who must solve the mystery of the man’s death. In love with Octavian’s wife, Kate (with Octavian’s full knowledge and approval!), Ducane is a frequent visitor to the Grays’ Dorset seaside estate, where the couple resides with their daughter Barbara, Octavian’s misanthropic brother, Theo, and a variety of other needful friends—Holocaust survivor Willy, widow Mary Clothier and her son Pierce, and divorcee Paula Biranne and her 9-year-old twins Edward and Henrietta.

None of these characters is defined in and of themselves but primarily in relation to others--on the estate, in Whitehall and greater London, and beyond. Through what becomes a rather dizzying array of relationships, Murdoch explores the variety of profiles that love may show. Couples separate, reunite, change partners, remain constant; individuals plead for love, accept and reject proposals and companionship. Whatever the pain and confusion, or even the shame and infamy, that such intimate negotiations occasion, Murdoch insists that without them, life is a shabby thing.

Late in the novel, Murdoch puts Ducane in a life-threatening situation--interestingly unconnected from the Radeechy plot--so that he may come to this conclusion about his own life and his role in the Radeechy plot:

I wonder if this is the end, . . . and if so what it will all have amounted to. How tawdry and small it has all been. He saw himself now as a little rat, a busy little scurrying rat, seeking out its own little advantages and comforts. To live easily, to have cozy familiar pleasures, to be well thought of. . . . Nothing is worth doing except to kill the little rat, not to judge, not to be superior, not to exercise power, not to seek, seek, seek. To love and to reconcile and to forgive, only this matters. All power is sin and all law is frailty. Love is the only justice. Forgiveness, reconciliation, not law. (328-29)

This position leads us to the sort of Shakespearean comic ending hinted at in the flyleaf playbill and the allusively named Grays,** with plenty of marriage (or its equivalent) and good fortune to go around.

Murdoch is great at probing the inner life. She makes us recognize how an idea can obsess and rule us—despite our understanding of its negative effects; she makes us appreciate the importance of our own conceptions of ourselves and what happens when we are forced to interrogate those conceptions. She knows that identity encompasses more than we might imagine, and that we must look to others as well as to ourselves to know it.

As I said above—right up my alley. Let the Murdoch revival begin!

* If they spend most of their time indoors, that’s also a plus, though not mandatory. I’m not big on rapturous or even detailed descriptions of landscapes. I don’t mind a few walks and picnics, or some contemplation by the sea, all of which feature in The Nice and the Good, but I generally prefer to experience my scenery in person. That’s one reason I was so surprised to love Barry England’s Figures in a Landscape. The lead characters there, McConnachie and Ansell, are only indoors long enough to steal a suitcase and some canned goods.

**Octavian and Kate sure sound Shakespearean to me.


  1. June, this is a great review. Thanks for joining our community!

  2. She's amazing, isn't she? I'm so looking forward to more of your reviews.

  3. I am all for a Murdoch revival! I just posted my review of The Sea, the Sea and it is, as it was for you, my favorite novel right now. I plan to read more, and now I want to start with the Nice and the Good.