Philosopher's novel of unrealized ideas

The Book and the Brotherhood, by Iris Murdoch. New York: Viking Penguin. 607 pp. $19.95. Iris Murdoch's place in the front rank of novelists now writing in English seems beyond dispute. Last year she was honored with the title of Dame. Her latest novel, ``The Book and the Brotherhood,'' was warmly praised in England and will likely meet with an equally appreciative reception on this side of the Atlantic.

Murdoch's fiction is a distinctive blend of diverse traditions, so closely and beautifully interwoven that it is hard to separate the various elements. It's rather as if Dostoyevsky had been set loose in Bloomsbury, transforming the intricate network of personal relationships into scenes of metaphysical melodrama. Yet, even as we are drawn into a Dostoyevskian world of extremes - of fanatics, wise men, lovers, saints, and sinners - there is still a sense of fastidiousness about the whole enterprise, a modest yet abiding belief in the importance of nuances and the value of the individual's pursuit of knowledge, love, and happiness. Last, perhaps least, there's also a whiff of John Cowper Powys: a gleam of natural supernaturalism, of Celtic twilight and Druidical wizardry.

``The Book and the Brotherhood,'' her 23rd novel, is vintage Murdoch: timelessly enchanting, but timely in its portrait of 1980s England. The timeliness is obvious from the barest summary of the plot: A group of idealistic men and women, who met as students, later formed a society to support one of their number, a brilliant radical named David Crimond, in his efforts to write a major work tackling the big questions of history, politics, philosophy, art, and ethics. As the story opens, the group members, now middle-aged, are having qualms about Crimond and the enterprise they once agreed to fund. Originally, ``the fact that Crimond had remained on the extreme left, while the others now held more moderate opinions, was not of course taken to matter.'' Nor is the commitment shaken when the marriage of two group members, Jean and Duncan Cambus, is all but shattered when Jean runs off with Crimond - once, before the novel's opening, and still more shockingly a second time, shortly after she meets him again dancing in his kilt like the Indian god Shiva at the Oxford midsummer ball that furnishes the novel's memorable first scene.

Jean's passion for the icy, ascetic Crimond, while explained in due course, is somehow less believable than the enduring devotion her friend Rose Curtland feels for Gerard Hernshaw. In his youth, Gerard loved Rose's brother, whose tragically early death has kept his memory bright for all who knew him. Rose and Gerard share misgivings about Crimond, but only once in their years of friendship has Gerard shared her bed. Rose is torn between considering her unrequited love a noble thing in itself and regarding it as a sad waste. As Rose loves Gerard, so Gerard - in a nonsexual way - loves their old friend Jenkin Riderhood, a self-effacing, rather sexless schoolteacher who vaguely yearns to leave his quiet life for a chance of being ``at the edge of things'' among the poor of the third world.

Closer to home and England, there's also a timely portrait of a talented young man who fears he will never be employed again. And perhaps most arresting, a subplot involving an Oxford student, Tamar, whose deep love of learning is threatened by her own mother, a bitter and endlessly resentful woman who forces Tamar to leave Oxford to earn a living and pay her mother back for the ``sacrifice'' of having borne the poor girl out of wedlock!

Here, as throughout her oeuvre, Murdoch's focus is on love rather than simple sexual desire. (There is, indeed, but one ``sex scene'' in the whole novel.) Selfless or selfish, enlightened or foolish, Murdoch is a master of conveying this universal emotion in all its varying permutations.

Of a writer at once so profound and prolific, it is perhaps ungrateful to demand more. But in reading the book, I found myself pondering, not for the first time, certain qualities one somehow expects to find in Murdoch's fiction which sometimes are not really there. Nowadays, when novelists far less contemplative are criticized as ``too cerebral,'' it may seem strange to complain that a novel by an Oxford philosophy don is insufficiently intellectual, especially when its characters spend pages discussing their views on philosophy, politics, ethics, and religion. Yet in comparing Murdoch - not to the lighter, leaner writers of today - but to the great masters in whose footsteps she follows, we begin to see what is lacking.

Murdoch, as a novelist, is content to allude to ideas rather than represent and develop them. We look in vain for something like Ulysses' speech on hierarchy that Shakespeare provides in ``Troilus and Cressida'' or Ivan Karamazov's dialogue with the Grand Inquisitor. What dialogue there is about ideas is surprisingly thin: Debating individualism versus Utopian statism with Crimond, for example, Gerard Hernshaw needlessly concedes that tyrannies can at least stop people from starving (as in Stalin's Ukrainian famine, perhaps? Or today's Ethiopia?). Crimond, meanwhile, talks a lot about the need for new ideas, but one gets little sense of what they might be. Perhaps, in this age of specialization and cultural fragmentation, a novelist, even one who happens to be a professional philosopher, may no longer aspire to be a central figure of culture. But if anyone is equipped to do so, it is certainly Iris Murdoch.

Merle Rubin is a free-lance book reviewer.

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