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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Book and the Brotherhood

Iris Murdoch

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To purchase The Book and the Brotherhood

Title: The Book and the Brotherhood
Author: Iris Murdoch
Genre: Novel
Written: 1987
Length: 607 pages
Availability: The Book and the Brotherhood - US
The Book and the Brotherhood - UK
The Book and the Brotherhood - Canada
Les compagnons du livre - France
Il libro e la fratellanza - Italia
El libro y la hermandad - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a bit ponderous and with slow-going stretches, but still satisfyingly substantial

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Atlantic Monthly . 3/1988 Phoebe-Lou Adams
The LA Times B+ 21/2/1988 Richard Eder
The New Republic . 6/6/1988 Michael Levenson
The NY Rev. of Books . 31/3/1988 Robert Towers
The NY Times . 27/1/1988 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. A 31/1/1988 Charles Newman
Sunday Times . 13/9/1987 Andrew Sinclair
Time . 8/2/1988 Paul Gray
The Times A- 10/9/1987 Stuart Evans
Virginia Q. Rev. . Summer/1988 .
World Lit. Today . Summer/1988 Mona Knapp

  From the Reviews:
  • "Crimond is a false god, or at least not the god his friends had in mind. By the time his malign influence wears off, Ms.Murdoch has treated the reader to a soap opera with philosophical trimmings. Like all proper soap operas, it does not lack action." - Phoebe-Lou Adams, The Atlantic Monthly

  • "The Brotherhood has flaws that place it some way below the level of The Good Apprentice, one of Murdoch’s best. The first hundred pages or so of preparation seem especially long and mannered, although there are splendid passages in them. Energy and magic then take over, but after the killing, they seep away. The final quarter seems largely a series of retrospective variations on a tension that is gone. Perhaps the principal weakness is in the enchanter. Crimond is too flat, both in his ideas, which are a rehash of ultra-left post-Leninism, and above all in his person. (...) Despite these defects, Murdoch holds us enthralled for a good deal of the time, particularly in the middle section. There are passages of sustained brilliance" - Richard Eder, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Marxism is not her subject, but her pretext. Does she know this ? It's not easy to say. But nothing could be further from her sensibility than a genuine interest in class struggle. Far better to see the subject of The Book and the Brotherhood as the fate of liberalism when its center no longer holds, and when liberals themselves are no longer sure why they wear the name. (...) The politics in The Book and the Brotherhood is finally a feint and a tease; to speak of the plot of the novel is to speak of the many strange paths of Eros. It is also, and revealingly, to speak in the terms of melodrama." - Michael Levenson, The New Republic

  • "Plausibility, in fact, remains a problem throughout this novel. We are asked to believe that these cultivated folks -- who normally pass the time having tea, going to house parties and arguing about Plato and Marx -- would actually consider playing Russian roulette or making suicide pacts. Coupled with such farcical actions is language that frequently sounds as though it had been borrowed from a cheap romance novel. (...) What saves this novel from bathos, what keeps us so absorbed in the story is Ms. Murdoch's ability to ground the overt melodramatics of her plot in meticulous renderings of her people's inner lives. She has an instinctive gift for delineating their emotional histories, their needs, habits and dreams; and with the notable exceptions of Jean and Crimond, she manages to make them into real human beings, leaving us with the sort of intimate understanding of others that is found only in the finest, old-fashioned fiction." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "(T)his is that rarest of fictions these days: a social and political novel that is not journalistic, a novel of ideas that is not ideological, and a deep exploration of national character that is not parochial. While it details unsparingly the fragility of modern human relationships, the book is finally a triumphal celebration of literacy as a social bond -- a theme that no doubt will come as a shock to a modern audience. (....) A sociologist would find a lot of cheap thrills here (.....) David Crimond is one of the most interesting characters in recent literature, embodying that peculiar combination of puritanism and passion of the old-fashioned British intelligentsia, a man of the left who expends all his energy attacking the left, an intellectual loner without a constituency save the Brotherhood, which regards him, alternately, as a fanatic and a demigod. (...) Well, maybe it's not perfect. There's a certain lapidary style, the old pro warming up in her own good time, which can become tedious, particularly in the opening pages. The ending seems a gratuitous bow to Dickens, and there are rather too many emblems skittering through the carnage. But the human process by which ideas are transformed into feelings, feelings into gestures, and gestures into always unforeseen consequences -- no other living writer has it down so well." - Charles Newman, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(R)ich and evocative (.....) In this drama of the liberals consenting in their own destruction by their paid executioner, Iris Murdoch has drawn a troubling and illuminating picture of a generation of people she knows only too well." - Andrew Sinclair, Sunday Times

  • "This time out, she is at her best. (...) Murdoch is too canny a novelist to raise expectations without fulfilling them. But seldom in her distinguished career has she kept so many characters so busily and interestingly in motion. The Book and the Brotherhood hums with energy and im plications, with the conviction that realistic, contemporary characters are in fact enacting old, mysterious myths." - Paul Gray, Time

  • "The fault of the book is perhaps in its portrait of Crimond, whose words as political djin or irresistible lover fail to live up to the image other characters present. Its strength is in the quality of the writing as much as the profundity of Iris Murdoch's insight into people and ideas. It is a thoroughly gripping, stimulating, and challenging fiction." - Stuart Evans, The Times

  • "There are admirable passages in this 607-page novel and some interesting insights into present-day England, but the constant shift in point of view blurs the focus, and the endless talk grows tedious. For devoted Murdoch admirers." - Virginia Quarterly Review

  • "Though Murdoch herself has declared the book to be "about Marxism," it is not. In fact, not a word is quoted from Crimond's sensational theories. The book is about, instead, the power of ideas to bind human beings together permanently -- with hatred or with love. It is not a book for newcomers to Murdoch's work, but it is Murdoch's most Platonist pursuit to date of the "pure idea" and the pure passions it produces." - Mona Knapp, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Book and the Brotherhood opens at a midsummer Commemoration Ball at Oxford, allowing Murdoch to introduce practically all the main characters around whom the story then swirls. Most had been undergraduates together, decades earlier, though there is also Oxford student Tamar, whose uncle ("or 'uncle', since he was not Violet's brother but her cousin") is Gerard; there is also the absent but not forgotten figure of Sinclair, "'the golden boy', so long dead", whose sister, Rose, is part of this circle (and: "remained, after all these years, hopelessly, permanently, in love" with Gerard).
       The book of the title is, for much of the novel, a blank. For quite a while it gets, at best, oblique mention -- typically:

'Have you decided anything about the book ?' She was not referring to any book being written by Gerard, there was as yet no such thing, but to another book.
       Murdoch only slowly introduces readers to this other book and the arrangements surrounding it: there's mention of a 'book committee', for example, but Murdoch takes her time in revealing its purpose. The committee in fact styles itself as 'the Gesellschaft', in imitation of the Robert-Musil-Gesellschaft (not to be confused with the modern-day IRMG), set up in the 1930s to financially support Musil's writing. It is, in full, the Crimondgesellschaft, which, back in the day, was set up: "as a group of supporters who would contribute appropriate sums of money annually in order to give Crimond enough free time to write his book". Crimond is David Crimond, and when they were students: "he impressed them all, he perhaps even more than Gerard was the one of whom everything was expected". Crimond had, in the years that followed, become: "a well-known figure in left-wing politics, a respected, or notorious, theorist" -- but even he, after all these years: "had failed too, at any rate had not yet succeeded". He had stood, unsuccessfully, for parliament for example, and while he had published he had not yet published 'the book'.
       As the decades passed, Crimond had been the only one who: "retained the extreme left-wing idealism which they had once shared". They've all rather soured on him (and his ideology, which one of them dismisses as: "a fashionable amalgam, senseless but dangerous -- a kind of Taoism with a dash of Heraclitus and modern physics, then labelled Marxism") over the years -- especially after, many years earlier, he had had an affair with Jean, the wife of one of the original group, Duncan; for a time Jean had left Duncan, but she returned to him. Still, the Gesellschaft continue providing regular financial support -- even as they know practically nothing about how the project is going (indeed, whether Crimond is even working on it at all), as, e.g.: "Gerard did infrequently see the miscreant, ostensibly to ask about the book, though this subject was rarely raised and never pursued".
       They have more than their doubts about it, and Crimond:
     Years passed during which Crimond continued to receive a salary which set him free to indulge in political activity which his 'supporters' increasingly disapproved of, and to write, or pretend to write, a book which, if it ever appeared, must exert a dangerous and pernicious influence. It became more difficult to feel that this was simply a matter of keeping a promise, and began to be thought of as a ridiculous, irrational, intolerable situation about which something must be done.
       Still, they find, as Gerard sums up:
We don't like Crimond or his book but we're stuck with both.
       The Commem Ball at which the novel opens marks a turning point, as Crimond again steals Jean from Duncan: she leaves her husband again, throwing her lot in entirely with Crimond. He is genuinely, passionately in love with her -- but it is certainly a queer relationship, as they also recognize:
'We're crazy people,' he would sometimes say, 'it's like Kafka.'
     'It's like happy Kafka,' said Jean.
       Crimond certainly has the crazy part right ..... Murdoch also makes a Chekhovian point of noting Crimond's gun collection -- "I've always played with guns", he explains to Jean, and while he plans to (and then does) get rid of most of them, he insists on keeping some, as: "I want to be able to kill myself if necessary" .....
       Meanwhile, distraught Duncan can not get over the loss of his wife, and feels:
He would do something terrible. He would kill Crimond. He would have to.
       And then -- well, deep into the novel -- Crimond reveals that the book is finished. We still learn little about it, beyond (eventually) that Oxford University Press is publishing it and whatever one is to make of Crimond's description:
It's philosophy, if you like -- but what does that mean -- it's thinking, and it's a programme of action. That's its point.
       It is, or was, however, clearly Crimond's life's work, and when he's done he's seriously done. All that's left, he explains to Jean, is their love -- "Now that the book is gone there is nothing left but our love, our vulnerability to each other" -- and he has some very peculiar ideas about where that should now lead. So extreme are his actions that he drives her back to Duncan ..... That isn't the end of the path he's determined to go on, however, with him next turning to Duncan to achieve his ends -- failure here resulting in tragedy.
       The book remains something of a mystery object, with Murdoch never even bothering to reveal what Crimond had titled it. Gerard does get his hands on a proof -- "he could not help seeing it as a fatal package -- fatal to him, fatal perhaps to the world" when he receives the object -- and he is the only one of the characters to actually read it. Near the very end he does share his impressions, giving some sense of it -- not so much its content but its significance and import. As he sums up, for better and worse:
it's all that we thought it might be when we decided it was worth financing it. It's all we hoped -- it's also all we feared, later on that is. It will be immensely read, immensely discussed, and I believe, very influential.
       (Surprisingly, too, given what we've seen of Crimond: "he writes so well, it's funny and witty, all sorts of people will read it".)
       It is a philosophical and political work. Gerard sees the dangers in it -- "It could enflame a lot of thoughtless smashers" -- but also understands its importance, and the necessity of engaging with it and the ideas in it. He even considers writing a counter-book -- or wonders whether Crimond himself might: "write another equally long book refuting this one ! He's quite capable of it !"
       Gerard's comments on the book come near the very end of the novel, the culmination and conclusion of that storyline, before the book is even published. Along the long way here there are also other significant storylines -- though much of the novel is dominated by the dance of various relationships in the larger circle of significant characters. Most prominent -- and (melo)dramatic --, beyond Jean and Crimond's affairs, is the relationship between Tamar and her demanding mother, Violet, with its terrible foundations:
As Violet had frequently explained to Tamar, she would have been promptly 'got rid of' if her mother had had, at the crucial time, enough money to arrange it.
       After the Commem Ball, Violet also insists that Tamar abandon her studies at Oxford and get a job to help support her, despite the fact that others would be willing to help them both out. Eventually, the brotherhood sets things right -- they even propose a Tamargesellschaft -- Tamar is off back to Oxford again, but not before a variety of crises that also leads to a great transformation in Tamar.
       Like the book of the title, the 'brotherhood' is more implied than an actual entity -- indeed the word is barely mentioned in the novel at all. As Rose tells Gerard, very near the end, summing it all up very well:
     I wish you wouldn't keep talking about "we" -- just speak for yourself -- you keep on imagining there's some kind of brotherhood, but we're scattered, we aren't a band of brothers, just solitary worried individuals, not even young any more.
       What the novel also shows -- repeated, in various forms near the end, -- is: "How accidental everything was" -- and, as Gerard observes: "It's the accidentalness we have to live with". (A favorite Murdoch theme; recall that she also wrote a novel titled: An Accidental Man -- one of her best.)
       Fairly early on in the novel one of the characters tries to prod Gerard to write something, suggesting, among many other things that he try his hand at: "A novel then, an intellectual philosophical novel !"
       Gerard is dismissive:
     "Novels are over, they're finished.
       Murdoch nevertheless is willing to have yet another go at it, and though the story and characters swim around a bit here, The Book and the Brotherhood shows there's still a lot that can be said and done with the novel.

- M.A.Orthofer, 5 July 2024

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The Book and the Brotherhood: Reviews: Iris Murdoch: Other books by Iris Murdoch under review: Books about Iris Murdoch under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Iris Murdoch (1919-1999) studied at Oxford and Cambridge, and was a fellow of St. Anne's College, Oxford. She published twenty-six novels and won the Booker Prize in 1978.

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© 2024 the complete review

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