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Richard Eder

A Druid Among the Dons : THE BOOK AND THE BROTHERHOOD by Iris Murdoch (Viking: $19.95; 601 pp.)

February 21, 1988|RICHARD EDER

What do you do with a gathering of cultivated, middle-aged people who have been friends for decades and become thoroughly familiar with each other's ideas, darknesses and jokes? If you are a host, and the evening has turned rigid with all that sympathy, you might get everyone to dance.

It can be a novelist's problem too. Say that your subject is society's pillar: an educated professional upper middle-class whose political and metaphysical concerns have yellowed from being on display for so long and never used. How do you write about this dullness--the wrapping that muffles a spiritual and social crisis--without taking on dullness's colors?

Iris Murdoch orders up a dance. She gets her threadbare British intellectuals, with their dwindling purses and passions, out of their chairs. She turns on the Pan-pipes music, slips lusts and obsessions into their coffee, paints their faces a Druid purple and--still in their tweeds and Ashley prints--has them twitching out pagan gyrations upon worn floors that sometimes give way.

With "The Book and the Brotherhood," Murdoch has published 23 novels. When I reviewed her last one, "The Good Apprentice," and the one before that, "A Philosopher's Pupil," I expect I mentioned the 22 and 21.

It was, and is, not just to indicate the near-Trollopian dimensions of her output, but to recognize that each new Murdoch book, whether stronger or weaker, is another piece of a living super-novel. Once again, a far-fetched Trollope comparison is appropriate.

The 19th-Century English novelist took a world--politics in the Palliser books, ecclesiastical politics in the Barchester cycle--and led us through a mass of mundane detail amazingly leavened by nuance; so that we are forced, aching and delighted by turns, to be engrossed.

Murdoch's effect is similar. "This is tedious and trivial," we may protest at one moment, as we follow one more five-cornered feud in her urbane and fractured world; and "I am helplessly caught up in it," at the next. With Murdoch, of course, it is not 19th-Century parsons and MP's, but scholars, artists, psychiatrists and shady tycoons whose daytime surfaces are filled out with the deftest of ironic realism and whose nighttime precincts flash with a passionate heat lightning that goes from Freudian to archaic.

Murdoch's types recur. There is usually an inner circle of the more or less worldly wise, both innocent and cut off in their comfortable sophistication. There will be an enchanter figure, untamed and with a whiff of violence or even the supernatural about him. He is apt to be a writer or a philosopher--Murdoch's philosophers are medieval alchemists--and dangerous. They are the Merlin of the Arthurian legend, powerful and ultimately frail.

It is the enchanter's eruption into the circle that sends its members on inner or outer adventures that shatter them, sometimes heal them, and that become the equivalent of, again, medieval quests. Often there is a young person upon whom the heaviest burden of pain or guilt falls and whose quest is the most perilous; a scapegoat whose perdition or salvation supplies some of the fuel and fire to the action.

Upon these and other figures, Murdoch performs her variations. We recognize them. Sometimes they take us further than a previous variation. Sometimes they can seem like Murdoch parodying herself.

In "The Book and the Brotherhood," we are presented right off with a dozen characters whose knotty problems, pasts, and relationships all must be explained. It is like fishermen unwinding their nets for hours on the beach before setting sail. You may wish that there could be a gadget that would read Murdoch's beginnings for you in advance, so that you could get right out to sea with--all quirks aside--a wondrous helmsman.

We meet the dozen characters in the course of a summer-night outdoor festival at Oxford. It furnishes a background of pagan revelry, a turning dance like a carnival or witch's sabbath, against which these characters seek each other out. "Tamar was looking for Conrad," goes a characteristic Murdoch move. "Conrad was looking for Tamar. Rose and Jenkin were looking for Jean and Duncan and Conrad and Tamar."

The urgent seeking, the crisis that erupts, are caused by the sudden appearance of Crimond, formerly an acquaintance of the circle that includes some of the seekers and sought: Rose, Jenkin, Duncan, and Jean (Tamar will become one of the scapegoats; Conrad is peripheral). He is a radical left-wing thinker, a seducer, a man who fascinates the circle--the brotherhood of the title--and who has violently disrupted it. He is the enchanter and he is first seen, again typically, dressed in a kilt and doing a Highland reel with enthralling strength. It is a Pan dance.

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