Saturday, 16 April 2005

Iris Murdoch: Nuns and Soldiers (1980)

Edition: Chatto & Windus, 1980 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1290

The Sea, The Sea is one of my favourite Murdoch novels and one of her most famous; its follow-up is much less well known. It doesn't quite equal its predecessor, but it is well worth reading, more so than her later novels.

Nuns and Soldiers begins on a deathbed; Guy Openshaw tells his wife that she should marry again. She is reluctant to do this, feeling that it would be a betrayal, but then, quite soon after Guy's death, Gertrude falls unexpectedly in love with a much younger man, a poverty stricken painter. This horrifies her friends, partly for snobbish reqasons and partly because they assume that Tim Reede is really after Gertrude's money. When they discover that Tim had hidden from Gertrude the fact that he was already in a long term (if informal) relationship when he met her, they feel that their suspicions have been confirmed. Murdoch makes it clear that he really did fall for Gertrude and that he hid the relationship from pure embarrassment, but that is not how it looks to Gertrude's friends or (eventually) to Gertrude, and succeeds in making everybody miserable.

So why the rather strange title? There is a literal nun in the story, Gertrude's friend Anne, who has recently left an enclosed order after losing her faith. On the other hand, there are no real soldiers. The distinction seems to be more between passive and active characters, with nuns and soldiers being traditional archetypes of each. Most characters in this novel move from one to the other end of the spectrum (and back again), and the reader is also shown that the characters' self perception does not always match their position.

Nuns and Soldiers is not a happy novel, but it is a good one. It doesn't have quite the impact of The Sea, The Sea, possibly because it starts with a death bed scene and possibly because a fair amount of philosophical discussion is presented in the early chapters: there are both emotional and intellectual hurdles to get over before a reader can get into the story itself. The transformation of Tim Reede's character throughout the novel is interesting, but on the other hand some of the less characters are either very ordinary or have odd things done to them by the author. The Polish man nicknamed "the Count" is an example; Murdoch seems to vacillate about just how important a part he should play. (This is actually quite clever, as real relationships ebb and flow in ways normally drastically simplified in fiction.) Though it is fairly hard work on the conceptual level, Nuns and Soldies is made accessible by Murdoch's style, which keeps the story flowing along. What I particularly like about the novel are the scenes when characters discuss others behind their backs, which may be incidental to the plot but which say a lot about their relationships and perceptions of each other.

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