Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Holding a single moment up to the light (Books - The Nice and the Good by Iris Murdoch)

As I mentioned in my previous post, Iris Murdoch's The Nice and the Good begins with a shot, followed up by a body. For another writer that would herald the arrival of a detective and activities focused on the solution of the crime, followed by a gathering, usually in a drawing room, during which said detective reveals all. Not for Murdoch. I'm fifty pages in and nary a detective in sight, although I am suspicious that one of the characters I have met will become one. Rather, we are gradually drawn in to the imbroglios of the extended household of Octavian and Kate Gray, in which figure Uncles, friends from University recovering from broken marriages, and multiple children.

One of the features I like best about Murdoch's writing is her love of taking a simple action between people, and turning it in her capable hands, seeing what is is made of, holding it up to see how it catches the light.
He had a serious staring gaze which, together with a slow pedantic habit of speech, gave him the air of an intellectual. In fact, though clever, he was idle at school and far from bookish. Mary, still unseen, moved closer and saw that Pierce had covered the table with a complicated pattern composed of hundreds of shells arranged in spirals, tiny ones in the centre, larger ones on the outside. Adjusting the outer edge of the pattern he stopped to select a shell from a heap at his feet.

Pierce became aware of his mother and turned slowly to face her. He rarely moved fast, He looked at her without smiling, almost grimly. He looked at her like an animal, cornered but not frightened, a dangerous confident animal. And Mary apprehended herself as a thin dark woman, a mother, a representatibve somehow of the past, of Pierce's past, confronting him as if she were already a shost. This came to her in an instant with an agony of possesive love for her son and a blinding pity of which she did not know whether it was for him or for herself...

This is typical of Murdoch, this deep insight into a simple moment that later might end up motivating a simple action whose consequence may not be at all simple and whose intersection with other people performing many other simple actions is, in fact, likely to be complicated and a source of great entertainment. Murdoch may like to plumb the depths but I never find her heavy. Her entertainments tend to revolve around a moral theme, goodness and niceness come to mind in this case, but I haven't yet read enough to find out.

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