The Nice and the Good by Iris Murdoch

For the very first time, I’ve actually read my latest #IMreadalong book during the month selected by Liz @Adventures in Reading. The September read was The Nice and the Good first published in 1968 (a very good year, I might add) which makes it 50 years old.

It was an odd mix of murder mystery, rom-com and rural farce not unlike The Diary of a Provincial Lady of Cold Comfort Farm (both stories that left me cold and unmoved, wondering what all the fuss was about). If not for this readalong with Liz, I suspect I might feel the same way about Murdoch’s books. 
Murdoch’s books are about intelligence, philosophy and the craft of writing, they are not about heart and soul. The only way I can get through them is to embrace the cognitive element and research the sh*t out of them (to paraphrase Matt Damon in The Martian).
The extra research that I’m doing for these books has made me delve deeper into IM’s themes, interests and intentions. I’ve explored some of her philosophical ideas, translated her many uses of Latin, French and German phrases and googled the various art works, authors and poets that she has mentioned in her books. These are things that I enjoy doing, as long as I don’t have to do it for every single book that I read!
The Nice and the Good led me straight into the arms of the elegiac poet, Sextus Propertius (circa 50 BC – 15 BC). One of our main characters, Willy is writing a book about Propertius. I now know enough about IM to realise that this is significant. Just reading some of the quotes most famously attributed to Propertius, quickly showed that many of her plot points and character arcs could be linked to these. (The link attached to his name above, takes you to a translated reproduction of his Love Elegies where he waxes lyrical about his love for Cynthia.)
  • Let’s give the historians something to write about.
  • Love is fostered by confidence and constancy; he who is able to give much is able also to love much.
  • Let each man have the wit to go his own way.
  • To each man at his birth nature has given some fault.
  • If you see anything, always deny that you’ve seen; or if perchance something pains you, deny that you’re hurt.
  • Anyone who is an enemy of mine, let him love women, but let he who is my friend rejoice in men.
  • Afflicted by love’s madness all are blind.
  • Let each man pass his days in that endeavour wherein his gift is greatest.
  • Never change when love has found its home.
  • Let no one be willing to speak ill of the absent.
  • Love can be put off, never abandoned
  • At last, an injury suffered brings you back to my bed, expelling you from the doors of another.
  • Tell me who is able to keep his bed chaste, or which goddess is able to live with one god alone?
  • Absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Propertius And Cynthia At Tivoli by Auguste Jean-Baptiste Vinchon
Murdoch believed that humans are by nature deeply narcissistic but that genuine love – love of beauty or love of genuine good in another can change this. The Nice and the Good is all about the tension between this kind of genuine love and self-love. Murdoch uses red herrings, secrets, the supernatural and various other complications to drive the tension. Everyone seems to be hiding something in this book.
The Nice and the Good is also, quite obviously, about being nice and/or good. Or not. I could probably write a whole post just on that idea alone, but will leave that for others in the #IMreadalong to cover this off (hopefully).
Naturally the sea features significantly, not only in the lives of our characters, but also as a symbolic element for Murdoch to play with. My research for this particular book revealed a whole lot of stuff about katabasis – a descent or journey of some kind into the underworld, downhill, sinking, retreat, down south or to the coast and it’s opposite idea anabasis – usually a trip from the coast to the interior. Obviously the cave scene was a katabasis device that led to a transformation for Pierre and Ducane. The ripple effects of this descent also changed the lives of everyone else involved.
Murdoch described her books as being either opened or closed. Open stories were driven by character and closed books were driven by plot. The Nice and the Good is obviously an open book, with it’s large cast of characters.
One of our main guys, Richard had a thing for a piece of art called Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time also called An Allegory of Venus and Cupid and A Triumph of Venus by Agnolo di Cosimo (1503 – 1572), also known as Bronzino. It was painted in the Mannerist style with the classic figura serpentinata feature highlighting movement, tension and proportion.
Murdoch describes the painting via Paula with,

The figures at the top of the picture are Time and Truth, who are drawing back a blue veil to reveal the ecstatic kiss which Cupid is giving to his Mother. The wailing figure behind Cupid is Jealousy. Beyond the plump faced girl with the scaly tail represents Deceit. Paula noticed for the first time the strangeness of the girl’s hands, and then saw that they were reversed, the right hand on the left arm, the left hand on the right arm. Truth stares, Time moves. But the butterfly kissing goes on, the lips just brushing, the long shining bodies juxtaposed with almost awkward tenderness, not quite embracing. How like Richard it all is, she thought, so intellectual, so sensual.

Many phrases associated with this work of art, also reflect the themes of the story – Ambivalence, elusive, lust, fraud, envy, unchaste love, transience of physical pleasure, crowded, beasts, madness, erotic, ‘looking good’ rather than ‘being good’. And a discussion about the artist, sounds very much like Murdoch herself,

Is it liking or loathing? He lacks human warmth, you could say. He doesn’t feel for his sitters as Rembrandt felt for his. He is intellectually removed. He scorns or inwardly mocks just as much as he preens and flatters. 

The Independent 2012, Great Works: An Allegory with Venus and Cupid, By Bronzino by Michael Glover

Murdoch is a particular type of English writer. Intellectual, distant, cool. The lack of warmth in her writing and the confusing messages about love and goodness are making me doubt whether I care to know any more about the philosophical musings of Simone Weil, Plato or Murdoch.

I underlined a lot of sections, but on rereading them, found that most of them were significant within the story and revealed much about IM, but very few of them felt significant to me.

I did like, towards the end,

Perhaps there were spirits, perhaps there were evil spirits, but they were little things. The great evil, the dreadful evil, that which made war and slavery and all man’s inhumanity to man lay in the cool self-justifying ruthless selfishness of quite ordinary people.

And,

The past is gone, it doesn’t exist any more. However, things that do exist are responsibilities occasioned by the past and also our thoughts about it, which we may not find it very easy to control

Without the extra research I think I would find these books rather dull and uninspiring. It’s the layers that make them interesting in an intellectual way, but it’s very hard to feel any emotions or care very much about any of her characters.

I appreciate Murdoch’s books but I don’t love them.

P.S. The foot on the left hand side of Bronzino’s painting is the one famously used by the Monty Python crew.
P.P.S. The painting is hanging in the New York headquarters of the horologists in David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks.

The Nice and the Good was shortlisted for the 1969 Booker Prize.
#CClist2

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