Monday, 14 October 2013

Booker shortlist 1969: The Nice and The Good by Iris Murdoch

published 1968


He felt extraordinarily calmed by Mary’s presence. In a curious way he was pleased that she had not disputed his self-accusation but had simply given him the correct reply. She assured him somehow of the existence of a permanent moral background. He thought, she is under the same orders as myself. He found that he had picked up the hem of Mary’s dress and was moving it between his fingers. She was wearing a mauve dress of crepe-like wrinkled stuff, with a full skirt. As he felt the material he thought suddenly of Kate’s red striped dress and of Judy’s dress with the blue and green flowers. Girls and their dresses.



He said quickly, letting go of the hem, ‘Mary, I hope you won’t mind my saying how glad I am about you and Willy.’

‘Nothing’s – fixed, you know.’

‘Yes, I know. But I’m so glad….’


They stood up. Mary turned her lean sallow head towards him, brushing back her hair. Her eyes were vague in the hot dappled half light. They stood a moment awkwardly, and then with gestures of salutation parted in silence.



observations: This is a very Mudoch-ian collection of thoughts and styles: interested in dresses - they are mentioned several times throughout the book - and there are obviously undertones and love affairs and then those slightly strange sentences and descriptions – ‘vague in the hot dappled half light’ – you wouldn’t be sure if that was affectation or meaningful.

This one really is the archetypal Murdoch book: too many characters (in some editions apparently there is a list of them, which might be helpful – I never was completely convinced I knew who all the different children belonged to), plenty of people with strange names – Octavian, Ducane, Biranne – and sentences like this one:
This metaphysical dilemma was present to him at times not in any clear conceptual form but rather as an atmosphere, a feeling of bewildered guilt which was almost sexual in quality and not altogether unpleasant.

Iris Murdoch certainly has a distinctive style. Does anyone read her any more? Was she an important philosopher, an important novelist, both, neither? Reading her 30 years ago you would think she lived the life of the people in her books – estates in Dorset, smart flats in London, communal living – but this seems not to have been the case. She apparently said that you should never drink expensive wine, keep it cheap so that you don’t get used to the good stuff – her rather sybaritic characters might disagree.

But, the book is hugely entertaining, quite modern in tone, and very funny at times. The book begins with Radeechy, a civil servant, committing suicide – he has not left a note:
‘That’s not like him!’ said Octavian. Radeechy was an indefatigable writer of circumstantial minutes.
It stands the test of time very well, and definitely deserved its place on the 1969 Booker Prize shortlist.

The pictures of girls in their dresses are both from the State Library of Queensland.

8 comments:

  1. Moira - Interesting isn't it how authors such as Murdoch may be popular for a time, but their style loses its appeal as time goes by. It's not perhaps that the plots are dated so much as that writing style. 'Food for thought,' for which thanks. Oh, and I do love those hats! In general, women don't wear hats they way they did. Over time I've heard several fashion pundits swear that 'the hat is back!' I haven't seen it...

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    1. Yes - I think very difficult to predict, also, whose books will survive and whose will not. Hats do make those outfits, but I don't suppose they'll ever be the everyday essential again.

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  2. Are you working your way through all the Booker's? Good luck! I'll take a pass on this one.

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    1. Just the 1969 list for now, but I actually enjoyed it very much, so I might move on to future years' lists. (there's one year where there's a winner and just 2 on the shortlist, so that might be a good one to pick...)

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  3. I still read Iris Murdoch! I *love* her writing. I first discovered her with An Unofficial Rose when I was 17. By the age of 22 I'd bought everything she'd ever written. I'm now (at 33) pacing myself, treating myself to one every now and then to prolong the joy of reading because I can't bear the thought of running out of first encounters with her writing.
    I've not read The Nice and the Good yet but your post has inspired me to make it my next read.
    Thank you for such a wonderful blog.

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    1. Oh me too, Erica, I started reading them when I was in my 20s, and one thing I loved was that there were so many, you knew they wouldn't run out for a long time. I think I might still have a few of the later ones to pick up on. She stands the test of time very well, and this was a really good one.

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  4. Now I see that Col "sort of" asked the question I had. Why are you listing all the 1969 Booker nominees? Just curious.

    Iris Murdoch is an author I have wanted to read. Not sure where to start though.

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    1. Tracy I was just looking at publicity about the current Booker prize, and thinking how different the prize-winners are, and got to wondering about the very first shortlist, so decided to read them. I didn't even know if I could find the list, let alone the books themselves, but in fact it wasn't difficult at all. I'll do a roundup with the final book later on - I found it a really interesting exercise.

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