Reading novels is generally a leisurely pleasure, but sometimes you stumble across a book that grabs you and demands submission. You simply can’t put it down. There’s a certain intensity in the work that bends you to its will; the narrative is cruel, somehow brutal, greedy of your time. I suppose it’s different for everybody, but when I encounter such books, I obey them completely, reading voraciously, rising to the challenge, the battle the book seems to be. The Fountainhead is such a book – even now, when I pick it up and flip to a random page, I can’t put it down. Curiously, Iris Murdoch’s Nuns and Soldiers is also such a book. I find this strange, because I honestly don’t think Nuns and Soldiers is of the same calibre as The Fountainhead. All the same, once I started reading it, I read it constantly, on trains, in cafes, in bed until it was 4 am and I was dying of exhaustion. I went to the British Museum and spent 3 hours in the Reading Room with it – I barely managed to break away to see the exhibits. I think it’s something to do with the force of personality behind the work – it’s not that I was particularly in love with the characters, or the story, but the voice of the book simply commanded attention.
All the same, as I said, I wasn’t in love with the text. It starts off very strong, but decidedly peters out towards the end – the last 80 pages or so particularly. It’s a curious book, in that it combines deep moral reflection with a kind of comedy of manners, a move that works very well early on, but then causes some problems. The thing about having a book loaded with characters is that you ultimately have to do something with them all – this means that you can well end up with large chunks of narrative that seem to serve merely to tie up loose ends that the reader doesn’t really care about, but expects nonetheless, and dutifully reads. Nuns and Soldiers introduces you to a lot of people, and fleshes them out fairly well, but as the text progresses it becomes obvious that only 4 of them are really at the center of action. The text really centers on the love affair between Tim and Gertrude, and although Anne and The Count are necessary as a supporting cast, once Tim and Gertrude have gotten themselves sorted out, the other two become basically irrelevant. Unfortunately, Murdoch can’t really let them go, and creates a new sideplot to accommodate them; one that is not particularly satisfying, and never gets resolved. As the text winds to a close, she suddenly remembers other characters; Manfred, Sylvia, Mrs. Mount, and tries to cram in some action with them. I suppose it’s meant to show how complex human lives are, to prove that they’re not flat and superficial, that they have important roles unrelated to the central action of the novel, but by then, 400 pages in, you just don’t care that much about them. It’s odd, because on the one hand, it’s quite clever to retroactively tell you about a doomed love affair that was occurring alongside the rest of the action, particularly when part of the action concerned the oblivious love object being fixated on an entirely different doomed love affair, but it ends up seeming like too little, too late.
The thing about juggling lots of characters falling in love with each other is that it very quickly can slide into formulaic combinations that just don’t seem believable, but if everyone is in love and one character is left out, that one person seems completely superfluous and not worth bothering about in the first place.
The character of The Count was of course personally interesting to me because I’m a frightful patriot and his main trait is his Polishness. It’s so interesting to me, the way Poles appear in Western European works. Murdoch did manage to capture something rather emblematic about the Polish case, in a strange way. The Count is the symbol of total moral virtue that is nonetheless doomed. He fights a battle where he is clearly on the right side, but will inevitably lose. And while everyone very much likes him, and sympathizes, nobody can really give a shit. And he realizes this to some extent, alternating between seeing himself as a tragic, heroic figure, and a comic one. It’s an apt understanding of the peculiar self-esteem complexes of Poles, something a friend of mine remarked upon recently. Our low self esteem doesn’t stem our belief that we’re worthless, it stems from our conviction that nobody gives a shit about us, and historically, you’d have to admit we’ve been basically correct in our assessment.
Finally, there’s the matter of the moral contemplation of the text, which is interesting, but I need to process more to really grasp. There’s an interesting way in which the text sets up a difference between being good and having a clear conscience, a reflection on human imperfection that is intriguing. Also, another beloved theme of mine, the question of chance and accident. There are plenty of moments in the novel where characters meet unexpectedly, right when they most need to, and plenty of others where the text tells you that they’ve passed within 100 feet of each other without noticing, and though it doesn’t necessarily seem important, by virtue of being reported it becomes so. It is a book that is self-consciously manipulating characters and situations, the narrator is a very curious presence. Information is explicitly held back until later (“What Manfred was then thinking will be revealed later”), or characters are kept in the dark (“It never occurred to Tim that he could draw inspiration from such observations”). It’s a third person narrator, but a slippery one, who slides in and out of characters minds and rigidly controls the story, flaunting its superior access to knowledge. All in all, an interesting book.