Even to Iris Murdoch fans, of whom I am one of the most constant, Nuns and Soldiers will be a disappointment. It is a long solid book, purposely digressive, and there is a good deal of hard slogging before we get to the main theme. The title promises more than the performance. There is only one nun and no soldiers at all. We are in London in 1978, in the thick of a large, prosperous, mainly Jewish family - bankers, civil servants, professional men. The interest centres in Gertrude, late thirties, not Jewish, just widowed of her almost too ideal husband Guy. She is surrounded by sympathy and consideration, but also by eager curiosity on the part of the family circle about what she will do next - especially as Guy has left her all his considerable fortune. It is not a particularly attractive milieu. The married life of Gertrude and Guy is presented as so insufferably mature, cultivated, public-spirited and smug that the reader's first instinct is to close the book before it has begun and forswear the society of mature, cultivated, public-spirited persons for the rest of time. But Iris Murdoch's writing has the power to engage the reader in its conflicts, even without the pleasures of recognition or sympathy; and though they are slow in developing, the conflicts are not absent. There are lengthy annexes and excursions that gradually become folded into the main design. And as always with Iris Murdoch, the apparent moral simplicities prove ambiguous or uncertain.
LRB 18 September 1980 | PDF Download