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Philosopher's novel of unrealized ideas

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The Book and the Brotherhood, by Iris Murdoch. New York: Viking Penguin. 607 pp. $19.95. Iris Murdoch's place in the front rank of novelists now writing in English seems beyond dispute. Last year she was honored with the title of Dame. Her latest novel, ``The Book and the Brotherhood,'' was warmly praised in England and will likely meet with an equally appreciative reception on this side of the Atlantic.

Murdoch's fiction is a distinctive blend of diverse traditions, so closely and beautifully interwoven that it is hard to separate the various elements. It's rather as if Dostoyevsky had been set loose in Bloomsbury, transforming the intricate network of personal relationships into scenes of metaphysical melodrama. Yet, even as we are drawn into a Dostoyevskian world of extremes - of fanatics, wise men, lovers, saints, and sinners - there is still a sense of fastidiousness about the whole enterprise, a modest yet abiding belief in the importance of nuances and the value of the individual's pursuit of knowledge, love, and happiness. Last, perhaps least, there's also a whiff of John Cowper Powys: a gleam of natural supernaturalism, of Celtic twilight and Druidical wizardry.

``The Book and the Brotherhood,'' her 23rd novel, is vintage Murdoch: timelessly enchanting, but timely in its portrait of 1980s England. The timeliness is obvious from the barest summary of the plot: A group of idealistic men and women, who met as students, later formed a society to support one of their number, a brilliant radical named David Crimond, in his efforts to write a major work tackling the big questions of history, politics, philosophy, art, and ethics. As the story opens, the group members, now middle-aged, are having qualms about Crimond and the enterprise they once agreed to fund. Originally, ``the fact that Crimond had remained on the extreme left, while the others now held more moderate opinions, was not of course taken to matter.'' Nor is the commitment shaken when the marriage of two group members, Jean and Duncan Cambus, is all but shattered when Jean runs off with Crimond - once, before the novel's opening, and still more shockingly a second time, shortly after she meets him again dancing in his kilt like the Indian god Shiva at the Oxford midsummer ball that furnishes the novel's memorable first scene.

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