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In the closing pages of this book, A.N.Wilson writes: "Her novels, more than any other, inspired me to want to be a novelist"; and then: "Millions of individuals throughout the world are in her debt. They see her as a compellingly readable novelist who describes better than any other the strange things which happen when people fall in love [...]" My personal late-adolescent discovery of Iris Murdoch (I compulsively went on to read all her novels, many of them more than once), corresponds very closely to that of A.N.Wilson. Her evocations of falling in love are surely unequalled. And at first sight it consequently would seem totally laudable that A.N.Wilson should suggest that we return to the novels for our understanding of Iris Murdoch's ideas, and leave behind the Alzheimer's victim represented in Richard Eyre's film and her widower John Bayley's idiosyncratic written evocations of her final years. So why on earth did A.N.Wilson have to produce this clumsy, often - by his standards - badly written, badly constructed and repetitive book, in which he constantly makes contradictory assertions about both Iris Murdoch and her husband? The headline of the Observer review of the hardback edition, "Tittle-tattle trader" was in my mind all the time as I persevered with it. Having enjoyed Wilson's cleverly plotted comic novels of the early 1980s, with their clear indebtedness to Iris Murdoch [the first one, The Sweets of Pimlico is even dedicated to both her and Bayley], I had at least expected him to state his case cogently and persuasively. But for pages at a time Iris Murdoch herself actually completely disappears from sight, and instead we get largely pointless cameos of various Oxford eccentrics, irrelevant and confusing references to the history of philosophy, and, worst of all, pathetically self-pitying references to tormented moments in Wilson's own private life. Not to mention the mean references to the squalor in which Murdoch and Bayley - apparently of their own free will, it should be pointed out - opted to live, and to their physical appearance. It is perfectly possible to write a sensitive and understanding biography of someone with a highly unconventional private life: Victoria Glendinning did it memorably in the case of Vita Sackville-West. Whereas Wilson, returning time and again to this aspect, simply cannot help being insensitive, prurient, judgmental and mean. That would appear to be his nature: all spite and no compassion. It is inevitably difficult to separate admiration from envy, and envy from jealousy. Clearly not having managed to do this in the case of Iris Murdoch, A.N.Wilson would have been well advised to leave this book unwritten (instead of just badly written). Those wanting to discover or rediscover Iris Murdoch, warts and all, should turn (back) to the fiction. And if they then want the biographical background, there is the official biography by Peter Conradi, lengthy and occasionally stodgy, but at least coherent, and at all times loyal to its subject. And not bother with this peculiar mish-mash which is neither one thing nor the other. */*****