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Iris Murdoch As I Knew Her

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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.

 

*/*****

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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.

Odd that you should mention his references to her physical appearance. When I was young, my parents rented a cottage from some arty types and Iris Murdoch used to come and stay with them. I had no idea who she was, but both my mother and I were very impressed by her combination of flowery dresses and Converse boots - she was a lady ahead of her time! I have always had a soft spot for her purely based on this memory.

 

(The only novel I've read is The Sea, The Sea which I really liked. I've been a bit scared of venturing further into her back catalogue.)

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She was said to buy a lot of her clothes from Oxfam shops...

 

There is a lovely anecdote about some friends turning up at Murdoch and Bayley's house with a pork pie that got put down somewhere in the kitchen and was never found again...

 

The above both meant to sound funny and not mean: I love Iris Murdoch to bits.

 

Jen, The Sea, The Sea is probably her best-known work because it won the Booker prize. It is clearly one of her best, but I would also highly recommend The Bell and The Black Prince. I would say the ones to avoid are The Italian Girl and Jackson's Dilemma, her last novel, written when she was already sinking into Alzheimer's. But any of the others is worth a read, I think.

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Like Wilson and jfp I, too, am a Murdoch enthusiast, although I have some reservations about her evocation of love. True, all her novels are, in a sense love stories, but the protagonists are usually so weird that they are difficult to sympathise with. I get the feeling of mind rather than heart at work. She's clever and tells a good story but the heroines are daffy and the heroes enchanters or controllers. Do we need to go to biography to explain why?

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Do we need to go to biography to explain why?

nonsuch, I initially took this to be a rhetorical question (implying: No of course we don't), but just in case it wasn't...

 

Not all the heroes are enchanters/controllers/jokers/manipulators (although the ones that aren't tend to be the victims of the ones that are: her world is to a great extent one of manipulators and manipulated)... - that said, the ones that are have a very clear real-life antecedent to be found looming very large in Iris Murdoch's own life...

 

Iris Murdoch could never be called a realist: her characters never come from ordinary walks of life (the very fact that she gives the men names like Blaise, Hilary and Axel is symptomatic of this), and the dialogue is not authentic at all... although that aspect has never bothered me. After all, real people in Shakespeare's day didn't speak in iambic pentameters either.

 

I haven't re-read any of the novels for some time now, but most of them are always worthy re-read candidates.

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Of course, jfp, biography always comes into it. What I meant was: Can we account for her treatment of love, her obsession with its controlling aspects in the novels, by looking at her life?

 

Yes, the names are all weird. I remember Evercreech and the palindrome Hannah. This seems to point to what I see as the lack of reality in the evocation of the romantic love atmosphere. I need to explain a bit more . . . you rhapsodise about this, whereas I find it a bit sterile. She is clinical and detached, treating her subjects like objects in a laboratory, moving them about beautifully, enjoying their pains and self-deceptions, but the reader is not exactly enthralled by this exhibition. Do you see my problem with her? If you're a real fan of hers, of course I don't expect you to agree.

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Do you see my problem with her?

Yes, I do - but I must confess to not seeing where I "rhapsodise" about anything...

:nono:

 

I would need to think about this much more carefully... I agree entirely that there is something totally absurd and OTT about the way love takes over and becomes the only reality in a character's life. (My mother once disparagingly remarked that Murdoch's characters would do well to go out and do a decent day's work now and again...) But I think it is something she takes directly from the Shakespearean comedies. I read somewhere in reference to Murdoch that falling love is when one allows someone else to be the centre of one's world, and stops being the centre oneself...

 

I have to reiterate that I discovered Murdoch at an impressionable age: indeed she was the first adult writer I discovered for myself, when at school we were still doing things like The Catcher In The Rye... I confess to finding the novels I read late in life rather predictable, as the same patterns reappeared time and time again.

 

But above all I owe to her an early recognition that, as she herself puts it in a taped interview I have somewhere, life is very, very strange.

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