What does Iris Murdoch mean to you now? | Daily News


What does Iris Murdoch mean to you now?

TLS contributors reflect on the novelist’s impact


I only met Iris Murdoch once, and was disappointed that she seemed so uninteresting and uninterested. In my late teens, A Severed Head and The Bell had opened my eyes to another world. I took them as a rather elegant form of social realism (I still half-suspect they were), and I loved the new world they opened up to me – of men who actually worked as “wine merchants”, of errant schoolteachers, and of staggeringly intellectualized obsessions. When I later discovered that she was also a philosopher who wrote on Plato, it made Classics seem a lot sexier; and all the better that she had once been a graduate student at my own college. So why, when she came back in the mid-1990s as a special party guest, did she seem so vague and remote? What a let-down. It was not for a couple of years that I understood that she must already have been ill, and I felt more disappointed at myself for not realizing that something was wrong.


Back in 1976, when I was twenty-four, I submitted a short story to a competition run by Oxford University’s Isis magazine. It was judged by Iris Murdoch – probably the most famous writer then residing in Oxford. To my intense gratification I was awarded second prize – a £15 book token and eventual publication in the magazine.

Apart from the boost this notice gave to me, the tyro novelist, it also made me start reading Iris Murdoch. I knew who she was, of course, and had read Under the Net, but I now began to work my way randomly through the canon. To be honest, some I liked while others left me indifferent or baffled. I abandoned her Booker Prize winner, The Sea, The Sea, and I think that’s when I stopped.

Today her life rather than her work has taken over as my chief interest – I think of A. N. Wilson’s brilliant memoir or Richard Eyre’s tremendous film, Iris, and the controversy surrounding John Bayley’s books about her and her Alzheimer’s condition. However, my abiding Murdochian preoccupation is with an analysis she made of her writing process. She was emphatic that there is a period of invention that takes place in the creation of a novel that is distinct from and prior to the period of composition. It doesn’t apply to every novelist – the two periods often coincide or overlap – but in trying to explain how my own novels evolve, I find I constantly invoke Iris Murdoch’s concept as the perfect explanation.


Like many teenage girls, I read novels in order to learn about life. Iris Murdoch was like a worldly sixth form mistress guiding her eager innocent pupils towards a higher future. As well as knowledge of religion and philosophy, she taught us about food, manners and the interior of London houses. We believed everything she wrote, even though her keen interest in clothes did not seem to reflect what people actually wore. Those pale, long-legged heroines and disruptive young men, caught in strange situations of emotional intensity, introduced us to falling in love and having sex. The old orange Penguins themselves seemed a status symbol. Now they are faded and battered at the back of the bookshelf.


Iris Murdoch is an exemplar and a conundrum. At their best, her books express with remarkable solidity the idea of what a mainstream “realist” British novel could still be in the second half of the last century. I think of them as the novel if modernism had not tilted its centre of gravity towards experimentation, if the prevailing winds of the free indirect style had not edged it into waters where the surface shimmer of the prose is paramount. Murdoch writes wonderful concise descriptions, but she is not a poetic writer. Like Muriel Spark, she is a puppeteer. She deploys her characters, and exhibits them. She gives the reader a novel to wallow in, like a hot tub – I’m thinking here of The Sandcastle, The Bell, The Nice and the Good, The Black Prince.

Sometimes you wallow, sometimes you splash about, cackling. She’s a conundrum because she manages to balance the serious and the silly. She’s a conundrum because you think: could anyone write novels like those now? Could a male novelist? Would they get away with it?


Chancing upon Iris Murdoch was a defining aspect of my adolescence. Perhaps the fact that this wasn’t quite as troubled as it ought to have been owed something to what books like The Flight from the Enchanter or An Unofficial Rose subliminally imparted. Their sophistications of feeling and morality may have eluded me at that stage, but the freewheeling glamour of Murdoch’s characters was something I wanted to hold on to (even if I completely missed the comedy in A Severed Head, feeling a priggish disgust at the whole performance). The writer’s perceptiveness, simultaneously pitiless and serene, never relaxed its grip. I remember wishing The Bell could somehow contrive not to end, and this novel still seems to me her finest achievement in terms of both technique and understanding.

The little I myself understood from this rough early reading was enough to clinch my loyalty. The unevenness of her later work, its periodic conflicts between reach and grasp, never blurred the intensity of this first encounter. She knew who I was at that moment – or at least who I thought I was going to be.


In 2010, I read all twenty-six of Iris Murdoch’s novels, in order, from Under the Net to Jackson’s Dilemma. It’s possible I was thinking about writing an academic piece about them, but a stronger motive soon took over: a gobbling addiction that set in with The Flight from the Enchanter. For a while, I had the plots more or less straight in my head, but around about The Sacred and Profane Love Machine they blurred into an indistinctness that still remains – of improbably named individuals sleeping and quarrelling interchangeably with each other, beautiful ingénues and disingénues, repulsive éminences grises, a stupendous screaming argument in a car, animals with fully developed personalities, and inanimate objects on which is lavished care often tenderer than that accorded their human counterparts.

This year, I did publish an academic piece about Murdoch – on tired creativity in An Unofficial Rose. While concentrating on my analysis of Randall Peronett’s waning enthusiasm for cultivating roses, it was hard not to notice the rude health of his self-regard. Though known as a philosopher of goodness, Murdoch – more so even than George Eliot and Henry James – allows her characters complete freedom to see just how low they will sink. Randall sinks pretty low but is still outdone in manipulativeness by his own teenage daughter. Sucked into the moral universe of Murdoch’s fiction, you find yourself accepting a new normal for outrageous behaviour while still unsure why you accepted the previous one. The freedom is seductive and the outrageousness is fun. Some day soon, I’ll start Under the Net again.

- Times Literary Supplement

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