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Musing on Iris Murdoch
A strange relationship is established with favorite novelists, particularly those who are our living contemporaries. In reading their work, we are reconstituting word by word their mental landscapes and experiencing the energy which has gone into the act of creation, thereby establishing an extraordinary sort of intimacy. Although it should work the same way with deceased authors, the relationship lacks the reassurance that they are safely off somewhere, working on their next book. Since these authors no longer inhabit our present reality, their fiction inexorably turns into historical fiction. When we have turned their last page, there is nothing beyond.
This February, Iris Murdoch will have been dead for ten years. For those of us who remember waiting anxiously for her new novels to appear—at the typical rate of one every year or two--that seems especially hard to believe. That sturdy, striking face from the book jacket photographs—with eyes that, if you stared long enough, seemed to puncture holes in you—suggested that mortality would never be an issue. Although hers was one of the most reliable literary voices throughout the latter part of the twentieth century, it was remarkable to discover, shortly after her death, that most of her monumental output (26 novels) was no longer in print. In our ever-accelerating information age, new books are kept on bookstore shelves for ever-decreasing amounts of time and allowed to go out of print with no apparent qualm on the part of publishers. It was gratifying to find, however, that over the last few years Murdoch seems to have emerged once again in paperback; but I wonder if she isn’t nowadays more remembered than read, due to the memoir of her final days by her husband, John Bayley; the Peter J. Conradi biography Iris: A Life; and Iris, the movie of her life with Kate Winslet and Judi Dench.
For those not already familiar with her fiction, Iris Murdoch is a difficult writer to characterize. Critic David J. Gordon, in one of the finest studies of her work, Iris Murdoch’s Fables of Unselfing, calls her:
“a wonderfully gifted storyteller, one who not only delights us with an abundance of sensuous details, finely observed and resourcefully invented, but also makes ideas come alive as she does so.”
Her fiction might be laced with ideas about freedom and renunciation, magic and illusion, good and evil, but my most immediate recollections are of the many characters suddenly seized with emotional and erotic yearnings, generally for the least likely candidates. The first Murdoch novel I read was 1973’s The Black Prince, in which the unsuccessful, 58-year old novelist, Bradley Pearson, falls calamitously in love with the confused teenage daughter of his friend, Arnold Baffin, a best-selling hack writer. No one can equal Murdoch in her descriptive writing of awakening desire:
“There were no tears now. I lay in bed in an electric storm of physical desire. I tossed and panted and groaned as if I were wrestling with a demon. The fact that I had actually touched her, kissed her, grew (I am sorry about these metaphors) into a mountain which kept falling on top of me. I felt her flesh upon my lips. Phantoms were bred from this touch. I felt like a grotesque excluded monster. How could it be that I had actually kissed her cheek without enveloping her, without becoming her?”
Bradley runs off with the girl (who is looking for his guidance in becoming a serious writer), and the consequences of this act are followed to their disastrous conclusion. Since, however, the story is told in Bradley’s own words, it soon becomes clear that the author’s perspective is not entirely reliable, and a series of forewords and afterwords by other characters seem to subvert much of what has gone before. Bradley himself writes:
"There is. . .an eternal discrepancy between the self-knowledge which we gain by observing ourselves objectively and the self-awareness which we have of ourselves subjectively; a discrepancy which probably makes it impossible for us ever to arrive at the truth.”
By discovering Murdoch in mid-career, and with one of her finest novels, I was in the fortunate position of being able to catch up with her many previous books while at the same time going forward with each new work as it was produced. As my first Murdoch, The Black Prince holds a prime place in my affections, but each of her generous novels combines the best elements of both popular and literary fiction and even makes such distinctions seem unnecessary. A few others of which I’m especially fond are A Fairly Honourable Defeat, The Bell, and especially her Booker-prize winner The Sea, The Sea.
Although most of the novels seem to be back in print, for the Murdoch completist a trip to the library is in order. Here you can find the five works of moral philosophy which set the groundwork on which her fiction is built: Acastos: Two Platonic Dialogues; The Fire and the Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artists; Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals; The Sovereignty of Good; and her first published book, Sartre: Romantic Rationalist, which was written while she was donning in philosophy at Oxford.
There are her plays, not necessary reading, certainly, but intriguing for the light they shed on her novels and certainly not something you’re likely to see performed any time soon. These include The Three Arrows, and, The Servants and the Snow; Joanna, Joanna and several plays based on her novels, The Italian Girl, The Black Prince, and (with J. B. Priestly) A Severed Head. There is also her poetry, which was published as A Year of Birds, and in a collection simply titled Poems. Essays and miscellaneous writings are included in Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature and Occasional Essays.
Musing about Iris Murdoch has led me to thoughts of literary longevity—of authors who will continue to be read in years to come and those who will disappear. Like a grandparent who has dimmed to a pale memory, or the great-grandparent who is nothing more than a name in a family record, books can all too easily fade from consciousness. Popular fiction is particularly susceptible. Take two phenomenal bestsellers of about fifty years ago: The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and From Here to Eternity. Does anyone actually still read either of these books, or would they even be remembered if it weren’t for their movie versions? Go back to the bestseller list of 1911, the year the New York Public Library opened its doors, and you’ll be even less likely to find a title or author you can identify. For example, has anyone ever heard of Harold Bell Wright or read his The Winning of Barbara Worth? Yet this novel was tremendously popular with readers, adapted for the theatre three times, and even made into an epic silent film. Who’s to say this novel wouldn’t provide a rewarding reading experience or at least shed insight on a different era?
With literary novels, academia can sustain a literary reputation for a much greater length of time. In my last ten years of working with the public at the general reference desk, I’ve only encountered two people who were seeking information on Murdoch, one for a paper, another who was looking for one of the poems to send to a friend overseas. But a search in the MLA International Bibliography (spanning the last ten years), brings up 112 hits, all scholarly books or articles, indicating there is still plenty of interest in Iris Murdoch. It is one of my great joys here at the New York Public Library to have generations of fiction available at all times, permitting layer after layer of literary archaeology.