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Peter J. Conradi


Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2005).

It is too soon to assess Iris Murdoch's literary reputation, but that she was a remarkable person is beyond doubt. More than most of us, she was made up of contradictions. She was an atheist yet deeply "spiritual" and preoccupied with religion (some people considered her a saint); she dismissed parapsychology as nonsense yet was credulous about the paranormal; she had innumerable sexual relations with both men and women yet remained puritanical; she had a remarkable capacity for friendship yet revealed her inner self to hardly anyone.

Conradi, who was himself a friend, has written what will doubtless be the definitive biography of his complex subject. Probably only ardent Murdoch enthusiasts will want to read every word of this long book, but even people with only a moderate interest in her and her writing will enjoy dipping into it and reading certain sections in full. Conradi is an attractive writer with a nice sense of humour, and in spite of his friendship with Iris he has not written hagiography. Moreover, his book reflects not just Iris herself but also the times she lived in, which is to say the times in which most of us have lived.

The opening chapters look at Iris's schooldays and her undergraduate experience at Oxford during the war. Her complex love life only took off after she came down and was living in London working for the Treasury. It is quite difficult to follow all the emotional twists and turns that went on at this time. One of her lovers was Michael Foot; only on reaching the end of the book did I realize that this was not the politician of that name but a different Michael Foot.

More, and still more varied, relationships occurred in the post-war years in Cambridge (after an interlude in Austria) and later again in Oxford, and Iris's emotional life did not settle down completely until some time after her marriage to John Bayley. Late in life she expressed disapproval of promiscuity, having apparently genuinely forgotten about her earlier vagaries.

Conradi gives all this sexual to-ing and fro-ing the importance it deserves but he avoids the salacious. He is interested, not so much in who slept with whom, but in the influence which some of Iris's lovers had on her writing. This was often considerable, the most important being that of Elias Canetti. He comes across here as mage-like, powerful, and truly appalling; Conradi finds aspects of his personality appearing in a number of Iris's characters as well as in her opinions as expressed in her novels and other writings.

Conradi has much to say about the novels, of whose importance he has no doubt. I regret to say I largely gave up on her fiction a good many years ago, but Conradi's criticism has made me feel I ought to try again. He does however quote a significant remark by Stephen Spender, who said that though she was extremely gifted she "doesn't seem quite a novelist." I think I know what Spender meant.

As a philosopher Iris was outside the main stream, though some at least thought her work in this field to have been important. Her central preoccupation, which also appears throughout her fiction, was the problem of reconciling the psychological need for religion and spirituality with the impossibility of believing in God. Her final attempt at this reconciliation, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, based on her Gifford Lectures, appeared in 1992, and was received, Conradi says, "with a certain baffled respect"—my own reaction precisely.

To the final tragic decline into Alzheimer's dementia Conradi assigns only a few pages, I am sure rightly. Unfortunately this is the picture that many people will have been left with, thanks to Richard Ayre's film, but she certainly deserves a better memento than that and Conradi's excellent biography provides it.

See also A.N. Wilson's Iris Murdoch as I knew her.

%T Iris Murdoch: A Life
%A Peter J. Conradi
%I HarperCollins
%C London
%D 2001
%G ISBN 0-00-653175-X
%P xxix + 706 pp
%K biography
%O paperback edition
%O illustrated

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