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Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2004).

The late Iris Murdoch was best known as a novelist though she was also a philosopher, but many people's picture of her will have been shaped by Richard Eyre's film which focused on her sad decline into dementia caused by Alzheimer's disease. Long before this, Iris had herself asked Wilson to write her biography, and this book is in a sense a record of his failure to do so. In fact, the official biography has been written by Peter J. Conradi and her late husband John Bayley has also given his account of their relationship.

Wilson does include a chapter that provides an outline of Iris Murdoch's life but the book is mainly a set of reminiscences about his own friendship with the couple that lasted for thirty years. It is thus unashamedly personal and includes a certain amount of autobiographical material.

Wilson has clearly wished to counteract the impression many people may have, after seeing Eyre's film, of a sad confused woman in relentless decline and in this he fully succeeds. Here "IM", as he refers to her throughout, emerges as dynamic, highly sexed, intellectual, wise, maddening, elusive and fascinating. Wilson evidently loved her, though he is by no means blind to her faults. John Bayley ("JOB") naturally figures largely as well, and Wilson's view of him is less sympathetic. Many other Oxford contemporaries appear in these pages too, some as IM's lovers, others in bit parts.

The book is very readable, as one would expect, and in places very funny. As a novelist himself and a critic, Wilson has illuminating things to say about the novels and how they connect (or sometimes fail to connect) with her life. But what struck me particularly was his comment on her late philosophical work, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals. He says, correctly, that it is "an imperfect work, rambling and occasionally incoherent." And then he goes on: "In this too-long, troubled book there are occasional passages of greater insight and precision than anything else she ever wrote." I have not myself read all her other writing, or even most of it, but I suspect that Wilson may well be right here.

18 November 2004

See also Iris Murdoch: A Life, by Peter J. Conradi

%T Iris Murdoch as I knew her
%A Wilson, A.N.
%I Arrow Books
%C London
%D 2003
%G ISBN 0-09-972310-7
%P xii + 276 pp
%K biography
%O paperback
%O illustrated

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