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Iris the insoluble

Parodied or neglected by critics, Iris Murdoch’s work has fallen out of fashion. But, 100 years after her birth, her brilliantly fluid novels still defy convention.

What was Iris Murdoch like? She seems to slip so easily from view. Born 100 years ago in Dublin, she was raised in London, an only child in what she called “a perfect trinity of love”, yet she pursued a life of solitude, romantic intrigue and neurotic ambition. She invoked the highest standards for artistic practice, yet wrote quickly and copiously – 26 novels in 41 years – and always resisted editing. She was a practising moral philosopher (The Sovereignty of Good, 1970; Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, 1992) and a scholar of Plato (The Fire and the Sun, 1977) whose fiction exhibits a profound suspicion of intellectual confidence. “All theorising is flight,” says Hugo Bellfounder, the charismatic scion adored by the layabout narrator, Jake Donaghue, in her first novel, Under the Net (1954), one of six now being reissued by Vintage for the anniversary of her birth. Hugo adds, “We must be ruled by the situation and this is unutterably particular.”

Murdoch’s personality has been endlessly prodded and picked over. While she was still alive but suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, her husband, the critic John Bayley, published a portrait of the writer as sweet, saintly and monogamous. (It formed the basis of the 2001 movie Iris, with Kate Winslet and Judi Dench sharing the star role; Bayley got Hugh Bonneville and Jim Broadbent.) In the years following her death, in 1999, that image was upended first by Peter J Conradi, who chronicled her numberless affairs in his 2001 biography Iris Murdoch: A Life, and by a brisker-mannered though illuminating memoir by her friend – and original choice as biographer – AN Wilson. Yet Murdoch was always spoken of as a “good person” by onlookers, including Conradi and Wilson, aware of her private betrayal of Bayley and of various friends.

At one point in his biography, Conradi resorted to writing a section called “Discontinuities”, to explore things not easily accommodated by the conventional trawl from cradle to grave. His new book, Family Business, which he calls “a rather eccentric sort of autobiography”, records his initial impression, in the early 1980s, of the writer to whom he became, as he puts it, a voluntary slave: “A mixture of small girl, grande dame, steely-eyed don, warm-hearted mother-confessor, depressed ‘liberal’ who thought the human race would blow itself up, and ‘lonely seeker’.”

Murdoch, Conradi reveals in a pair of excellent chapters, was viewed as utterly different by her closest friend, the philosopher Philippa Foot, and her longtime lover, the writer and Nobel laureate Elias Canetti. While Rosemary Hill found her “demonstrative to the point of exhibitionism”, Martha Nussbaum thought she wanted to “prevent people from finding her where she was”. Conradi’s near namesake, the Oxford don Peter Conrad, reviewing the biography, said that he had known Murdoch “pretty well, I think – for 30 years”, but had been moved to think that he “did not know her at all”. There was so many versions of “Iris”. Everybody had one. She was, he belatedly saw, “insolubly contradictory”.

It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that Murdoch’s central ambition as a novelist was to create what she called “free” characters. After graduating from Oxford in 1942, with a First in Classics, she worked for the Treasury, then for the United Nations, with “displaced peoples”, first in London, then, after the war ended, on the continent. She discovered existentialism. In the late 1940s, while she continued her studies at Cambridge and began lecturing at Oxford, she made frequent trips to Paris, where she met Jean-Paul Sartre and the writer Raymond Queneau.

Her early radio talks and first book, Sartre: Romantic Rationalist (1953), expressed her doubts about the philosophical novel, with its recoil from mess and muddle and mystery. “Sartre’s nightmares are thoroughly intelligible,” she complained in a 1950 radio talk titled “The Existentialist Hero”. Under the influence of Plato and Simone Weil, she developed the view that novels should be driven by “love”, defined as the ability to wholly “imagine” the autonomy, opacity and inexhaustibility of another human being and to have no designs upon them. Sartre laboured under the fantasy that characters exist to do the novelist’s bidding, principally to embody concepts and to play a role in a novel’s falsely consoling “myth” or “form”.

Yet the novel was also necessarily beholden to things like pattern, shape and thematic coherence. Murdoch’s own activities as a writer prompted a starker reckoning with the challenge. During the 1950s, following the Sartre book, she published a series of novels, including Under the Net (1954), The Flight from the Enchanter (published in 1956, the year she married John Bayley), and The Bell (1958), a widely admired account of a lay religious community established by an agonised homosexual.

Towards the end of the decade, she began publishing manifestos – the troubled thoughts of a novelist “concerned with the creation of character”. She identified two defective models: what she called the “crystalline” novel – quasi-allegorical, concerned with the “human condition” and exhibiting a desire to “find beauty in small dry things”; and the loose “journalistic” novel – more mimetic or realist, but no less a myth or falsely consoling fantasy. The aim, she wrote, was to combine a sense of form “with a respect for reality with all its odd contingent ways”: a meaningful human story in which the characters are never confined by the meaning.

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Murdoch the novel theorist had one obvious precursor, Henry James, but her conception of the task had an important difference of priority. The title of her best-known essay, “Against Dryness” (1961), suggests what she considered the true threat to free characters. Her canon was populated by the writers – Dickens, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Proust – who, in James’s account, would have benefited from the formal rigour displayed by the very writers she rejected: Flaubert, Zola, Stendhal, Turgenev. Murdoch preferred James’s hated “large loose baggy monsters” – with their provision of “the accidental and arbitrary” – to something taut and tame. Better to risk being shapeless, even meaningless, than to use characters as tools, types, mouth-pieces, chess pieces.

And Murdoch, though I doubt that either knew it, possessed a close mid-century companion, Saul Bellow, who was four years her senior and began publishing fiction a decade earlier. In a 1951 talk, he announced that the “great issue in fiction is the stature of characters”. Where Murdoch in 1961 called for “a renewed sense of the difficulty and complexity of the moral life and the opacity of persons”, Bellow the following year, in “Where Do We Go From Here? The Future of Fiction”, said that the novel “requires new ideas about humankind”.

Again and again in lectures and essays, Bellow championed the example of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky against Sartre (“not a good novelist”), Flaubert and the modernists, including Henry James, whose aesthetic purpose “overconditions the situation of the characters”. Bellow, like Murdoch, embraced Simone Weil’s version of love as an imaginative act. And both employed the formulation “I am not a Freudian”, while promoting a view of human beings as more than just the sum of their conscious or even unconscious urges. To these insistently metaphysical writers, the pull of spirituality – Zen and Tibetan Buddhism for her, Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophy for him – only grew stronger with time.

Bellow’s position was hardline: he was happy to chuck out form altogether, as he showed in The Adventures of Augie March (1953). Murdoch's journey was slower. The run of novels she published following “Against Dryness” in the 1960s – books such as The Italian Girl, The Unicorn and The Time of the Angels – included some of her weakest. To balance form, as traditionally conceived, with utterly free characters is less a paradox than a flat contradiction. Bellow wasn’t dodging a challenge, he was choosing between two irreconcilable opposites.

But Murdoch never lost sight of her instinctive preference. A breakthrough came in the 1970s, with a series of novels that started with The Black Prince (1973) – which made the Booker shortlist and won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize – and lasted, with one or two exceptions, until The Philosopher’s Pupil (1983). Murdoch had associated “dryness” with both “clearness” and “smallness”, and part of the solution was simply to write longer novels, with larger casts – more permutations, and more scope for comedy and chaos. (The Russian novelists whom James cursed for offering “fluid puddings” were for Murdoch “great masters of the contingent”.)

Murdoch decided that she could just stop worrying about pattern – her unconscious, innately tidy and cerebral, could take care of that. What required planning was the sense of flow, events that don’t show the hand of fate or plot or even signify very much, behaviour that seemed erratic or inexplicable. Her swiftly written drafts were executed within a framework of painstaking mess. “Since reality is incomplete,” she wrote, “art must not be too much afraid of incompleteness.”

The rejection of the shapely or economical was a conscious formal choice and a source of meaning. At Badminton boarding school in Bristol – where she was head girl – Murdoch had translated Oedipus at Colonus, the Sophocles play concerned with what occurred after the king’s discovery that he had killed his father and married his mother. An interest in aftermath and unfinished narrative bled into her later novels, which end by breaking from a governing time-frame, or with sections titled “Postscript”, “Life Goes On”, “What Happened After”.

Another key to the breakthrough was Murdoch’s return to the set-up of Under the Net – the male monologue that traces growing disillusionment with ideas about life, the dawning realisation that life cannot be controlled. (She never used a female narrator.) The journey from fantasy to imagination, solipsism to love, is made, with varying degrees of success, by Murdoch’s suffering male characters: the fastidious would-be novelist Bradley Pearson in The Black Prince; the routine-obsessed civil servant Hilary Burde in A Word Child (1975); the retired theatre director, Charles Arrowby, in The Sea, The Sea, which won the Booker Prize in 1978. As that last title suggests, Murdoch’s fear of dry literary symbols led her increasingly to water as a setting. It is a sign of the triumphant compromise achieved in the 1970s novels that she found a resonant image that also embodies total contingency.

The Sea, The Sea resembles Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift (1975), another portrait of the frenzied, fumbling middle-aged seeker. Bellow and Murdoch shared something else: they were, in the oddly umlauted adjective John Updike applied separately to both of them, “preëminent”. In 1994, when the Sunday Times conducted two polls to identify “the greatest living novelist in English”, Bellow won with the writers and Murdoch with the readers. Yet in Murdoch’s case, reverence always came with a side order of grudgingness.

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Updike himself had a peculiar relationship with Murdoch's work. His first mention of her fiction was a parody, a rewriting of her novel Bruno’s Dream (1969) using the imagery of The Owl and the Pussycat. It was a nervy conceit given that in Updike’s own work, the dish is forever running away with the spoon, and Couples (1968), then his most recent novel, is impossible to imagine if it weren’t for Murdoch’s exhilarating love roundelay, A Severed Head (1961) – a copy of which, Updike recalled, was passed around “as a species of news” among the straying suburbanites he later depicted.

But Updike made amends for his impudence with a series of adulatory, often breathless appreciations. “What an incorrigible, irresistible conjurer-up this woman is!” he wrote of Murdoch’s The Philosopher’s Pupil (1983), which in its use of a compressed time-span, a human narrator who knows more than any narrator could – a device he rightly identified as lifted from Dostoevsky – and the interactions of a man of God with an American teenager, seems to have had a decisive impact on the next novel he conceived, Roger’s Version (1986).

The Updike route – initial mockery ceding to barely equivocal worship – was also travelled by Malcolm Bradbury. In the 1960s, Bradbury wrote the send-up “A Jaundiced View” (“Flavia says Hugo tells her that Augusta is in love with Fred”); two decades later he produced several long and searching tributes to this “great” novelist. Other readers simply grew weary as the page counts increased and – so it was claimed – the social landscape narrowed.

Martin Amis, in the last of his four Murdoch reviews, couldn’t even bring himself to summarise the plot, instead offering a “paradigm” of her work set in a “toytown” university where everyone is on “permanent sabbatical” while continuing to “sample the hallucinogenic love-potions available in the SCR”. The putative subject was The Philosopher’s Pupil, which is actually set in a brilliantly imagined fictional spa town and deals as much with family and friendship, scepticism and superstition, as with romantic love. And far from being a practitioner of the campus novel, Murdoch is the most obvious rival to Amis himself as a portraitist of raffish, seedy modern London.

It’s hard to avoid noting that just a few years before all the toytown stuff, Amis was able to draw inspiration on urban, social and topical subjects from Murdoch’s A Word Child (1975) when writing Success (1978). Amis’s novel bears several similarities to Murdoch’s: it is written according to a calendrical scheme, in a first person replete with eccentric parenthesis and references to the Underground. It portrays a misogynistic man from a deprived background whose (unnamed) mother died when he was six; who lives with another, more physically attractive man in a small flat in Bayswater; experiences protective jealousy towards his sister; and is mocked by a pair of colleagues – one male, one female – while working a dreary office job.

Around the time of Amis’s takedown, the idea set in that Murdoch was part of a benighted, fussy, inward-looking generation mercifully displaced by Amis and his contemporaries. In reality, her novels portray, in styles drawing on philosophy, religion, and literature from numerous traditions: a) romance that defies the boundaries of class, ethnicity, age, nationality and legality (The Bell predated the 1967 Sexual Offences Act); b) the toxicity of patriarchy, especially the male inclination to master inner chaos with a desire for power and resort to violence; c) the suffering of refugees and immigrants; and d) the long-term damage caused by childhood abuse and neglect.

In her own life, Murdoch, who moved from Oxford to the Royal College of Art in 1967, and kept a flat just south of Hyde Park, was an example of the “flâneuse”– the female counterpart of the Baudelairian urban wanderer – identified recently by feminist theory.

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Writing last month about literary longevity, Bryan Appleyard quoted a line from the Amis “paradigm” to justify why people no longer read Murdoch: “The men all have names like Hilary and Julian. The women all have names like Julian and Hilary.” Intended as a slight against her provincialism, it serves instead as a neat index of her prescience. Gender is fluid, sexual desire goes in every direction. (She described herself as “a male homosexual in female guise”.) The leading Murdoch scholar Anne Rowe, in an effective new critical study, emphasises the relevance to Murdoch’s future reputation of society’s increasing openness to “more complex variations in sexual and psychological make-up”. The old myth that Murdoch only writes about leisured middle-class heterosexuals who live in big houses has in turn bred the more recent myth that nobody could possibly bother reading her nowadays – though Rowe might be overstating the case for the defence when she describes “a thriving global interest in her work”.

Thankfully, Murdoch benefited from at least one congenial, unconflicted and non-passive-aggressive male reader – Frank Kermode, who is also celebrating his centenary this year. Kermode responded instantly to “Against Dryness” in a Guardian column, interviewed her at length on the radio and television, discussed her theories in his best-known book, The Sense of an Ending (1967), assessed her novels in review after review. His tone was one of gratitude, fascination and occasional awe.

During the last 35 years of his life, Kermode – for reasons I suspect were personal – barely mentioned Murdoch’s name in print. So his feelings about The Sea, The Sea and The Philosopher’s Pupil, the culmination of her quest, are not on record. Interviewed in this magazine shortly before his death, in 2010, he named Muriel Spark and Penelope Fitzgerald as his favourite modern British novelists. But in his autobiography Not Entitled (1995), considering his decision not to pursue creative work, he said that you need to have a solid understanding of the world, to know “how things are done”, like Iris Murdoch, who could describe in “persuasive detail” how you might remove a bell from a lake or a car from a ditch.

Iris Murdoch? The byword for academised fussiness and irrelevant inwardness? Kermode added, in what seems a pointed piece of vindication of her life’s efforts, that Murdoch’s practical capacities must have been a source of confidence when it came to “making characters work”. And asked for comment on the occasion of her death, Kermode, whose later work was concerned with the forms of critical attention that determine the continuing value of past works, said that he thought her novels “will endure”.

At first, I felt consoled when I came across that statement. Yes, she deserves to endure – and will! Then I realised that to read those words in the spirit of its subject would be to accept their provisionality. As Charles Arrowby observes in The Sea, The Sea, time, like the sea, “undoes all knots”. And so our judgements on human beings – what they are really like, what they managed to achieve – can never be final: “They emerge from summings up which at once suggest the need of a reconsideration.” 

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction reviewer

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 12 July 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The state we’re in