on 30 October 2012
A few years before Iris Murdoch developed the Alzheimer's disease that afflicted her latter years, she was asked if it was true that someone was writing her biography. "Yes", she said, greatly surprised. "I don't read biographies, but apparently people buy them. But me? What is there to say about me?"
This was not just the humility that Peter Conradi, the biographer in question, reveals as one of Iris Murdoch's outstanding characteristics. It is a valid question. Literary biographers argue that an author's life is the very source of their writing, but most writers feel that connections between art and life are slippery, not easily discernible even to themselves.
Are the limitations of biography - the unreliability of source material like letters and diaries, the distortion inherent in squeezing a haphazard and multi-faceted life into a coherent narrative - justified by the end result? Or are the 3000 or so biographies published each year just Hello! for people who prefer words to pictures, satisfying only what Martin Amis once dubbed "eternal human vulgarity", our insatiable curiosity about the gifted or famous?
Never did such questions seem so pressing as when reading this first "Life" of the gifted writer Iris Murdoch. It's not that Peter Conradi isn't qualified to write about his subject. English Professor Emeritus at the University of Kingston, he was a friend of Murdoch's and was given access to journals, letters, papers and friends. He edited her non-fiction collection, Existentialists and Mystics and his study of her fiction, The Saint And The Artist, is now in its third edition.
Neither is this one of those dig-the-dirt exercises that has become popular in recent years and so discredited the genre. True, he does portray the young Iris as confused by a diffuse and generous sexual energy and reveals a lesbian passion and bit of S & M in her past, dutifully reporting her joy in these violent sexual gambits (usually in an armchair, with the man's wife in the kitchen preparing supper for them both). But his attention to such matters is never salacious and his affection for, and admiration of, his subject is unwavering: "Her friendship," he writes, "ennobled you."
This is a book in two parts: the better half is the second, where Conradi treats the novels to a Buddhist reading that is intelligent and illuminating. (He is a Buddhist who found his faith after listening to Murdoch lecture on natural theology). However, much of this material has been covered already, and at greater length, in The Saint and the Artist.
When he's writing about her life, he is far less assured, determined to include every single finding he's unearthed in his exhaustive research. As the details of home and school and interests and friendships pile up without selection, never mind discrimination, Iris Murdoch sinks beneath them.
The bare facts of her life are as follows: She was born in 1919 in Blessington Street in Dublin, the adored only child of a happily married Irish couple. She grew up in London, studied at Oxford, worked as a civil servant during World War II, taught briefly at Cambridge and then settled in Oxford in 1948 to lecture in philosophy. She wrote several fictions before publishing Under the Net in 1954, going on to write 26 published novels, several plays and books of philosophy and ethics.
In 1956 she married John Bayley, the academic, writer and critic. She was made an honorary fellow of St Anne's College Oxford in 1963 and a Dame of the British Empire in 1987. She died from Alzheimer's Disease at the age of 80 and her two-year descent into oblivion was described movingly, if intrusively, by her bereaved husband in Elegy for Iris.
Conradi makes much of Murdoch's Irish background, a family history that she mythologized much in the manner of WB Yeats, cherishing her distant links with the Anglo-Irish ascendancy. She had a slight `brogue', which she relished; as late as 1964 she would argue crossly (and implausibly) that she had an Irish accent "you could cut with a knife." In The Red and the Green she wrote that England destroyed Ireland, "without malice, without mercy, practically without thought, like someone who treads upon an insect," but her loyalties swung from being a romantic, Marxist nationalist in her youth to a hard-line unionist in later life.
An engaging and thought-provoking philosopher, (whose question was not so much Aristotle's `What kind of person should one be?' as `How should one see?') it is for her novels that Murdoch is best known. These works have elicited wildly various critical interpretations over the years. The plots are complex, involving innumerable characters in a variety of extraordinary configurations and circumstances. Murdoch views humans as purportedly free but actually constricted by boundaries of self, society and nature, their apprehension of `free will' only an illusion. Her characters tend to be cerebral, with some of the grandiosity and high purpose that characters in Victorian novels had, their lives crammed with moral furniture.
What is most valuable about this biography is the way it shows that the eccentric, almost batty, English characters in Murdoch's books and their stylised, artificial situations - so much outside time and fashion that they seem almost mythic - are in fact often drawn from her experience. As she put in a letter to a friend "real life is so much odder than any book".
But overall Conradi is unequal to the task he has set himself. He never confronts the inconsistencies in her nature. Just as she swung violently on "the Irish question", Murdoch became a bit of prude in later years, with "no memory of her own bohemianism," Conradi tells us, as if that was explanation enough. Another tendency is to gloss over troublesome issues with a fuzzy, New Age transcendentalism. The criticism of John Bayley for revealing troublingly intimate details about this most private woman is answered thus: "Shantideva's Bodhicaryavatara see the Bodhisattva as willing to be, according to the various needs of the Other, like a bridge, a boat, or a road - whatever the situation requires." This isn't just avoidance, it's typical of the woolly thinking that mars this work throughout.
But the worst flaw is the burden of detail. To Murdoch's question - "What is there to say about me?" - this book answers: lots and lots and lots. The pity is that in trying to say it all, it ends up telling so little.