I have always wanted to like the novels of Iris Murdoch more than I have. Right up my alley, I’ve thought, preoccupied as she was (and I am) with literature, religion, and philosophy. But when I’ve read them, I’ve been disappointed, though entertained. The characters are usually alive and well-drawn, the settings beautifully described, but the situations and the plots have seemed contrived, brain-spun as Tolstoy would say.
Murdoch, in a letter to her then fiancé, David Hicks, judged her own work more severely than most of her critics: “My characters seem to me a lot of silly spoilt nervy pseudo-intellectuals without any real joy or any real Angst in them. What I hoped would be a rich enameled surface à la Raymond Queneau or Samuel Beckett . . . looks a pretty facile tinselly sort of glitter to my coldly judging eye.”
This comes from a letter she wrote from Innsbruck, Austria, where she was working for the United Nations Rehabilitation and Relief Association (UNRRA) in 1946 helping displaced persons. This group of letters to Hicks, who fell in love with someone else and jilted her—you get a bad feeling as you read all her letters to him, imploring him to write now and reassuring herself that it must be the screwed-up postwar mail delivery system keeping his letters away—forms the third part of this book.
This first part of the book consists of a diary Murdoch kept when she was a part of a touring Oxford theater group, The Magpie Players, the last two weeks of August, 1939. War loomed over them, but the Magpie Players had to focus on putting on skits such as Tam Lin, and the players developed “double vision” to deal with it. And Murdoch’s own political naiveté, very apparent in her diary, must have helped her cope. Conradi, English Professor of Emeritus at Kingston University and Murdoch’s authorized biographer, writes,
. . . Murdoch with the arrogance of youth deplores the “unnecessary fuss” being made over the pact. As a loyal Communist she is unwilling to countenance the possibility that Stalin and Hitler signed the pact cynically, preparatory to their imminent simultaneous invasions of Poland their divisions of the spoils.
At one point in her journal, Murdoch wrote, “The papers seemed scared & I suppose a grave crisis is on—but I can’t seem to feel any emotion about it whatsoever. This is such a strange, new, different existence I’m leading, & so entirely cut off from the world.”
But the war came, and with it the leave-taking of most of her male friends, including Frank Thompson, who loved her and whom she came to love as she corresponded with him. He too was a member of the Communist Party. Conradi explains: “The British Left was inclined to pacifism; the Tories to appeasement. Any young person dedicated to stopping Hitler was easy game for the Communist Party.”
The letters they exchanged, though, are only occasionally political. They (most of the letters are from Murdoch but there are a few, well-worth reading, from Thompson) talk of friends, books, love and sex, politics and the war, and neither is a dogmatic Communist. Murdoch writes of losing her minor dogmatisms and Thompson of how “Only in church or on a long walk am I really a free man. . . . And yet you must search far to find a more bigoted atheist.” Murdoch tells him of her yearning to write: “Like Proust I want to escape from the eternal push and rattle of time into the coolness and poise of a work of art.”
Frank Thompson was killed by the Nazis while fighting with Bulgarian partisans and is a Bulgarian hero. (Conradi mentions that there are two biographies of Thompson in Bulgarian and that he himself is working on one.) Murdoch, Conradi writes, “is remarkable among liberal novelists in treating the military profession sympathetically.” Thompson was a big reason for this.
David Hicks was not as admirable as Thompson, who had warned her against her tendency to choose “emotional fascists” as lovers. That was, in Conradi’s words, “a recurrent psychological type” in Murdoch’s life and novels. Hicks was not “actively malevolent” as her most famous lover, Elias Canetti, but had a similar strain of meanness. He and Murdoch had a ten-day whirlwind romance during which they promised to marry each other, but then he met charming Molly Purchase and, realizing she was not as intellectually and emotionally intimidating as Murdoch, married her. This, of course, broke Murdoch’s heart but I was impressed by how well she took it in her letters back to him. She wrote to him, warning him not to marry Molly so soon: “Remember that you’ve just nearly made one mistake—don’t go & make another.”
In the introduction to his book, Conradi complains that though the movie Iris, was well-intentioned it reduced Murdoch’s life, “so august, remote and intensely private . . . to two opposed stereotypes: in vulgar language bonking (younger Iris) or bonkers (elderly Iris). If you’re American, screwing or screwy.” It is as if, he writes, a movie about Nietzsche “told us that he lost his wits from tertiary syphilis, had a big moustache, was rude to Wagner, and was looked after by his sister, but never that he wrote The Birth of Tragedy.” Although I have to say it does seem, in A. N. Wilson’s words, that Murdoch was “prepared to go to bed with almost anyone,” Conradi does have a point.
His book dispels that simplistic view and shows the extent of what Conradi calls “the freedom” of Murdoch’s mind. It also makes me want to give her fiction another try.
Franklin Freeman is a freelance writer living with his wife and four children in Saco, Maine.
The Letters and Diaries of Iris Murdoch: 1939-1945
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