Be brave - Iris Murdoch

Iris Murdoch (1919–99) was—unlike most modern writers—intelligent, nice, and good. Her physical beauty seemed to reflect the inward beauty of her soul. In person, she was observant, responsive, and acute, as well as serene and the mistress of herself. She had a great deal of love to give and was loving to the world in general. Born in Dublin, she was educated by high-minded bohemians at Badminton School, near Bristol. The influential headmistress shared a bedroom in Iris’s dormitory with another woman, but was also a “moral guide” who discouraged intimate friendships among her girls. Nonetheless, she gave an imprimatur to Iris’s lifelong propensity for lesbian affairs with various butch types, including her best friend and an unnamed temptress who threatened her marriage.

In 1938, at Oxford, where she earned a first-class degree in classics, Iris joined the Communist Party to express her solidarity with sufferers. Even someone as bright as Iris could, by adhering to the party line (which could suddenly change, as Orwell observed, while one went to the bathroom during a meeting), remain blind to political reality after the purge trials, the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and the Russian invasion of Finland. Cold baths and irregular Greek verbs prepared her to become a junior civil servant at the wartime treasury. Once there, still full of misguided idealism, she passed information about her work to the Communists. She later said the party had “taught her from the inside how a small, ruthless group of individuals can wield destructive power.”

After the war, she worked with refugees in occupied Austria and witnessed the complete breakdown of European society. She was more attracted to Estonians than Etonians, and the refugees in her fiction are spiritually as well as politically displaced. One of her favorite quotes, from Seneca, was: “Why weep for the end of life? The whole of it deserves our tears.” Her life was a quest for knowledge, experience, and freedom. She was drawn to Existentialism (and wrote the first book on Sartre in English) because it was “concerned with the concrete puzzle of personal existence, rather than with general theories about the universe.” In books like The Sovereignty of the Good, she praised thinkers who “live out the consequences of their own attitude of mind.” She defined moral philosophy, a striking contrast to the Logical Positivism that dominated Oxbridge in her time, as the study of “what in the last resort can only be lived.”

Throughout her life Iris was surprisingly promiscuous. As a girl at Oxford she cried when a young man tried to undress her, but later solemnly announced, “I have parted company with my virginity [and feel] relieved from something which was obsessing me.” Once she got the hang of it, she became terribly keen on sex—both with those she was attracted to and those she wanted to console. Like Will Rogers, she never met a man she didn’t like. Riveted by “the metaphysics of the first kiss,” she wrote that there had never been a moment “when I have trembled on the brink of such a [passionate] exchange & drawn back.” One of her fundamental assumptions was that she had the power to seduce anyone. She was thrown out of lodgings by several indignant landladies. Alluding to Crime and Punishment, she exclaimed that if they were in Russia, the last one to chuck her out would have been “destined to be killed with a hatchet.”

Many, many men fell in love with Iris, a “shaggy little Shetland pony.” She could, like Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, smash up things and creatures and then retreat back into her vast carelessness. But she too was rejected, first by an Oxford contemporary and then by an Hungarian. She was once seen crying (she wept easily) in a bus. When a colleague tried to comfort her, she uneasily reassured him with: “I’m quite all right. It’s just this love business.” In her novels she is not merely omniscient but firmly in control of her unruly characters. It’s fascinating to read about her sex life and imagine her in the grip of passion or falling short of her own high moral standards.

The most notable of her legion of loves and lovers were the English soldier Frank Thompson, the great Italian classicist Arnaldo Momigliano, the Czech anthropologist Franz Steiner, and the Romanian novelist Elias Canetti. In this new biography Peter Conradi describes the handsome and heroic Thompson as “brilliant, tall, slim, fair-haired, grey-blue-eyed, high-cheekboned, a gifted poet, an intense idealist dedicated to stopping Hitler.” After parachuting into pro-Nazi Bulgaria and fighting on the side of the partisans, he was betrayed and captured. After foolishly affirming his Communism, he was (contrary to the Geneva Convention) summarily executed. Thompson and his men all died while raising the salute of freedom. The villagers
were sobbing, many present declared the scene was one of the most moving in all Bulgarian history, that the men’s amazing courage was the work of an English Officer who carried their spirits as well as his own.
Momigliano, Steiner, and Canetti were —like her adored Oxford professor Eduard Fraenkel (who lusted for, but never bedded, Iris)—older, eminent, exiled, and physically unattractive European Jews who satisfied her intense need for father figures and gurus. Iris felt that “any worthwhile person ought to have at least some Jewish blood” and declared: “I am practically a Jew myself.” Steiner (the only one of these gurus who was not married) was—like his namesake, countryman, and hero Franz Kafka—sweet, frail and sickly, suffering, neurotic, and blocked. He too needed an axe to break the frozen sea inside him. His cardiac condition made their lovemaking a precarious event. “In the end it happened,” he passively wrote. “But she was afraid because of my heart. Neither of us made a single spontaneous movement.” Two weeks later, he described a pathetic and humiliating but deeply moving scene, worthy of the tortured relations of Kafka and Felice Bauer:
We undressed, but on the draughty sofa my pains became once again severe. She was the more sensible of the two of us, told me to have a rest, and then helped me into my clothes. All that with so much concern, goodness, love and tact that this evening brought us closer to each other than a successful union. Soon afterward, Steiner died at the age of forty-three and joined Thompson in Iris’s “private pantheon of martyrs.”
Steiner was succeeded by the jealous, brutal, and monstrous Canetti who, like Iris’s philosophical hero Ludwig Wittgenstein, was both brilliantly numinous and destructively demonic. Canetti not only disbelieved in God but also hated religion. He declared “the Day of Judgment would happen when the human race arose with one voice to condemn God.” In his most influential book, Crowds and Power, he reduced history, Conradi writes, “to slaughterhouse, blood-lust and a [Nietzschean] will to power.” If the gentle Steiner appealed to her maternal side, the egomaniacal Canetti satisfied her “rather specialized love for the tyrant.”

When she published her first book and began to disengage from Canetti, Iris fell in love with the equally bookish and brilliant, quixotic, eccentric Oxford don John Bayley. She married him in 1956 and lived in contented squalor (their roof leaked on the exact spot where they lay in bed) for the next forty-three years. When, at first, they desperately needed a place to embrace and kiss, they instinctively headed for the London Library. Climbing the iron stairs to an empty stack, they “leaned against the shelves in the half darkness & clung to each other. J. wept.” The novelist A. N. Wilson, once Iris’s biographer, believed John acted as Prospero, “a sort of controller of the demons and spirits who flew in and out of her consciousness.”

Conradi never explains how Iris managed to avoid pregnancy. There’s no mention of abortions for Iris (which may have prevented her from having children later on), though she helped other women procure them. Her mother had married when pregnant, had a difficult birth, and didn’t want any more children. Though amazed that she’d produced such a brilliant child, she perversely hoped that Iris wouldn’t have any children of her own. Iris, who had strong maternal feelings, thought children would not interfere with—indeed, might well enhance—her creative life. Conradi relegates this crucial question to an offhand footnote, and never explains why she and John never had a child.

Conradi is good on Fraenkel, Thompson’s wartime career, Iris’s refugee work, her sex life, and her relations with Steiner and Canetti. His biography, though well researched and clearly written, is also deeply flawed. In the oddly defensive introduction, he admits that he has not fulfilled the biographer’s primary task by reading all of Iris’s letters, scattered in libraries throughout the world; that he has “little space” (in more than seven-hundred pages) to explore her recent friendships; that he focuses on her formative years, 1919–56; and that he might well have called his book Young Iris.

With strange imbalance, Conradi covers her first twenty-five years in two-hundred pages; the next twelve years in 210 pages; and the last forty-three years, when she wrote all her books and established her reputation, in 190 pages, including her last twenty-eight years in only seventy pages and her last five years in only nine. It’s not clear whether Conradi agreed not to poach on John Bayley’s territory (though Bayley had published three books on Iris before this biography appeared); was overly sensitive about the feelings of living people; feared libel; or had his book ruthlessly cut by the publisher. But he certainly made a fatal strategic error. As Conradi buries the major part of her life under a tedious and pedestrian analysis of her novels, the narrative grinds to a halt. This book is stuffed, like a turkey, with the crumbs of his previous critical book on her work.

There are other serious problems. Conradi makes unseemly and irritating references to himself as well as to his earlier book, his lover, and (three times) to his dog. He stultifies the reader and again clogs the narrative with a mass of trivial, boring details: a long list of ancestors who, in the nineteenth century, died young; the clothing worn, games played, and sweets bought in kindergarten; the badge of her school uniform; five pages on her group of strolling players; otiose descriptions of a flat, the names of characters in fragments of unpublished novels, the plants in her garden. The ubiquitous footnotes at the bottom of the page are a pointless and pedantic attempt to cram even more unassimilated details into the book. But he doesn’t make these details come alive to illuminate Iris’s character.

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