Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Birthday: "Falling out of love is very enlightening. For a short while you see the world with new eyes."


Jean Iris Murdoch, DBE (1919-1999)
Author, philosopher
James Tait Black Memorial Prize, 1973
Whitbread Prize, 1974
Man Booker Prize, 1978
Golden PEN award, 1997
Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, 1987

A rarity among writers, growing up in a happy family, Iris Murdoch studied at Oxford from 1938 to 1942; worked for The Treasury in the war, and for the UN’s European relief efforts afterward. From 1947 to 1948 she did graduate work at Cambridge, then returned to Oxford. She was elected a Fellow of St. Anne’s College in 1948 and taught there for fifteen years; after four more years at the Royal College of Art, she spent the rest of her career as a full-time writer.

Fascinated by Platonism and Existentialism, Murdoch’s friends included Sartre, Weill and Wittgenstein; Elias Canetti was one of her lovers. She married another Oxford don, John Bailey, in 1956; they enjoyed a happy, if unconventional, 43-year union in a disheveled house in North Oxford.

An inventive and disciplined writer, Murdoch published a new novel roughly every two years for four decades. She hewed to certain themes: the comedic nature of relationships between the sexes; the infinite capacity of humors for self-deception; the workings of good and evil in the modern world; the power of dreams and the unconscious. Characters who repeat disastrous patterns of behavior while denying they are doing so recur; a notable example, is A Word Child (1975) in which Hilary Burde, a civil servant who accidentally causes the death of his superior’s wife; years later, when the superior returns as head of Burde’s agency, and with a new wife, Burde embarks on a relationship with her as well.

Murdoch was one of the first English writers to portray gay characters as something more than miserable psychopaths; in A Fairly Honourable Defeat (1970), Murdoch reworks the Shakespearean theme of a casual bet on the lives of others, unfolding a man’s attempts to undo the stable, happy relationship of two men in his circle. In her Booker Prize winner, The Sea, The Sea (1978), Murdoch recast Prospero as a famously self-absorbed London theatrical director trying to win back his first love.

Murdoch frequently develops the theme, advanced by Simone Weil, that evil expresses itself in the world as suffering that humans pass along, one to another, forever; or until someone is willing to accept it, keep it, and prevent its further advance. She often built plots around mysterious, charismatic men- enchanters- whose aura affects the lives of others for decades, not always for the good. The Message to the Planet (

Some critics chided Murdoch for pretension, citing her comfortable, Oxbridge-educated characters’ endless talk fests about Higher Themes; the philosophically-inclined found fault with her for dumbing down those same Higher Themes as popular fiction. Famously indifferent to reviews, Murdoch pressed on.

In 1995, Murdoch told an interviewer she had been experiencing terrible writer’s block; when her last book, Jackson’s Dilemma, came out in 1995, New York Times reviewer Brad Leithauser praised the story but declared, “The writing is a mess.” Murdoch was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease in 1997 and, after a swift decline, died in early 1999. In a candid self-appraisal, Murdoch once said, “I see myself as Rhoda, not as Mary Tyler Moore.”

Related sites:

Richard Nicholls, “Iris Murdoch, Novelist and Philosopher, Is Dead,” The New York Times, February 9, 1999
Iris Murdoch interview, “The Art of Fiction,” No. 117, The Paris Review, Summer 1990

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