Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Pride Month Profile: Iris Murdoch

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 famously disheveled house in North Oxford.

A famously 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. Miranda Popkey, reviewing Murdoch’s letters after their publication in 2016, found the author’s preoccupation with people’s capacities for self-deception and lack of self-awareness all of a piece with her personal life:

Take for instance Murdoch’s 13th novel, A Fairly Honorable Defeat, which opens on a scene of wedded bourgeois bliss. Hilda and Rupert Foster are drinking “a bottle of rather dry champagne,” celebrating their twentieth wedding anniversary. They are discussing Julius King, an academic and biochemist; Julius has recently abandoned Hilda’s sister, Morgan, who had earlier abandoned her husband, Tallis, in favor of Julius. The devastated Morgan is about to visit the contented couple.

Over the course of the novel, Julius—who is, fairly explicitly, a stand-in for Satan—will deliberately and successfully break up Hilda and Rupert’s marriage by making Rupert and Morgan believe, with the aid of some pilfered love letters, that each is in love with the other. He nearly succeeds in doing the same to Rupert’s brother Simon’s relationship with his partner, Axel.

To the reader, the ways in which each character is—thanks to self-regard and a combination of improbable but somehow convincing coincidences—made to believe that another character, previously no more than a platonic friend, is suddenly passionately in love with him or her, is almost wholly ridiculous. Yet, as the letters show, these sorts of easily acquired, passionately felt, and yet transitory romantic obsessions were hardly foreign to Murdoch.

In a letter written in 1945, Murdoch recounts to David Hicks, an Oxford contemporary to whom she would later briefly be engaged, the details of a romantic quadrangle in which she had lately found herself involved. Murdoch had been living with Michael Foot, a man whom she did not love but “was sorry for because he was in love with me, and because he has a complex about women (because of a homosexual past) and because he was likely to be sent abroad at any moment.” A school friend, Philippa Bosanquet, came to visit. Bosanquet was then in the midst of “breaking off her relations” with Thomas Balogh, an economics professor at Balliol College, Oxford, to whom Murdoch was immediately attracted, thus involving Foot in “some rather hideous sufferings—in the course of which,” she nevertheless admits, “I somehow managed to avert my eyes and be, most of the time, insanely happy with Thomas.” Bosanquet then fell in love with Foot, whom she subsequently married (and later divorced; Murdoch and Bosanquet would go on to have a “brief physical affair,” in 1968, from which a “deep and lasting bond” of friendship would ultimately be salvaged). Meanwhile Murdoch tried to “tear” herself away from Balogh, whom she had realized “was the devil incarnate.”

The story is—not just in this retelling, but also in Murdoch’s own account—something akin to farce. And yet, knowing that she lived such destructive passion, and its failure, lends the mess of romantic relationships in her novels a kind of dignity. If comedy is tragedy plus time, then perhaps tragedy is comedy plus compassion. How foolishly we behave, Murdoch seems to say, when we believe ourselves to be in love! And yet this foolishness is no defense against—or excuse for—the actual harm that careless emotional entanglements may cause. The frantic sexual roundelay of A Fairly Honorable Defeat ends, for one character, in death.

(Murdoch’s biographer, Peter Conradi, marks A Fairly Honourable Defeat in another way: the first novel in English to depict a gay couple as normal, happy, and functioning. I remember to this day- reading it in 1991, being dumbstruck by the novel possibility she envisioned in 1975, when I was a fairly miserable, closeted, undergraduate).

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 famously 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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