She Wasn’t Just a Dotty Old Lady

Iris Murdoch As I Knew Her by A.N. Wilson.  Arrow Books.  276 pp.

Those Brits do keep writing, don’t they?  I look at the titles by A. N. Wilson, who is my rough contemporary (two years younger than I, actually) and I’m astonished, and somewhat ashamed, to see thirty books.  (Compared to six for me.  Eight on the outside.)  The topics he has taken on, even just in non-fiction, are astonishing.  Tolstoy.  Jesus.  Paul.  God.  I thought you needed to be an expert on a subject to write a book about it, but I’m not sure that qualification operates in the British mind.  If you wake up one day and have an inkling to write a book about it, by Jove pull out the foolscap, put a new nib on the pen, and get started.  We’ll worry about organization later.

That’s certainly the case with the subject of this book, Iris Murdoch, who wrote a 500 page novel at the drop of a hat (and often, according to Wilson, repeated herself, or ran out of steam—after an interesting initial start—halfway through).  It seems to be the case with Wilson.  It was the case with Murdoch’s official biographer, Peter J. Conradi, whose book on Buddhism was the most haphazardly thrown together thing I’ve read in many a moon.  I think the Brits got in the habit of writing well and writing quickly early on at their public schools (that’s private schools to you, Yank); after all, if they didn’t turn out something good they’d be caned to within an inch of their lives, possibly buggered as well.  Writer’s Block was not an option.

Wilson was compelled to write his book by John Bayley’s book about his wife, Iris, and especially by the movie of the same name, starring Kate Winslett as the young Iris and Judy Dench as the older.  Wilson left his second viewing of the movie in a rage.  John Bayley—famous as an Oxford don—had been his tutor at university, and had introduced the young man to his wife early on.  Wilson had known her for the last thirty years of her life.  It enraged him that this vital and alive woman had suddenly become the face of Alzheimer’s, and would forever be remembered that way.  He felt that Bayley, in creating that loving but somewhat condescending portrait, had brought that situation about.  He even suggests that Bayley was jealous of Murdoch’s fame, wanted to reduce her in that way.  Wilson wants to right this wrong, and jumps right in.

The man writes marvelously, I have to say.  He captured my attention immediately and didn’t lose it except when he spoke about Western philosophers, a subject which greatly interested Murdoch, who started off as a philosophy student and wrote several nonfiction books.  He didn’t seem to have a plan, but improvised well (he has one chapter where he gives us a standard biograph of Murdoch, so we can get the information we need).  I can’t say that he made me want to run out and gobble up her novels.  He has as many complaints as kudos about her work.  But he’s written a lively work, and brings his subject to life.

Her sex life in particular.  The woman we think of now as a dotty old lady was wildly promiscuous for much of her life, having affairs with her mentors, her colleagues, and anyone else who was interested.  (Wilson himself thought of having a tumble with her at one point, then thought better of it.)  Her friends believe that by nature she was a lesbian, and most enjoyed making love with women, but she lived in the male world of the British university, knew what men wanted and gave it to them, just to be friends.  When Wilson was a young man, Bayley asked him to come along when he popped in on a fellow don who was known as a lady’s man, persisted even when Wilson was reluctant, and when they got to the man’s rooms found him not in bed (thank God) but intertwined on a couch with Iris herself.  Nobody made a big deal of this embarrassing circumstance, which mortified the young Wilson.  If the general gossip throughout the book is any clue, such behavior was de rigueur among the British intellectuals.  No one even raised an eyebrow.

Murdoch and Bayley were famous for their dinner parties with bad food and cheap wine (they served the cheap stuff so they could drink a lot), for the appalling filth and disarray of their apartments, but also for the distinguished company.  They knew most of the great writers and intellectuals of their day.  I honestly don’t understand why they put up with the filth.  Wilson goes into detail at one point.

“The small kitchen, and above all the bathroom in the flat, are dirty on a scale which it would require a new vocabulary to describe.  The loo is not merely stained, but encrusted, a bas-relief of limescale, ancient excrement and some not so ancient.  Sink and shower grimy.  The soap filthy, hair-matted, grey.  In the kitchen, a thick mud of blackened grease coats sink, stove and the heaps of unwashed crockery.  In each of the living-rooms is an unmade single bed, socks, underwear, jumpers scattered on its rumpled candlewick bedspread.  Books spill from shelves on to carpets.  The armchairs are the sort which get left to the end of a sale and are usually unsold, even to the cheapest furniture trader, the auction house paying for their removal by scrap-merchants.”

I do wish that Wilson had included a list of Murdoch’s best work.  He hinted at various titles he liked, but didn’t come up with a definitive list.  (Everybody mentions The Severed Head, and the man whose review got me started on all this also suggested The Philosopher’s Pupil.  I myself have good memories of The Sea, The Sea, which I read when it came out and which won the Booker Prize.)  Murdoch—not surprisingly—wrote about erotic romps, philosophical thought, charismatic teachers or masters who compelled the attention of their pupils.  She had a strong interest in religion and mysticism, though she never committed to anything (the British seemed determined to think their way into religion, the worst way, in my opinion, to approach it).

I sometimes wondered how much Wilson really liked Murdoch’s work, he had so many caveats.  But toward the end of the book’s first section he gave us a wonderful tribute to her as a person, which really sold me.

“Whether she qualified for the epithet ‘good’ is ultimately perhaps a pointlessly censorious question.  She was certainly something rather different, a life-enhancing person.  Though her acute mind ranged over the deepest questions of which thought is capable, she was by nature joyous.  She had said a universal yes to life, and that was perhaps one reason so many people felt joy in her company.  There was also the palpable fact, which could not be analysed, that she was deeply lovable.”

And toward the end of the book he said the same thing about her as a writer, startling me a little, because of his earlier quibbles.

“The chaos of the human heart in its quest for sacred and profane love—this was IM’s great theme.  She did not merely speak for a whole generation, as she fashioned her novels and struggled with her metaphysical essays and books.  She was also, to those who knew her personally, a Wise Woman, a person quite out of the ordinary.

“The privilege of having known her was incalculable. . . . Her novels, more than any other, inspired me to want to be a novelist. . . . Her patient, humble example of working life was an example to any writer.  Nulla dies sine linea, as Erasmus decreed—not a day should pass without writing something.”

This is a model memoir as far as I’m concerned, funny, gossipy, full of personal opinion, and bringing its subject to life.  I may not run out and read all her work, but I’m going to sample the best.  I’m as interested in the person as I am in the writer, but the person comes through in the work.