It has been nearly two years since Iris Murdoch's death from Alzheimer's and the publication of her husband John Bayley's memoir Elegy for Iris. It seems fitting that the beloved philosopher and novelist should be the subject of a biography nearly as idiosyncratic and charming as she herself was. One of the numerous oddities of this one is its construction: each chapter is broken into numbered sections rarely more than four pages long. This allows the author (Murdoch's longtime friend and biographer of Angus Wilson) to ramble back and forth chronologically, examining a few years at a time through different perspectives literary, romantic, philosophical and gradually progress forward. The overall effect is leisurely, informal, highly literary and more than a bit uneven. In the first half, Conradi faithfully traces Murdoch's family background and intellectual development, painstakingly tracking down her earliest Latin teachers or the history of modern Irish sectarianism, as the moment requires. But the second half ends as if winded, streaking through 16 prolific years in one short chapter, mentioning Murdoch's knighthood almost in passing. The book's great strength lies in its characterizations ("She had a way of staring down at her glass, listening very carefully to the speaker, possibly indicating also that the glass was empty"). Documenting Murdoch's eccentricities and legendary kindnesses, Conradi succeeds in reviving her presence. Thus, readers who seek a few last glimpses of Murdoch's rare personality will be gratified by this affectionate, if disorganized, tribute; those looking for closure or hoping to make sense of the narrative of her life will not.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
This fall the first major biography of her, ''Iris Murdoch: A Life,'' by Peter J. Conradi, an executor of her estate, was published by W. W. Norton. Based on Murdoch's 20 unpublished diaries and thousands of her letters, it contains new insights into her writing and details of her colorful existence.
Mr. Conradi seems dazzled by his subject. ''I found her alarmingly present, and august, and spacious, and watchful, and good,'' he said from London. They met in 1981 and he became close friends with her and Mr. Bayley. Later, when Murdoch developed Alzheimer's disease, Mr. Conradi and his partner, Jim O'Neill, ''would wash her and bathe her,'' Mr. Conradi said.
The biggest revelation in his research, he said, was how true to her life Murdoch's novels were. Mr. Bayley cooperated with the biographers, even though ''Iris was extremely secretive,'' he said in a telephone interview. ''It was only after she was very ill, and after she died, that we thought that she wouldn't mind at all.''
Mr. Bayley said that the biography contained details new even to him. One was ''the particular intensity'' of his wife's romantic relationships, for instance with Elias Canetti, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1981. Murdoch and Canetti had a sadomasochistic affair in the early 1950's, but Mr. Bayley later won Murdoch from Canetti. ''I adored her,'' Mr. Bayley said. ''She was extremely pleased by adoration of her. But also, she didn't want me to be upset or shocked or bothered. Although she told me women had been keen on her, for example, she rather left it at that.''
Murdoch was born in Dublin in 1919 into a happy childhood with her father, a civil servant, and her mother, who trained as an opera singer. Together, Murdoch recalled in interviews, the family existed ''in a perfect trinity of love.''
She won a scholarship to Badminton and went on to Oxford.
Murdoch joined the Communist Party, which later caused her to be denied entry into the United States to do a fellowship. During World War II Murdoch worked as a civil servant at the British Treasury in London, and Mr. Conradi writes that she probably passed classified information to the British Communist Party. Because she had a low-level job, the information would have been of little consequence, Mr. Conradi writes. (Murdoch later broke with the party.) She also worked for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in Austrian refugee camps.
Soon after the war, Murdoch studied philosophy at Cambridge University. At the time, philosophy at Cambridge was dominated by Ludwig Wittgenstein, who taught there, and by logical positivism, the belief that philosophical principles can be subject to logic in the same way scientific principles can be.
Murdoch rebelled against logical positivism. She embraced existentialism briefly, and her 1953 book ''Sartre: Romantic Rationalist,'' introduced a generation of English-speaking readers to his work. Influenced by the French philosopher Simone Weil, Murdoch became a Platonist. Humans are enslaved by egoism and anxiety, she wrote in works like ''The Sovereignty of Good'' and ''Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals.'' Redemption lies in striving toward knowledge of the Good, as in Plato's allegory of the cave and the sun. Her philosophy became a kind of Christianity, without the Resurrection and Immaculate Conception.
In ''The Sea, the Sea,'' for which she won the 1978 Booker Prize, Charles Arrowby, a typical Murdoch character, an egotist and a misogynist, is writing his memoir: ''Since I started writing this 'book' or whatever it is I have felt as if I were walking about in a dark cavern where there are various 'lights,' '' he says, ''made perhaps by shafts or apertures which reach the outside world.''
In 1948 Murdoch became a tutor in philosophy at St. Anne's College at Oxford. There, Mr. Conradi writes, she continued her amorous pursuits. One suitor described her as ''monumentally unfaithful.'' She boasted in her diary that ''I have the power to seduce anyone,'' and many of her novels are about the power of one person to manipulate others through sex and emotional seduction.
One lover was the poet and anthropologist Franz Steiner, whose heart condition made sex hazardous. Steiner died of a heart attack in 1952, ''when they practically were in each others' arms,'' Mr. Bayley said. Murdoch also developed an infatuation with a Wittgenstein disciple, Elizabeth Anscombe.
In 1952 Murdoch met Canetti, a prolific sadist with a mistress and a one-armed wife, Veza. Canetti's personality was such that someone suggested he himself had bitten off his wife's arm. After Murdoch and Canetti made love, Veza would cook dinner for them. ''He is a bull, a lion, an angel,'' Murdoch wrote of Canetti. ''He subjugates me completely.''
Canetti became the model for the enchanter figures in Murdoch's novels, among them Mischa Fox in ''The Flight From the Enchanter.'' She also gave some of Canetti's qualities to Arrowby in ''The Sea, the Sea''; like Canetti, he could not bear to spend a whole night with a woman.
Murdoch was in Canetti's grip when she met Mr. Bayley, six years her junior. Bayley was childlike. Murdoch was his ''ideal co-child,'' he said. Together they invented a secret language.
They were, by all accounts, supremely happy, and their dotty exploits were lovingly recounted by their friends. Sometimes at dinner parties, for instance, Mr. Bayley would load potatoes into his pockets to eat later. One motif in their marriage was their love of swimming, which they did wherever possible.
Mr. Bayley seems not to have minded Murdoch's attachments to others. Mr. Conradi writes that Murdoch had to resign from Oxford because of a mutually obsessive love affair with a female colleague.
Meanwhile, Mr. Bayley provided Murdoch with peace for her writing. She stopped, she said, for only a half-hour after finishing one novel before starting the next. She disdained most editing.
In September 1993, Murdoch wrote in her diary: ''Find difficulty in thinking and writing.'' And then: ''be brave.'' It was probably the beginning of Alzheimer's disease. One of her final entries, on June 8, 1996, contains an account of a wonderful swim with her husband, ''in our usual secret place, for the first time this year.''
''Ducks, geese, swans,'' she wrote. ''Conversation, beautiful.''Continue reading the main story