Reflections on the work of Iris Murdoch

This reflection on the writings of Iris Murdoch convinces me that I should read one of her books, pronto:

Yesterday was the fifth anniversary of the death of Iris Murdoch, and since she passed I have read, with growing affection, thirteen of her twenty-six published novels. She was born in 1919 and published her first novel in 1954, and for the next forty years barely set aside her pen. Most readers have a favorite British novelist from the 20th century, be it Waugh, Huxley, or Orwell (bloggers misquote Orwell as often as Paul Wolfowitz). My guy was Graham Greene, another prodigious sort and one of the few authors I’m comfortable with, having read most of his work many times over. Greene began publishing in his mid twenties, and it’s interesting to witness his growth as a writer via his books. The greatest accomplishments of his first books are their undeniable energy and passion. It’s not clear in Greene’s early thrillers that he would someday write The End of the Affair, but one is certain that he would never stop writing, and there’s a sense of comfort in a sure thing from a talented person.

Murdoch started writing novels much later in life, and we are spared youthful exuberance for novels that plot adult conflicts better than anyone. Starting with her second book, Flight from the Enchanter, she created her milieu. Take a handful of adults, some related, some not, a few of them young, a couple old, some rich and some poor. Make most of them in midlife and turn them loose on each other, with one another’s wives, husbands, friends, maids, etc. Take dead aim at fidelity, religion, inner torment, wealth, scholarship, and everything Merry Old. Have a minimum dozen characters in the book, and never skimp on one. That to me seems her greatest and strangest achievement; if it’s so damn easy why can’t everyone writing pull it off? No one in a Murdoch novel is minor.

If there is a classic Murdoch character, it must be the protagonist who I’ll refer to as a prime mover. This is usually a male, but sometimes not, who wants to see if by actions taken or avoided he can dramatically affect someone in his life, be it a life-long friend or new acquaintance. This is usually a dilettante, a doesn’t-have-to-work sort, and it reminds me of the people Oscar Wilde dreamed up; men and women hell bent on instigating ruinous drama in the lives and homes of others.

(Via Bookninja.)

Update: It has just been brought to my attention that Chris Lehmann (whose reviews, in case you haven’t noticed, I read with more interest than pretty much anyone else’s) is also a Murdoch aficionado.

In January, 2002, he praised Murdoch’s The Black Prince in The Washington Post and hosted a fascinating online discussion about it. In the discussion, Lehmann observed that “most of Murdoch’s work gives the lie to the notion that novels of ideas have to be ponderous and sober undertakings.”


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