Battling for basics

CHRIS WOOD February 22 1999

Battling for basics

CHRIS WOOD February 22 1999

Ever extraordinary


Writer Iris Murdoch was admired worldwide

For Iris Murdoch, the celebrated British author who died last week at 79 in an Oxford nursing home, the trouble began five years ago. She was visiting Israel, where she and her novels were the focus of a question-and-answer session at the University of the Negev. The event did not go well. Murdoch— renowned as one of the most intelligent authors of her time—had difficulty forming her sentences.

The audience soon became restless. Several people got up and left. As recalled by her husband, the critic John Bayley, in his graceful and moving memoir, Elegy for Iris, the incident was one of the first indications that Murdoch had Alzheimer’s disease. There were other signs, including her difficulties in writing her last novel, Jackson’s Dilemma. The very identity of her hero, Jackson, eluded her.

“I can’t make out who he is or what he’s doing,” she told Bayley. Jackson’s disturbing formlessness turned out to be sadly prophetic of Murdoch’s own fate, as her ties with the world frayed and broke.

An extraordinarily prolific and inventive writer, Murdoch was read and admired far beyond the Murdoch: borders of England. “She belongs amongst the four or five great novelists of the second half of this century to come out of Britain,” declared British novelist Malcolm Bradbury. The author of 26 novels, including The Bell, A Severed Head, The Nice and the Good, A Fairly Honourable Defeat and the Booker Prize-winning The Sea, the Sea, Murdoch was also a philosopher of note, who had taught the subject at Oxford, and written perceptively about morality and the religious sensibility. But there was no real division between the two sides of her career, as her novels are always concerned with the complex interplay of good and evil. They are also as fiendishly plotted as any melodrama, and loaded, sometimes to a fault, with cultural references from Shakespeare to Renaissance painting. But what gives them their extraordinary energy and readability is Murdoch’s talent for creating uniquely interesting characters.

Some critics took Murdoch to task for concentrating on a narrow stratum of soci-

ety where Hampstead intellectuals and civil servants predominated. But beneath the seething bourgeois surface of her tales lay an apprehension of something darker and more disturbing—what one of her best critics, the American academic Elizabeth Dippie, has called “ultimate reality, even the cosmos itself.”

Murdoch was born in Dublin in 1919, but moved a year later to London where her father, John, became a civil servant. Her mother, Elizabeth—once described by Murdoch as “a beautiful, lively, witty woman”—had trained to be an opera singer. An only child, Murdoch later wrote that she and her parents formed “a perfect trinity of love.” She also claimed that her happy, solitary status inspired her to write—partly as a way of creating imaginary brothers and sisters. Although her parents were not well-off, they saved and borrowed to finance Murdoch’s education. As an adolescent, she learned Latin and Greek, and later picked up

French, German, Italian, Spanish and Russian. In 1938, she went to Oxford to study philosophy and classics, and in 1944 she began a two-year stint working for the United Nations in Europe with war refugees, an experience that deeply influenced her thinking.

By the time she met Bayley in 1953, she was a 34-year-old Oxford philosophy teacher, with a string of lovers behind her and her debut novel, the bohemian comedy Under the Net, about to appear. In Elegy for Iris, Bayley, she years her junior, recalls how he first saw her riding her bicycle past his window and fell instantly in love. With her expressive eyes, Murdoch was often described as beautiful by her admirers. But her charisma seemed to have been rooted just as much in her brilliance and generosity. She was intensely interested in others and, by Bayle/s account, seemed virtually oblivious to herself. Apparently free of the usual writer’s vanity, she never read reviews of her own novels, though she patiently answered all her fan letters. She was also something of an eccentric. Disdaining the use of a typewriter or word processor, she wrote her novels out by hand, twice, before handing them over to her editor in plastic bags.

Her 43-year, childless marriage was an unusually happy one. She and Bayley lived, first, in the vil lage of Steeple Aston, near Ox ford, in a house cluttered with books and memorabilia, where she delighted in the wildlife, in cluding the foxes denning in her garden. She claimed that the sounds of the rats rustling under the floors helped her work. In

1986, she and Bayley moved into Oxford itself. The couple loved to travel, and during a visit to Canada she became entranced with the paintings of Alex Colville, with whom she formed a friendship. She was fascinated by the mysterious, latent energy of the massive figures in his work, and would spend hours staring into her book of Colville prints. Even after she contracted Alzheimer’s, his paintings were one of the few things that could hold her attention.

In Elegy for Iris, Bayley evokes her decline with a heartrending vividness. Their house filled up with old leaves, sticks and other junk she collected. No longer able to read, she watched children’s cartoons on television. At one point, Bayley, exhausted by caretaking, expressed his despair at what was happening to them. Murdoch looked up at him with her childlike face and said simply: “But I love you.” She was, it seems, extraordinary to the end.