Saturday, May 17, 2008

Iris: The Life of Iris Murdoch by Peter J. Conradi

Sometime in 1987, a review of Iris Murdoch’s latest novel, The Book and the Brotherhood, intrigued me. I started to read it, but could not get past the first fifty pages. This was even before the days of the “rule of 50.”

A couple of months later, I was in the hospital for a few days, and I asked my then wife to bring me a couple of books from the table alongside my easy chair. She misheard me, and brought the wrong pile. The only one I had not read was the Murdoch. I decided to give it another try. I was awake all night, finishing it about 8:00 AM the next morning. Since then, I have loved her work, and I am making my way through all of her 26 published novels (about 16 to go!), although after this biography, I see that I missed so much in what I read, I think I will start over and go through all of them in order.

Her novels are complex in characters, plots, relationships, and philosophy, but they are worth every single second I spend with her. From her novels and this biography, I have learned countless new vocabulary words, ideas, historical events, and philosophy. This incredibly detailed and documented biography of the great (-est?) 20th century British novelist does her justice – and then some. There are 60 pages of end notes, 10 pages of selected bibliography organized by chapter, Murdoch’s complete bibliography (5 pages), and an extremely detailed index that runs to 32 pages.

An example of the detail: at one point, Conradi mentions that when World War II broke out, Iris and some friends were evacuated from Oxford, and “Iris was painting a lot; many of her paintings of the time had ladders in them. One survives: a copy of Joyce’s Ulysses – the first UK edition came out in 1936 – lying by a blue pottery jar of coltsfoot” (112). He then endnotes this detail by quoting three letters Iris wrote mentioning the “coltsfoot” growing around the area. I can only presume this is some sort of plant – pity that wasn’t explained in a note! So, to my dictionary, which explained coltsfoot as, “Tussilara farfara, a plant with yellow, daisy-like flowers considered a weed, but used as a cough remedy. Named for the shape of its leaves.” Now, I can truly see that painting.

On another occasion, the author mentions a professor Iris admired, and then he describes photos, hanging in this professor’s office, of his mentors, their names, dates, what and where they taught (118). This was truly a labor of the utmost affection and respect. Conradi was a close friend of Iris and her husband John Bayley.

Much like Murdoch’s novels, there is a lot to absorb here. I have learned so much about her personal life, I know I will have a better understanding of her novels. As I read (or re-read) each novel, I think I will copy the notes from the biography and keep them nearby.

Keep Latin, German, and French dictionaries handy, because not all phrases are translated. Some are explained, some evident from the context with even a smattering of these languages, but I had to puzzle out a least a third of these quotes (usually) from her letters and journals.

This might seem boring and dry, but it is anything but! Iris was a vivacious, funny, brilliant, clever, and popular woman at Oxford in the late 30s, during the war working for the British Treasury Department, at St. Anne’s College in the 50s, and later the Royal College of Art. All this detail comes out in Conradi’s delightful prose. Maybe more that a reader could ever imagine about the life of Murdoch, but if you love her novels as much as I do, it is decidedly NOT too much.

I knew how it would end, since I read John Bayley’s Iris: an Elegy, but I could not help the emotional effect of her loss as I closed the book today. Five stars

--Chiron, 5/17/08

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