Book Review: “Living On Paper” — Letters From Iris Murdoch
Iris Murdoch proves a wonderful companion: funny, honest, insightful and courageous, about probing into the more complex aspects of not only others’ personalities, but her own.
Living on Paper, Letters From Iris Murdoch, 1934-1995, Edited by Avril Horner & Anne Rowe, Princeton University Press, 666 pages, $39.95.
By Roberta Silman
We thought she was the smartest woman in the world when we were in college and young marrieds, then young parents taking care of our children. Born in 1919, a short generation older than I and my contemporaries, Iris Murdoch seemed to have an ability to think while exuding a confidence previously unknown in women. Just as we were beginning to explore the doubts and struggles of earlier writers like Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot and Virginia Woolf, she appeared like a comet in the intellectual sky.
For Murdoch was no feminist, part of no “movement,” was not really inclined towards politics (though she did join the Communist Party for a brief stint at Somerville College, Cambridge where she was awarded a First in Greats), was not shaped by being born in Africa, as her two greatest contemporaries, Lessing and Gordimer were, and did not clutter up her life with children or even a husband until she was in her late thirties. By then she had gone back to Cambridge, this time to Newnham College, to study philosophy as a graduate student and was influenced there most by Wittgenstein.
After that she lived a double-pronged life — as a fiction writer and philosopher who not only wrote philosophical tracts, like The Sovereignty of Good, but also used her skills as a philosopher to create fictional characters whose ideas about good and evil and power and sex and wealth and poverty and trust and betrayal affected the twists and turns of the stories she had to tell. She was not particularly interested in the changes in the English novel, she loved Dubliners but had little use for Ulysses, she wasn’t taken by Woolf, but used as her models Tolstoy and Chekhov and Proust and Mann. (She was also influenced by Fielding, Dickens, Trollope, and Henry James.) Murdoch read Middlemarch only after she had published several novels. She found it “super,” but the book did not serve as the touchstone for her writing as it did for so many women novelists of the 20th century. When asked as a child what she wanted to do, she said without missing a beat, “Write,” and by that she meant what we now categorize as old-fashioned, big novels that were not only about feelings but the vicissitudes of real life, stories that weighed issues of morality that she had studied and loved as a young person. (Ironically, exactly what George Eliot did so powerfully.) As a result, we have twenty-six sturdy, ambitious novels written between 1954 and 1995 as proof. An astonishing record.
Yet by the mid-’70s into the ’80s we felt saturated by what some called her “addiction to writing,” and her books didn’t seem nearly as urgent as they once were. Indeed, I was surprised when I looked through my English fiction section to discover I owned only two, in paperback, The Bell and The Sea, The Sea. Moreover, I wasn’t even interested enough to read Peter Conradi’s critical study The Saint and the Artist, A Study of the Fiction of Iris Murdoch, and his essential biography, Iris Murdoch, A Life, both published in 2001. Now, though, after enjoying this superb collection of letters with equally superb notes by Horner and Rowe on her life, I will take up the Conradi and re-read some of the novels I remember and perhaps try some I don’t know.
For Murdoch proves a wonderful companion: funny, honest, insightful and courageous about probing into the more complex aspects of not only others’ personalities, but her own. She was very clear in her opinions (she attributed that to her excellent education), wore her rigorous learning lightly, and didn’t seem to care about fame. In this overview of her entire life in her own words, we are given a portrait of a complicated but lovable woman who exhibited real sympathy for those less fortunate, as when she worked for UNRRA after the war, who kept her eye on her goals, but who also knew how to be a good friend, not only to those who were easy (like Philippa Foot or Al and Naomi Lebowitz who taught at Washington University in St. Louis or her editor Norah Smallwood), but also to the prickly ones, such as Brigid Brophy, and Elias Canetti. She could be critical (as of David Morgan whom she helped financially though she never understood his refusal to get summer jobs), but was not a gossip (in the worst sense of the word) and reserved her criticism more for books or writers or, occasionally, politicians.
She was also unfailingly cheerful, encouraging to those who sought advice and truly delighted when she came across a book she loved, like Camus’s The Plague, or Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It is her generosity of spirit that shines through so much of this book, a generosity I’m not sure I completely understood when I was young, when she seemed so formidable, and a little remote. It also informs her novels, where everything matters and where her great powers of observation and compassion for her characters is so evident. That is why she was always a little sad when she finished a novel, saying how much she would “miss” the people she had created.
Living on Paper is also well-timed, a welcome antidote to the vision we have of her last years through the eyes of her husband, John Bayley in Iris, which was made into a movie. Both evoked her love of life, especially the swimming (which she called “a spiritual activity”) and sex, yet they also revealed, in perhaps too much detail, her struggle (and his) with Alzheimers disease which started when Iris was in her 70s until her death at almost 80. To see that amazing mind disintegrate was horrifying to read about and to see. Several of our English friends told us how furious many of the English intelligentsia were that Bayley had parlayed what should have been the private demise of this remarkably talented woman into profit for himself. But perhaps he needed, consciously or unconsciously, to exact revenge — more about that later.
Although an English friend of ours always insisted that she looked like a charlady to him, and although she became rather square and a little disheveled as she aged, Murdoch must have had a unique sexual glow as a younger person, a magnetism that eludes photographs. She had many lovers, sometimes simultaneously even after her apparently happy marriage in 1956, and is regarded by some — Martha Nussbaum for one — as ruthlessly promiscuous, “controlling and predatory.”
I am not sure they are right. As a cherished only child born in Dublin of an Irish mother and an English father, Iris had a very protected childhood, and when she went on scholarship to the prestigious Badminton School, she didn’t seem to know what most children learn either from siblings or from other children — what was appropriate in friendships and what was not. In her twenties and early thirties, she seemed to conflate friendship with sexual longing for both men and women, and admitted she sometimes longed so much for human contact that she got herself into trouble. There are passages that strike one as impossibly naive, so I was relieved to come upon a revealing letter to Georg Kreisel in late 1967 in which she confronts the issue head on:
Yes, I am very much a toucher and holder and slow savourer. This can divide people … I suspect this is connected with something very deep about sex … I can’t divide friendship from love or love from sex — or sex from love etc. If I care for somebody I want to caress them. But, or rather and so, I am probably not at all normal sexually. I am not a lesbian, in spite of one or two unevents on that front: I am certainly strongly interested in men. But I don’t think I really want normal heterosexual relations with them. (It’s taken me a long time to find this out.) I think I am sexually rather odd, which is a male homosexual in female guise. (This is fairly evident from novels where it is male queer relations which tend to carry the most force from the unconscious.) I doubt if Freud knew anything about me, though Proust knew about my male equivalent. I have never been much good at going to bed, though quite often in love … Indeed I desired you very much then and still. But I am very incompetently organised sexually.
Obviously, something was off, and there is a bit of mumbo-jumbo here, but now, with the benefit of hindsight, one wonders whether perhaps something was always off in her brilliant mind, that perhaps her inability to live within moral norms was not due to arrogance but ignorance tied to some physiological defect. Hard to know. It is also hard to know what effect her sexual wandering did to her marriage. Much is made of Bayley’s notion that sexual intercourse was “inescapably ridiculous” (as he is quoted on his Wikipedia page), but it is also quite clear that when he and Iris fell in love there was sex in the mix and that she lied to him about her ongoing affair with Canetti and probably others, as well. So he may have needed his vendetta.
But I hope they both took pride in a marriage that gave each of them the stability they needed, and some of the best parts of this book are the most ordinary: how the house shone when she finally got around to cleaning it, how much they enjoyed traveling together, her pleasure in the natural world, how they shared what they read, and how their schedules meshed so she could sit down for hours each afternoon and write these letters with the same Mont Blanc pen with which she wrote her books.
“I am not a great writer. Neither are you,” she told Brigid Brophy quite ruthlessly, and she may be right — I am always leery of pronouncements about who is “great” and who is not — but she is surely an important figure in the intellectual history of the 20th century and in the history of English literature. Getting to know her through these letters has been an enriching experience, and I am grateful for this thoughtfully edited book which has one of the best indexes and Directory of Names and Texts that I have seen in recent years. Murdoch and her editors have given us a window into another time, a time fraught with violence and war, but also a time that seems strangely calm in comparison to now. We would do well to heed what she has to say, especially about how children should be brought up and educated.
On a more personal note, I must confess that this book came just before my husband had to undergo a delicate operation at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota which, fortunately, was successful. I had Living on Paper with me, and I don’t know what I would have done without Iris. She was a true comfort, another proof that books can be balm for the soul.
Roberta Silman‘s three novels—Boundaries, The Dream Dredger, and Beginning the World Again—have been distributed by Open Road as ebooks, books on demand, and are now on audible.com. She has also written the short story collection, Blood Relations, and a children’s book, Somebody Else’s Child. A recipient of Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, she has published reviews in The New York Times and The Boston Globe, and writes regularly for The Arts Fuse. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.