An intimate biography; Iris Murdoch
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 26 January 2016)

Dame Iris Murdoch, a much-admired novelist for several decades, was also a bold sexual adventuress. Perhaps she was a love addict before that term was popularized in the 1970s (and with it the 12-step program, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous). She had many lovers and a close attention to sex was crucial in her life and art.

According to John Updike, love was for Murdoch what the sea was for Joseph Conrad and war was for Ernest Hemingway. Updike considered her the leading English novelist of her time and believed she learned the human condition through her relationships. Her tumultuous love life, he wrote, was "a long tutorial in suffering, power, treachery, and bliss." Updike believed that in reading her novels he could feel the ideas, images and personalities of her life pouring through her.

In Living On Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch 1934-1995 (Princeton University Press), recently published, we find Murdoch writing "I am, I think, rather like my books." At another point she writes, "I wish I could create really different people in my novels, but they are all me." Her frank confirmation will console many readers of novels who feel guilty when that same thought darts sheepishly through their curious minds.

Living On Paper is one more instalment in the longrunning revelation of Murdoch's intimate experience. Her friends understood a great deal about her emotional life but the public remained largely unaware of it until John Bayley began writing her story. A professor of English literature, he married her in 1956 and remained her husband until her death from Alzheimer's in 1999. He wrote two books, Iris: A Memoir and Iris and Her Friends, the first of which led to Richard Eyre's much-admired film Iris, in 2001.

That same year brought the authorized biography of Murdoch, by her friend and executor Peter J. Conradi, who had access to her inner life through her journals. A.N. Wilson in his book, Iris Murdoch as I Knew Her, published in 2003, expressed great affection for her while reporting that in her youth Murdoch was "one of those delightful young women prepared to go to bed with almost anyone."

She once decided that happiness is "being utterly absorbed in at least six other human beings." In most cases, "absorbed" meant a sexual relationship, usually with a man but sometimes with a woman. Brigid Brophy, the novelist, and Philippa Foot, the philosopher, were female lovers. Some might frown on her promiscuity but in her view love was morally justified when it was authentically felt and when each lover was seriously attentive to the other. One journal entry said. "Love is, perhaps, the only subject on which I am an expert."

Still, it was far from a guarantee of happiness. In her life, as in her novels, love could turn uncontrollable and frightening as well as alluring. She had her regrets. In 1968, looking back on her journals, she noted, "That business of falling in love with A, then with B, then with C (all madly) seems a bit sickening." She told her journal, "I mustn't live in this torment of emotion" but then added that she probably couldn't keep that resolution.

Of all her lovers, the most exotic and the most demanding was Elias Canetti, who won the 1981 Nobel Prize in literature. Canetti was a Bulgarian-born Sephardic Jew, educated in Vienna, who wrote his books in German. At age 22, in Vienna's July Revolt of 1927, he witnessed a public book-burning that appeared often in his writing. He escaped Hitler by moving to Britain and became the centre of an intellectual circle in London.

Murdoch described his lovemaking in her journal: "He subjugates me completely. Only such a complete intellectual and moral ascendancy could hold me." Their affair was so important that she kept it a secret. Until her death in 1999, even her closest friends thought Canetti had been merely her mentor, not her lover.

She called Canetti an "angel-demon" and made him the model for various tyrannical priestlike figures in her books, including her second novel, The Flight from the Enchanter (1956), which she dedicated to him.

Canetti, for his part, felt used by her. He claimed her habit was to steal the minds of her lovers. He admitted that he loved a good listener and apparently she was a great one. So he expressed his ideas, and, he claimed, later read them in her novels. Apparently he didn't mind being her guru but resented being her material.

In his last book of memoirs, Party in the Blitz: The English Years, he remembered her beautiful face ("Flemish, like an early Memling") but said little else that was kind about her. He considered the success of her books "vulgar."

The editors of Living on Paper, Avril Horner and Anne Rowe, tell us Murdoch spent up to four hours a day on her correspondence, writing always by hand. The results include few revelations about Canetti or anyone else. These are chatty, friendly letters, full of warmth and good feelings. In her articles Murdoch was often rather cold but she seems lovable in these pages.

In 1988 she informs one of her friends that she can't stand the paintings of Lucian Freud and tells another that all the excitement in Paris these days is about the degree of Martin Heidegger's Nazism. At another point she tells Brigid Brophy that taking part in a Virginia Woolf centenary event at Cambridge made her feel she must reread Woolf's novels.

This process leaves her feeling she admires some of the material in the books but she doesn't like either the books or the author.

Still, looking on the bright side, she discovers a new pleasure in life: "It's super to wake up now in the morning and realize I don't have to read a Virginia Woolf today." It may not be sex, but it's freedom.

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