"IRIS MURDOCH?" said a former Oxford colleague. "Easy to talk to. One of the most understanding people I have ever known." Iris Murdoch is certainly easy to talk to. We discussed not only literature, but Oxford friends, and politics and cooking. I had only met her twice before, but by the time we finished, I felt I had known her for years. Why, I wondered, had I thought she was forbiding?
A quick glance at the record might perhaps explain it. She was born in Dublin on July 15, 1919, educated at Badminton school, near Bristol, and at Somerville College, Oxford, where she read "lit. hum." and of course got a first. She is now an honorary fellow of Somerville, and of St. Anne's College, Oxford, where she once taught philosophy. (She was, said the colleague already quoted, "a superb teacher.") She is a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, a member of the Irish Academy, and an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
She gives her recreation as "learning languages." "I can read a moderate number of languages," she confesses. She has kept up her Greek and Latin (and delivered papers to the Aristotelian Society). Her French is very good. She knows Italian, Spanish, but her Russian, so she says, is "only fair." She is a passionate philogist ("I love lauguages. I adore grammar").
Yes, it is all a trifle daunting, even without her literary achievements -- and her writing is, of course, the thing. She has written poetry and plays (for one play she collaborated with J.B. Priestley). She has won threee major literary awards: the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Whitbread Literary Award for Fiction, and -- two years ago -- the Booker Prize. Nuns and Soldiers, which has just appeared, is her 20th.
"I have written since I was 8 or 9," she told me. "I always hoped to be a writer." A writer, and perhaps other things. "At times I think of myself as a painter manquee. I've tried watercolors and oils."
At one point she wanted to be a scholar, an art historian or an archaeologist, but the war intervened, and she found herself instead a civil servant. From 1942 to 1944 she was assistant principal at the treasury. For the next two years she was an administrative officer in the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in London, Belgium and Austria, working on the problems of refugees. She is still involved with politics, in a general rather than a party sense. Once extremely leftwing, she has moved further to the center, but is still much concerned about Russian dissidents and issues of civil liberties. After her spell with UNRRA, she became Sarah Smithson student in philosophy at Newnham College, Cambridge. She has also lectured on philosophy at the Royal College of Art. She wrote a book on Sartre, and she remains fascinated by existentialism. She is now working on a philosophy book which will take some years, and on another novel which, at present, she prefers not to discuss. "There is," she says, "no direct philosophy in my novels, though moral and philosophical problems may be clarified there."
She things out her work on paper with a pen. "The details of a novel will," she says, "invent themselves and their own history. The writer must be unanxious and open, responsive to ideas, she must coax the book from there." But she herself is not the writer to wait for the muse. If she felt "in the mood" in the small hours of the morning, did she write, I asked?
The answer was both indefinite and methodical. She begins to write at 8 a.m., and writes until lunchtime at 1 p.m. Then she does housework, has tea at 4, then works 'til 7:30. Then she has finished writing for the day.
She is, after all, not only a writer. She has a house to run at Steeple Aston, near Oxford. She is, she says, "a gardener in a kind of shadowy way"; she is fond of her village, "but not constructively." (One can hardly imagine her as an active member of a women's auxiliary). Since 1956 she has been married to John Bayley, once fellow and tutor in English at New College and now the first incumbent of the Warton Chair of English Literature at Oxford. He himself is a novelist, and the author of Tolstoy and the Novel, The Romantic Survival , and a work on Pushkin.
He has one domestic talent not recorded in Who's Who . "For the first three weeks of my marriage," said Murdoch, "I felt obliged to cook; then my husband offered to take over. It has been an unmixed blessing. I love food and wine, and he is a marvelous cook, with a genius for cooking."
"She is quite unlike her books," said her former colleague. I remarked to Iris Murdoch that she seemed very gentle, though there is much violence in her novels.
"All novels and stories," she answered, "may involve violence. There is nothing specially odd in that. Violence plays a dramatic, symbolic role in my novels (but I don't mean allegorical). It is very much digested and reflected-upon violence." I asked if the violence and the black humor owed anything to her Irish origins. She was sure that it did not. "I left Dublin as a small child," she said. "I am Protestant Irish on both sides. I think the great Irish writers are Anglo-Irish. They are good writers rather than Irish writers."
She plans her own novels in the most extreme detail before she writes. Imagination and the unconscious mind are, she says, "a funny business." There is a particular kind of primary imagination which becomes constricted in writing; she tries "to invent something damn good at the beginning, so that there are no second thoughts later." When she is in a receptive state, inventions gradually begin to crystallize. She looks at her work with the critical eyes of an outsider -- or, one might say, with the dispassionate eye of an Oxford don.
"My later books are very much better than the earlier books," she says. She has in fact destroyed several novels which did not come up to her exacting standards. Nuns and Soldiers is," she says, "certainly as good as anything I've ever written."
People talk about her books as fantasies. She herself strongly disagrees. "My books are very serious and in a traditional sense realistic."
As a philosopher she is much concerned with the deep questions of appearance and reality, love and death. She is not an Orthodox Christian, but she is religious. "I believe in spiritual life and spiritual change, and without supernatural dogma." Religion, to her, has something to do with the wholeness of life. She has no belief in an after-life, and she thinks happiness "terribly important." She is concerned with the moral background to life, "the call to one to order one's life in a truthful and open way."
She is concerned "with the sources of energy in our lives, specially the energy of love. One can move from a bad energy source to a good one."
Iris Murdoch is, above all, energetic: not only in her intense and varied intellectual interests, but in her all-embracing appreciation of life. And life, she believes, is rich and strange. In her novels she shows something of this strangeness. "Anything imaginative is surprising," she explained. "It is the task of the artist to see, celebrate and investigate the strangeness of the world."