Peter Conradi is literary executor of the estate of Iris Murdoch (1919-99) and was her close friend in the 1980s and '90s, so sensible readers will not expect this to be a warts-and-all biography of the distinguished novelist and philosopher. What they get instead is a warm, appreciative portrait focused on Murdoch's formative years: happy Anglo-Irish childhood; intellectual fulfillment at Oxford University, where she joined the Communist Party and formed many enduring friendships; a stint in the civil service and work with refugees during World War II; and the postwar decade, when she began to write the intellectually challenging yet wickedly entertaining novels that made her reputation. John Bayley movingly described his wife's struggle with Alzheimer's disease in Elegy for Iris
, and Conradi wisely does not reiterate that material. He concentrates on recapturing the intense young woman who awed fellow students with her brains and enticed men with her blonde hair and generous figure, yet kept everyone at a slight distance, finding epistolary relationships more manageable than the tangled sexual intrigues her fiction explores so acutely. She had many affairs, including a painful one with expatriate (and married) European intellectual Elias Canetti, but marriage to Bayley in 1956 gave her the stability she needed; over the next 40 years she produced 25 steadily more assured and provocative novels, from Under the Net
through A Severed Head
and The Black Prince
to The Green Knight
. Conradi uses interviews and Murdoch's journals to good effect in a lengthy but readable text that illuminates the personal experiences that so intimately informed her fiction. --Wendy Smith
From Publishers Weekly
It has been nearly two years since Iris Murdoch's death from Alzheimer's and the publication of her husband John Bayley's memoir Elegy for Iris. It seems fitting that the beloved philosopher and novelist should be the subject of a biography nearly as idiosyncratic and charming as she herself was. One of the numerous oddities of this one is its construction: each chapter is broken into numbered sections rarely more than four pages long. This allows the author (Murdoch's longtime friend and biographer of Angus Wilson) to ramble back and forth chronologically, examining a few years at a time through different perspectives literary, romantic, philosophical and gradually progress forward. The overall effect is leisurely, informal, highly literary and more than a bit uneven. In the first half, Conradi faithfully traces Murdoch's family background and intellectual development, painstakingly tracking down her earliest Latin teachers or the history of modern Irish sectarianism, as the moment requires. But the second half ends as if winded, streaking through 16 prolific years in one short chapter, mentioning Murdoch's knighthood almost in passing. The book's great strength lies in its characterizations ("She had a way of staring down at her glass, listening very carefully to the speaker, possibly indicating also that the glass was empty"). Documenting Murdoch's eccentricities and legendary kindnesses, Conradi succeeds in reviving her presence. Thus, readers who seek a few last glimpses of Murdoch's rare personality will be gratified by this affectionate, if disorganized, tribute; those looking for closure or hoping to make sense of the narrative of her life will not.
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