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Iris Murdoch: A Life Hardcover – October, 2001


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (October 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393048756
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393048759
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.6 x 1.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,030,463 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

12 of 14 people found the following review helpful By bookloversfriend on May 11, 2007
Format: Hardcover
This comprehensive biography gives you the life and thoughts of Iris Murdoch, her development as a writer and as a person.

Her sex life is included, but her relationships are merely mentioned. This is a completely G-rated book, no descriptions, no scenes. The purpose is as much to say whom she did NOT sleep with as it is to say whom she did. Iris was quite gregarious and preferred one-on-one conversations. She met with and had drinks with many different people. Most of these she did not sleep with. But she lived completely by her inclinations of the moment, so men knew that it was always possible they might end up in bed but that they probably wouldn't. This made Iris far more popular than if she had slept with everyone she met.

Also, Iris never seemed to drop or break up with anyone. She just moved on. She was usually involved with several people at any one time, but didn't talk about it. Like all women, she was susceptible to pretty men, and even though she was no beauty herself, she did get involved with two such men. When they dumped her, she was deeply hurt. Men didn't usually dump her. This led to her holding back in relationships, "never giving all the heart" (as Yeats put it). And this may be one factor that led to her ubiquitous portrayal of distanced relationships in her novels.

The other factor is some of the other men she got involved with, especially Canetti. This individual hated women (p. 349). He was "jealous, paranoiac and a mythomaniac" (p. 355). Women, including Iris, adored him to the point of enslavement. He kept many women going at the same time, but hated if any of his women had more than one man. He was also a sadomasochist (p. 357 ff). After having sex, he would contemplate the woman with "a sort of amused hostility" (p.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Frank Richards on December 18, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Review of IRIS MURDOCH, A Life
By Peter J. Conradi
New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001

This book is a rich source of research material for those interested in Iris Murdoch. It presents some chronology and summarizes many of her journal entries. Remembrances of her friends and associates are also related. The book dwells on the significant (and perhaps some insignificant) relationships of her life.

This biography is in need of editing in my opinion, because it hasn't a coherent framework. It begins with a chronological account, but fails to maintain that approach to the end. Halfway through it switches concentration to journal entries, which move about in time as they are presented. To perhaps unfairly exaggerate, `in 1967 Iris wrote that blah blah, but in 1963 she also said yadda yadda, while in 1965....' This makes the evolution of her thought difficult to follow.

The book does not present a coherent summary of Murdoch's philosophical approach. There are interesting notes on her novels but they are not comprehensive. One glimpses the recurrent themes, but these aren't presented in an orderly fashion. In short, there is a lack of integration of the life, the relationships, the philosophy and the novels.

The author would have done well to stick with the chronological approach, perhaps presenting Murdoch's philosophy as contained in the books she published and analyzing/presenting her novels in the sequence in which they appeared and as they were embedded in other aspects of her life at the time, such as Murdoch's many relationships. As another reviewer notes, the last ten years of her life are presented in a page and a half or so. One wonders at what was omitted. Nevertheless, the book does present extensive material for the reader.
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22 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Karen on May 30, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Can you write a biography without being in love with your subject? The question isn't really relevant to this work, because I don't see any evidence that Conradi can write at all. There's plenty of evidence for his fawning, puppy-dog adoration of Dame Murdoch. There's plenty of evidence for half of Oxford's fawning, puppy-dog adoration of her, along with about a fourth of the population of London and assorted Americans and Continentals. Conradi could have called his book "Iris Murdoch and All the People Who Went to Bed with Her: Lives" or "Iris Murdoch: She Almost Makes Me Wish I Weren't Gay" or "Iris Murdoch: If You're English, Your Parents Probably Had Sex with Her. Yes, Both of Them." The bulk of the book is a catalog of love affairs and intrigues that would be over-the-top for a high school prom queen, mixed up with feeble stabs at placing Murdoch's intellectual development. What there's little evidence for is any sense of irony or humor on Conradi's part. I personally could not plop down one-sentence references to Simone Weil, the allegory of the cave, or Holocaust survivor guilt like a giant blob of oatmeal in the midst of a candyfloss paragraph giving me details of Murdoch's vast network of flirtation without intending to be funny. Conradi isn't funny. He's just incoherent.
This obsessive focus on Murdoch's status as sweetheart to the philosophical regiment is not only incredibly boring to read, it's offensive in the same way focus on Doris Lessing's motherhood is offensive. Male writers and intellectuals who leave a child in the care of others, as did Lessing, or who lead complicated romantic lives on a Murdochian scale, are not presented to the world by others as if these are the central facts of their existences.
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