Peter Conradi’s biography is an immensely long book, and it sometimes seems long as one reads it. The trouble is that the biographer has been almost smothered by the abundance of his sources. Iris Murdoch often thought of her own life as a kind of quest, a quest for perfection in her experience and in herself, and in consequence all through the years she kept diaries to record her aspirations and shortcomings. Ninety-five diaries survive. She was a person always greatly liked and loved, and tirelessly wrote long and serious letters to all her friends. Add to this twenty-six novels and some philosophical and reflective essays, and it becomes evident that Peter Conradi had a formidable problem, which he has been partly, but only partly, successful in solving. He admires Murdoch with some reservation, and the generous tone of his writing helps the reader to overlook a certain formlessness in the narrative and some vagueness in the grounds of his admiration.
He has written a good book but it presupposes a sturdy interest in Murdoch. A biographer is often in the embarrassing position of being a secular Saint Peter, expected to pass judgment on a whole life while telling its story, and his reviewer is bound to be in an even more absurd position, passing judgment on the judgment. But in Murdoch’s case there arises an interesting question which can perhaps be answered: What was her real originality and where did it come from? For original in some way she undoubtedly was, in addition to being both a distinguished and popular novelist.
Early in her life she wrote to a friend who was going away, “I feel, even at the lowest moment, such endless vitality within me.” This inner sense of vitality she sometimes called joy, joy in living and writing, a word that she characteristically could use without the embarrassment often attached to it. About Under the Net, an early, light, and gay novel published in 1954, she wrote, “I can see very clearly how bad it is. It is very romantic and sentimental, even what is intellectual in it is intellectual in a romantic way. If anything saves it from complete wreck it is a sort of vitality and joy that lifts it a little.” This is a correct analysis of her own work, though too harsh, and I am sure that the proven appeal of the novels to a very wide range of readers is a natural response to the author’s own particularly vivid and communicated enjoyment in the processes of writing, and joy in the invention of stories.
The achievement is the reverse of the strangled and bitter perfection of, for example, L’Éducation sentimentale and of the revered tradition of Flaubertian authorship. Murdoch was prolific and loved the flow of writing. The “lift” comes into effect when characters are apt to swing on chandeliers and to behave as if they have departed forever on a permanent holiday.
In her storytelling Murdoch conveyed the happiness that she…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.