Happy Birthday to Jean Iris Murdoch, born in Dublin on this day in 1919.
And there's the first thing I didn't really know, that Iris was Irish, an only child, and by her own admission brought up very happily in 'a perfect trinity of love,' by parents who she adored. I have chosen this picture from the many available because it somehow radiates a calm and gentleness, despite the onset of Alzheimer's. Iris a woman who is said to have had no enemies and was loved by all who knew her. The family moved to London when Iris was nine and after schooling at Froebel Institute and Badminton it was to Somerville for her First in Greats, awarded in 1942.
Then I had to look up Greats.
I've heard of it of course but never really known exactly what Greats consisted of. From what I can gather it's a course in Classics... Ancient Rome, Ancient Greece, Latin, ancient Greek and philosophy and I'm hoping if anyone out there has done it perhaps you could tell me more.
At this point I would love to show you my pile of books by Iris Murdoch, so I will...
...and I should then proceed to write about them all, and suggest which ones you might want to read, and perhaps we'd have a discussion in comments about our favourites, our best Iris Moments etc..
...except I haven't read any.
Not a single one... though of course I have always meant to, and even had plans for reading some with a friend, a sort of shared project that we would write about here, but there is something about Iris Murdoch that terrifies me, perhaps it's the Philosophy word, so your task today dear reader is to allay my anxieties and suggest where to start.
It won't be this week, or even next, because I have sunk into summer-deckchair-heatwave-reading-thriller mode, witness I am currently reading Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, but I would like to read at least something by Iris eventually. As is often the case with writers like this, I feel sure there is a way in, usually an accessible novel that debunks all the myths about impossibility and incomprehension milling around in my mind. One book that will leap-frog me over the high fence that just seems to grow higher every time I obviously pick up the wrong book and make a start.
But I had tucked a few press snippeteerings from February 1999 into the books, including several obituaries. I read of critics who complain of excess, of 'torrents of adjectives' and 'heedless sentences,' of 'elaborate patterning of relationships with everybody in love with everybody else,' a style mocked by Malcolm Bradbury thus..
"Fiona says that Hugo tells her that Augustina is in love with Fred."
And I think shall I even bother??
Then I read that John Updike saw it very differently in Iris's lifetime...
"Let it be asked now: what other living novelist in the language is the peer of Iris Murdoch at inventing characters and moving them fascinatingly?"
And I really do want to read a writer who was famed for delivering her handwritten manuscripts to her publisher in plastic carrier bags, never telling them what she was working on, they in turn never asking, nor daring to edit her work.
Disinterested in fame and protective of her private life, Iris Murdoch was known amongst her friends (who numbered hundreds) for her 'kindness and warmth and understanding,' a brilliant listener, her ability to draw people out in conversation and then have them confessing all was legendary. She harboured a genuine concern for 'goodness and truth-seeking and truth-telling,' which all convinces me even more than when I started writing this post, that this is a writer whose work I would like to get to know and will.
And I would like to set aside her husband's memoir, published whilst Iris was still alive and then the film. Moving though the book may have seemed to many for its account of Iris's descent into the Alzheimer's that initially had the critics questioning her failing literary powers, I had reservations about it. It perturbed me if I'm honest ....too much information at a time when people deserve privacy and confidentiality, and just occasionally to be allowed to go gentle into that good night. But that might just be me.
So, a very happy birthday to Iris, and come on you Murdochians out there...where do us novices begin??