Iris's lover takes his posthumous revenge

Newly published memoirs of Nobel Prize-winning author Elias Canetti contain devastating attack on Iris Murdoch
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

She is regarded as one of the most accomplished writers of post-war Britain. Hundreds of thousands of fans still buy and borrow her novels. The touching tale of her life with her husband John Bayley, her descent into ill-health and her eventual death five years ago in the film Iris only served to strengthen her standing.

But Elias Canetti, the Nobel Prize-winning writer who shared tender moments with Iris Murdoch as her lover, has savaged her in newly published posthumous memoirs, in which he rubbishes her writing, her intellect and even her love-making.

Her husband's memoirs lifted the lid on their relationship, but Canetti's memoirs are altogether more vituperative. Canetti and Murdoch became lovers in 1953, the year before she met Bayley, now a retired professor of English at Oxford University. Their three-year relationship was one of the most influential in her life and she drew on Canetti for some of her most memorable characters in novels such as the Booker Prize-winning The Sea, The Sea. Mischa Fox in The Flight From The Enchanter, which was dedicated to Canetti, and Julius King in A Fairly Honorable Defeat also lean heavily on him. Intriguingly, those characters are manipulative and destructive forces, which may say something about the way Murdoch saw Canetti.

It is thought that Canetti, who died in 1994, helped to launch Murdoch's career by anonymously submitting the manuscript of her first novel, when she was a complete unknown, to a publisher who took it up.

Now Canetti has responded from beyond the grave in memoirs published in German, on the authority of his estate, under the title: Party in the Blitz: The English Years. The book, written in the early 1990s, has just been published in Germany and is to be translated and published this year in the UK - even though Canetti wrote on his manuscript "temporary, unordered draft (not to be published in this form)".

Canetti, who lived for decades in Amersham in Buckinghamshire and Hampstead, north London, begins his 20-page critique of his former lover with the words: "Yesterday the thick philosophical tome of Iris Murdoch, with her name in giant letters on the cover. I occupied myself with it, unfortunately, for a couple of hours. My distaste for her increased so much that I must say a few things here."

He goes on: "Her book is very badly written, shoddy, like lectures that have not been edited enough. The tone is unpleasantly academic. That would not be so bad if she had something to say."

He describes her intellectual world as derivative, dependent upon philosophical systems she has learnt but not advanced: "There is no single serious thought in her, everything sleeps on."

Murdoch's many love affairs with both women and men anger Canetti, not least because they are transmuted into her novels which "consist of all the Oxford tittle-tattle that she absorbed in half a century. Her characters are all engendered and born in Oxford ... I could say that she made much out of preying on me but it is mixed with so much other prey that one is embarrassed ... One could call Iris Murdoch the Oxford stew."

The dislike of Murdoch's novels and philosophy is accompanied by a venomous personal attack on Murdoch. Writing in his 80s, Canetti seems baffled and angered, not least by their love-making.

"Then the strangest thing happened as soon as we had kissed. The settee on which I always slept was near. Iris undressed herself swiftly, one might say, as fast as lightning, without my laying a finger upon her, she wore things that had absolutely nothing to do with love, woollen, ugly, but they were piled so swiftly into a heap on the floor, she had already laid herself under the blanket on a settee. There was no time to look at her things or at her. She lay unmoved and unchanged, I hardly noticed that I was inside her, I did not feel that she noticed anything."

Canetti, married at the time of the affair, also mocks her appearance. And he is startled by her puritanical attitude to food and drink. He admires her ability to listen and enjoys her passion for listening to him. But he thinks she uses this to exploit others' knowledge, particularly his own. He denies that she is a "real writer" because she "never had to suffer for having to write". Murdoch's memoirs suggest a sado-masochist streak within the relationship as she describes her desire to submit to the "great superb beast" Canetti: "He subjugates me completely. Only such a complete intellectual and moral ascendancy could hold me."

But Peter Conradi, Murdoch's official biographer, told The Independent on Sunday: "Canetti thought he encouraged her writing. The venomous last notes are not a truthful record of their relations over 50 years. He was proud of her initially and also jealous of her. It was almost certainly Canetti who anonymously submitted her first novel for publication."

A N Wilson, in his own controversial memoir of Murdoch, says however: "Canetti was a cruel man. Not only did he behave with physical violence to [Murdoch] during the acts of love ... but he was mentally sadistic."

Canetti on Murdoch...

Her intellect...

"Her book is very badly written, shoddy, like lectures that have not been edited enough. The tone is unpleasantly academic. That would not be so bad if she had something to say."

Her relationship to other intellectuals...

"Like a housewife going shopping"

Her artistic growth...

"I know how she arose, before my very eyes she assembled herself, a type of total parasite from Oxford."

Her novels...

"Her 24 novels ... consist in all the Oxford tittle-tattle she absorbed in decades or half a century."

Her looks...

"Huge flat feet and the somewhat bulky legs"


"She came to me from time to time and expected - without much ado - sex but always remained unmoved."