The Angela Lambert Interview: In the presence of great goodness: Dame Iris Murdoch, novelist and philosopher: 'The planet will go wrong, be burnt up, and this is something we can do nothing about'

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DAME Iris Murdoch was on television the other day, talking about difficulties with words. Her argument was roughly that, while one can get the general drift of what other people mean, its essence must often remain elusive. This was a depressing thought, given that I was about to interview her; so I launched our conversation at her house in north Oxford by asking whether she thought that my words in this newspaper could convey anything real or significant about her.

She laughed. (She laughs a lot, and a joyous and childlike laugh at that.) 'If people write about other people of course something real comes across,' she said, down- to-earth and sensible, not at all the linguistic philosopher's answer I had feared. 'When one meets another person one very rapidly establishes or recognises an atmosphere of some kind of mutual communication, which can be very felicitous and may convey a lot. My own impression so far is that we shall communicate very well, though I'm rather daunted by the thought of a lot of questions.'

She had in fact commenced our interview by asking about me. 'But Dame Iris,' I wailed, 'I'm here to talk about you]' She insisted, and later I realised that this was probably to enable her to decide where to pitch the level of communication. She established just enough about me to know where I could be located on her cerebral ladder. Having done that, she relaxed

and answered my questions freely and generously.

Dame Iris has written 24 novels, starting with Under the Net, published in 1954. The most recent was The Message to the Planet, 1989; another is in progress. Her fictional oeuvre is by no means complete. But her first book was on Sartre; she taught philosophy at St Anne's College, Oxford for many years; and next month Chatto & Windus is to publish what will probably be her last philosophical work: a 514-page book called Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals. Was this her definitive statement?

'I don't like the term: it sounds as though one is uttering some great truth, and drawing attention to it. Given the time I have to live now (Dame Iris is 73), I doubt if I shall write anything like this again. It is a long book. It is also an imperfect book and full of dislocations and repetitions, too, but it is certainly what I think.'

We had been talking for five minutes or so when John Bayley, her husband, came in to the sitting room and offered coffee. He is a little younger than she. They have been married for 36 years. They are childless. An academic friend, whom I had rung in some trepidation when I heard Dame Iris had agreed to this interview, has known them since the early days of their marriage. 'They're terribly in love,' he said. 'They really do seem to be amazingly and very touchingly in love. They are two small and quite ordinary-looking people, yet when they look at each other, they're beautiful.'

The coffee having been delivered, John Bayley said: 'I'm going out now, darling.'

'Right-ho, darling,' she said; and then: 'Will you be back?'

'Back in about an hour,' he reassured her.

'Cheerio then, darling.'

He waved a plastic bag. 'Cheerio,' he said.

Now, without wanting to read too much into this most mundane domestic exchange, I was struck by the tenderness with which they addressed one another. It seemed perfectly clear that they do still very positively love each other.

Nearly everyone seems to love Dame Iris. Her publisher said: 'She's the most wonderful author I have, without any doubt; she's so considerate and thoughtful and is adored by every single person in this company. She's a genuinely good person and the goodness comes through at all sorts of levels, including great humility.'

Another friend said: 'She is a very lovable woman because she tries to be, and is, good; and because her idea of goodness is about being attentive and nice to people. She really listens to you and wants to know what you think. She is good, kind and amiable and she attends to everything

you say.' This exactly described her benevolence.

We talked about The Flaying of Marsyas, a picture by Titian which fascinates her, and can be seen in the background of an Eighties portrait of her by Tom Phillips. She said: 'There is very often a liberation in a painter's work. At a certain stage he can suddenly do anything he likes. He becomes godlike. Titian's late works have this quality.' I wondered if, as a novelist, she had reached the stage where she felt she could do anything.

'Ah, yes, that's an interesting question,' she temporised. 'I think my later work is much better than my earlier work; which is what every writer wants to feel. I think The Bell is the only good one of the earlier lot, and that the last four novels are better than any of the others. You feel that you know how to do it; it's your job but it's also an art form you have mastered. It's terribly important to envisage the whole thing in detail before you write a sentence. You must have the characters clear in your mind and know how they talk and have a vision of the whole thing before you start at all.'

I asked Dame Iris whether she had found her life difficult to live.

'So far the answer must be no. I've been very lucky. I had marvellous parents. I was an only child and they were absolutely angelic, and I was very happy. My mother was a very beautiful and darling woman, with a wonderful singing voice. I was born in Dublin, but my father decided to come to London and join the Civil Service, so I grew up in Hammersmith and Chiswick. I went to two excellent schools.

'It's been difficult in that I've lived, as an adult, through a war. I finished my degree at Oxford (she read Greats at Somerville, and got a First in 1942) and 10 days after I'd done Schools I was in the Civil Service, in the Treasury. My father was delighted. During the war one worked a five- and-a-half day week and was kept awake at night by bombs, so I was dead tired, all the time.

'I was there for two years and then joined Unrra (the United Nations organisation working for refugees). I didn't open a book for years. But the refugees were very rewarding and I thought of making it a life's work. But before returning to Austria I was in Brussels about eight days after the end of the war, and I came across L'Etre et le Neant by Sartre. I didn't altogether agree with it, but it brought me back into philosophy, which I'd loved at Oxford, although I didn't necessarily think of myself as a philosopher. But this book attracted me very much, and I wrote a little book about Sartre.' (Sartre, Romantic Rationalist was published in 1953.)

'After I'd been in the refugee camps for a while some kind person sent me a notice from a periodical offering a scholarship in philosophy at Cambridge, and I applied for that, and got it. That year, 1947-48, was all rather dicey and exhilarating: I was taught by disciples of Wittgenstein. After that, I just didn't know what I was going to do. And then, of course, my best bit of luck was meeting John. I'd looked at a lot of chaps . . .' Her voice trailed away.

People who knew her in those days say that Iris Murdoch had a number of devastating love affairs before her marriage; and surely no one could have written her novels, with their emphasis on the intense and random experience of passionate love, who was not thoroughly acquainted with its nature. 'I didn't fall in love with him instantaneously (it is said that he did, with her) because we didn't get to know each other all that well straight away, but as soon as we did, it was clear.

'We met absolutely by accident at a dinner party, and then in another context. I was very unhappy at times before I met John . . . just . . . (she hesitated) the sort of worries . . . when one wants to get married and can't make up one's mind what to do about it, and so on and so on . . .' Her voice trailed off into a murmur. Just then the telephone rang. 'Oh dear,' she said with relief, 'I do hate the telephone]' and she went away to answer it.

In her absence I looked around the sitting room. Its windows were almost covered by foliage from the garden, so that the sunshine filtered through with a pale green, subaqueous light, emphasised by apple green walls. The floor was covered with a large oriental carpet, which was itself covered with books, mugs, magazines (the National Geographic with an article on the Kurds), two typewriters, some envelopes and plastic bags. Under the coffee table lay two biros and a large stone, slightly dusty. There were tapestry cushions (several of which, it turned out, she had embroidered), scattered across the sofas. The room was shabby, comfy, and unmistakably intellectual.

Dame Iris came back. Did she have any practical or trivial occupations? 'I care very much about what my house looks like,' she said, 'though this might not be apparent from looking round; but at the moment John is retiring and thousands of books from his room in college are coming here. John's a good cook, and I'm not. I used to paint, and would like to have been a painter. I could have had a happy life as a painter.'

Her skin and hair are soft like a child's, the hair flying out from her head in fine wisps. Her eyes are a clear sparkling blue. Her presence is uplifting, in a most extraordinary way. One is quite certain she is trying to tell the truth; and that hers is a truth worth hearing. There is a dark sentence in one of the last chapters of Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals in which she writes: 'The average inhabitant of the planet is probably without hope, and starving' and then, a little later, 'Can one go on talking about an absolute good if a majority of humankind is debarred from it?' Are things really as bad as that?

'I don't think that is an exaggeration, no. In a way we're at rather a state of crisis. If one thinks of the next century, there could be a collapse in terms of the ability of rationality and goodness and so on to rule. There are so many forces of disturbance, and various kinds of religion can be dangerous, too. In a general way the planet will go wrong, be burnt up, and this is something that with the best of intentions we can do nothing about.

'We must not take for granted that good and rational and generous behaviour, concern for others, can be relied upon and will spread throughout the world. The disappearance of traditional religion is important, and goes with determinism: when people think, oh well, we can't alter anything much so we might as well have a good time while we can. Technology is becoming so strong and so important. The belief in the reality of the moral as an absolute requirement could simply vanish.'

Does it become easier to be a good person as one gets older?

'One would like to say that people become wiser as they grow older; more generous, less frightened; understanding human nature better - but equally one could turn it all around. Happiness is important. Some lives are happy to begin with and then run into absolute darkness, or vice versa, and this can affect the ability or desire to help other people. Goodness is such a general term; but it is worth thinking about.'

What has been the most important thing in her own life?

'Two things. One, being happily married, and the other, being able to use my mind creatively, in philosophy and in writing novels. I feel modest about both these operations, but I have learnt a lot and derived satisfaction from pursuing these two trades.'

Her doorbell rang. It was the photographer. As we parted, she put her hands on my shoulders and kissed me on both cheeks. 'Dear girl,' she said. 'Goodbye.' I went out into the noon sunshine, knowing that I had been in the presence of great goodness. It was a rare, almost a unique experience.

(Photograph omitted)