In the current Private Eye there is a book column that takes the line that Iris Murdoch's later novels got increasingly feeble, and that her earlier ones weren't much better. That, indeed, they never had much to do with real life and were all academic Morris dancing, full of bloodless coupling and airy ideas. "Common room camp", is the phrase used. I have read other, similar, doubts about her work recently, and it seems that the backlash against Iris Murdoch, as a writer, is under way at last.
It couldn't come too soon for me. I started having deep reservations about her work as soon as I met it. Not from the very start, actually, as I read her first novel first, Under The Net, and enjoyed that. I can't remember anything about it now, except that it seemed quite sparky and was dedicated by Murdoch to Raymond Queneau. That was a huge plus for me, because the quirky, oblique, playful Queneau was, and still is, one of my favourite writers, so I thought that anyone who dedicated a book to him must be all right.
I never enjoyed a book of hers again. All the others that I read or tried to read were full of significance but empty of meaning, full of characters yet empty of people, full of plot and empty of event. Reading an Iris Murdoch novel was like being at a fancy-dress party where you didn't know any of the people and could not work out why they were all behaving so oddly and where you suddenly wanted to go home early.
The only other thing by Murdoch that I ever enjoyed was a short exchange between two characters in The Sea, The Sea, when a man who drinks a lot of inexpensive wine turns down the offer from a woman friend to give him a short course in wine appreciation. "All that will happen if I learn to appreciate wine," he says, "is that I'll have to buy better and more expensive wines to get exactly the same pleasure out of drinking that I get now. I'll stick to my ignorant wines." A nice point. The rest of the book, sadly, I didn't enjoy.
Finally I got fed up with trying to take something that was meant to be good for me, and abandoned the attempt to enjoy Murdoch's books altogether. Of course, I never mentioned this to anyone, because there are certain people and certain things that everyone is meant to like, such as Billie Holiday, or The Goon Show, or polenta, or rock music, and it would mean running serious social risks to express a dislike of one of them.
I did once attempt a dubious cure by consulting a literary quack, that is to say a critic. I bought a book on modern British writers by Malcolm Bradbury because it contained a whole chapter on Murdoch. Unfortunately, this chapter turned out to be even more impenetrable than Murdoch herself, and it was full of claptrap about overlapping fictional worlds and different layers of meaning, which I finally concluded was designed for students to dip into so they could get impressive-sounding gobbledygook to stuff into their exam essays. So instead of learning respect for Murdoch, I merely learnt disrespect for Bradbury.
You mustn't think that I spent all my mature years worrying about my inability to enjoy Iris Murdoch. A lot of the time I didn't think of her for days on end. Years on end, actually. And then I suddenly had to think about her, and fast, because I came face to face with her. It was on a TV book programme chaired by Terry Jones, on which the three guests were myself, Iris Murdoch and Paul Theroux. An unlikely foursome, but there we were, and all I can remember about the actual programme is Terry jokingly trying to get Murdoch to tell us what use being a philosopher was in daily life, and me not saying anything about her at all as it didn't seem a good time to say what I thought.
And then it came to an an end, and the Dame was whisked away in a car back to Oxford, and the rest of us stayed for a drink, and as we relaxed in a post-Murdoch ambiance – for it is a bit of a strain having a major literary figure in the room – one of us, I think Terry, said: "Actually, to be quite honest, I have never really enjoyed her books very much." And Paul Theroux said: "Since you mention it, I can't stand them." And I think you can guess what I said.
What a moment of utter relief. It felt a bit like finally telling your parents you're gay, and finding out to your joy that they are, too. Mark you, there are some other living writers I don't see the point of, either. For instance... but maybe some other time.Reuse content