My breathless encounters with Iris Murdoch

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The Independent Online

I might be back in the country when you're reading this, I might not. It all depends on Cioccalatina, the beautiful Italian idiot savant who pack-mules the English papers to the top of the mountain where I've been lying looking out towards Bagnoregio for the last weeks, wondering about God, eating the figs that fall into my lap, and trying to keep up with the various literary spats that have broken out in London and Oxford in my absence. If Cioccalatina can't make it up for whatever reason for more than a day, or if she brings me Il Messaggero or La Repubblica by mistake, I grow desperate. Two days without news of who has been slagging off whose book and I'll be flying home.

It's the Iris Murdoch to-do that has engaged me most, not least as I have been sitting on my own recollections of Iris for some years, though discretion - a sense of the decencies which I think one can only characterise by the word "Cambridge": call it a Cambridge refinement - has kept me silent until now.

How well did I know Iris Murdoch personally? A difficult question. All depends on what you mean by know, let alone on what you mean by personally. If you're asking did I ever meet her, then no. If you're asking did I have an affair with her, then no to that as well; though the one, if you believe what those who did know her personally have been saying, was not necessarily dependent on the other. To admit to having a degree in English Literature from either Oxford or Cambridge and yet to not having had sex with Iris Murdoch is, I accept, foolhardy in the extreme, and probably marks the end of any literary ambitions I still nurse.

But honesty must out. No, I did not. And what is more, it is my firm belief that she did not either. Not with me, and not with anybody else. Sex? Iris Murdoch? Never!

None of my business, of course, whether she did or she didn't. Sex, to my mind, whether in literature or in life, is optional. You are neither better nor worse for the experience. But this continuing chatter about her as a wanton, the references to her promiscuity which pepper every new memoir, strike me as an offence not just to her memory, but to likelihood, to observation, and to language.

Reader, when you study photographs of Iris Murdoch looking out from wherever in that other-wordly, faux-frightened, creature-of-the forest way; when you behold her pudding-basin haircut, effected almost certainly by garden shears; when you see her in her shapeless pinafores, her patterned tights, her woolly cardigans, her deck shoes worn with socks - reader, do you see a wanton?

It would of course be naive to suppose that concupiscence is the prerogative of Kylies in spangled strings and six-inch-high stilettos; bring it back to skin and we are all equal before the God of Love. But ask yourself, man or woman - for she was said to be partial in her wantonness to both - whether you would ever have had the heart to breach such maladroitness.

Yes, I hear you say, provided you were similarly maladroit yourself. And there's my point. As her husband John Bayley tells it, encounters between the two of them were hesitant, comical, a matter of reaching for the wrong limb at the wrong time, and, as far as I can tell, inconclusive. Not sex at all in the sense that you and I understand the word. Any sociologist of Oxford in the heyday of Iris Murdoch will tell you that sex then meant rubbing noses and panting a lot, and promiscuity meant rubbing noses and panting a lot with someone not your spouse. This is not to say that John Bayley was exaggerating when he ascribed a predilection for infidelity to his wife. Far from it. He caught her rubbing noses with other men, the majority of them Jewish refugees in shock, and being unable to conceive how much further sex could ever go, he took her to be a wanton.

That her own imagination of carnality stopped at a similar premature stage of erotic conjuncture, not to say conjecture, is evident in her novels. When Lindsay pulls off her brown dress for Randall in An Unofficial Rose, Randall's knees tremble, then he pants for breath, then he trembles again, then he gives long sighs. When Nancy yields her body to Randall, she is faint and sighing. That Randall is finally able to kiss her "savagely" tells you all you need to know. Savagery being a concept found only in the minds of those from whom all savagery has been fretted clean away.

Mor, in The Sandcastle, pants less than Randall but lays his head more often on Rain's breast. "Dear heart," he says. But they are behaving, as Rain reminds him, like mad people. "If you want to see me, I shall see you. But we are mad."

Mad, mad do you hear!

Hokum, all of it. Mills and Boon for readers of a philosophic bent. And as such, yes, quite brilliant. A thinking romantic myself, I cannot count the hours of pleasurable excruciation Iris Murdoch's novels have given me. The greatest no-sex sex by a person who knows not a thing about it in all literature. And the most spectacularly inexpert use of sexual language.

Remember that heart-stopping line in a A Word Child, "You mean that on the night of Anne's death Gunnar fucked you?" I know of societies devoted to hilarity which meet simply to deliver it to one another monthly. "You mean that on the night of Anne's death Gunnar fucked you?"

As I tell Cioccalatina, early up the mountain with my papers, there is something wonderful in the spectacle of someone using the f-word and not having a clue what it denotes.

She heaves her maiden breast. I sigh, breathless at the sight of her, and for my papers.

"Dear heart, do you believe in God?" I ask her, panting.