Iris Murdoch As I Knew Her by A N Wilson

A writer traduced by her squabbling biographers

By Richard Canning
Saturday 28 September 2013 03:11

Two books on Iris Murdoch call out for your attention. The persistent coughing on your right comes from The Iris Trilogy (Abacus, £10.99), which collects her husband John Bayley's three memoirs. Probably on your sinister side, meanwhile, lies a stack of these cackling AN Wilsons. Bookseller, beware: these rivals - like their authors - cannot share a table.

Bayley's Iris was widely acclaimed for its moving accounts of the novelist-philosopher succumbing to Alzheimer's disease. These were helpfully leavened by Bayley's eccentric response to becoming her prime carer. The cinema adaptation, however, felt false, with its unsubtle "genius lost" motif.

Wilson, befriended by the Bayleys over three decades, opens by recounting his anger at this celluloid "work of fiction" which speaks little of Murdoch's achievement. Bayley once wrote that Alzheimer's had "turned Iris herself into art. She is my Iris no longer, but a person in the public domain." This wistful or elegiac note does leave one wondering, like Wilson, just why Bayley chose to place her there.

Iris and the Friends, his follow-up, was more troubling in its possibly crass revelation of intimacies such as his senescent wife's untidy "toilet habits". Wilson argues that this intensely private woman would be horrified. He further objects to the Teletubbification of the writer, abetted by Bayley.

This risks leaving Murdoch's true legacy - her writings - overshadowed by our cultural fixations upon illness and unorthodox relationships. Muddling, well-meaning Oxford will remember Murdoch "not by a Chair of Literature or Philosophy", but one dedicated to Old Age Psychiatry. It is, Wilson acidly notes, "as though the Tolkien Chair should be, not of Old English Philology, but of Bronchitis."

The jacket for Widower's House, Bayley's third memoir, may have featured a photograph of himself and Murdoch. The book, however, documents Bayley's "afterlife": in particular, his fending off the unexpected sexual solicitations of two long-standing female friends. Wilson calls some passages "staggeringly ungallant". He may be right.

Why, then, is AN Wilson's memoir indisputably the more misguided, treacherous and inessential? It is largely because his occasional high-mindedness is more than cancelled out by pervasive spleen. To disjointed sallies against Bayley, he adds only a few trivial anecdotes and some impenetrable philosophical précis.

Wilson's book demeans subject and author. Murdoch, he concedes and illustrates, showed little but repeated kindness to him. She made one critical misjudgement, however. In 1989, she asked Wilson to write her biography, hoping (incredibly) to ward off anyone more intrusive. He soon found her secretive and deceitful, and abandoned the project.

The error here mostly involves sins committed - to paper. So much fervent opining left me persuaded by Axel's assertion in A Fairly Honourable Defeat that "civilisation is based on not saying what you think". Wilson is, however, guilty of a considerable sin of omission. He nowhere mentions the authorised biography of Murdoch: Peter Conradi's life (2001) is substantial, mature and, yes, sometimes frustratingly discreet. Still, it achieves much of what Wilson's idealistic side argues for. Conradi's work also illustrates the challenges in tackling the life of someone recently deceased. Murdoch novices should find Conradi's book in the shop's quieter recesses. They need look no further.

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