June 2013 TBRI had a bit of an Iris Murdoch phase back in September 2012, buying a couple of books from an IM society colleague and picking one up at the IM Conference.  I’m trying to space those out a little, as you can have too much of a good thing (plus I don’t have many books on IM and like to savour them), but then I was also offered a review copy of another one in e-book form, so I thought I might as well group two of them here. Reading these two books took me back to the wonders of the Iris Murdoch A Month Project (reading all of her novels in publication order over a number of years) and the flabby progress of my own research, but as long as I keep reading and thinking about her, I’m sure that will be fine in the end!

Farzaneh Naseri-Sis – “The Dramatic in Iris Murdoch’s Fiction”

(24 September 2012)

The first thing I noticed about the book was that it was a thesis pretty well printed directly in book form. This has its place, of course, and allows researchers to send their research into the wide world, but this was obviously quite cheaply produced, being created straight from the file of the PhD, with the most noticeable effect being the very small print and double spacing. The small print strained my eyes, and the double spacing and Times font uncomfortably reminded me of my day-job proofreading PhDs, and I sometimes had to struggle to retain my reader’s, rather than editor’s, brain as I read it.

That said, it was an interesting read and a competent piece of research. It takes The Nice and the Good, The Black Prince and The Sea, The Sea, and looks at their use of the characters and situations of drama, and particularly their echo and parody of the forms, structures, language and characters of, respectively, As You Like It / Love’s Labours Lost, Hamlet and The Tempest. Each section on each book also contained a discussion of its demonstration of Murdoch’s philosophy of the dramatic, mainly encapsulated in the idea of the journey towards ‘unselfing’ which I have read about in other works. These last sections do seem a bit incongruous compared with the more whole studies of the books and, essentially, Shakespeare, and I wonder if this work was built up from a slightly less wide-ranging Master’s or MPhil originally.

The work is competent and well done, although I couldn’t help noticing a few typos and stylistic inconsistencies. It was particularly good on The Sea, The Sea, whether because the author had got into her stride by then or because The Nice and the Good addresses Shakespeare/his comedies in general rather than those particular plays. It would have been a better read if rejigged as a book rather than a thesis, although at least it didn’t have those sections on methodology and ontology that every student seems to be forced to write these days, so small mercies there. A decent addition to my Murdoch collection.

Jeffrey Meyer – “Remembering Iris Murdoch: Letters and Interviews”

(ebook June 2013 from the publisher)

Disclaimer: Although I am studying Iris Murdoch in my spare time and a member of the Iris Murdoch Society, and was presumably sent this book on one of those premises, I am by no means an expert or an IM “scholar” and my reaction to and review of this book represents my personal opinion as someone outside the IM and academic sector.

Palgrave, the publisher, kindly offered me an ebook of this new book by Jeffrey Meyer, who appears from his bibliography to be an indefatigable literary biographer and who has also interviewed Iris Murdoch and written articles about her. This book collects together an extended essay about IM and the author’s relationship with her; letters from IM to the author over the course of their friendship until her death; reprints of two interviews conducted by the author with IM and printed in the Paris Review and Denver Quarterly; and an essay on the books written about IM after her death by those close to her.

The memoir / essay that opens the book starts off surprisingly with the slightly snide insinuation that IM won the Booker Prize with “The Sea, The Sea” because she was friends with the chair of the committee. It then settles down to a personal and somewhat confiding exploration of her life – concentrating on the sexuality side of things, although the rest of the sections of the book leave this alone – and then of Meyer’s friendship with her, with very personal physical descriptions of IM, including her decline. This made the book seem to me to be more suited to the Murdoch adept or scholar rather than as an introductory text; it does give a different aspect to the views of IM and it’s always of interest to read about people who have met and been close to her.

The letters are all from IM to JM, and it would have been good to have the full correspondence. Her letters are sweet, kind, interested and slight gossipy on occasion and remind me that we really DO need a Collected Letters, although I imagine that this would be quite a large project. There is a lot about Meyers’ own novels; it’s good to see writers supporting other writers and a wider context would leaven the concentration on just one writer. We get insights into IM’s interest in other contemporary authors such as Timothy Mo, Anita Brookner and Vikram Seth (the last rather oddly footnoted as being the author of “Two Lives” rather than the better-known “A Suitable Boy”) and the insight that she does not like reading other people’s books about her. She also displays an antipathy to Women’s Studies which maybe explains the difficulty of applying a feminist literary theory to her novels, although she is glad that Somerville resists the introduction of men to the college and is pro women priests. Information on the staging of the play of “The Black Prince” is also useful; this crops up again in the interviews. It becomes heartbreaking towards the end of the letter sequence – it’s a personal book so I feel I’m permitted a personal reaction here – as IM begins to forget how to write a novel and starts to get tired and make mistakes. It was a moving surprise to find some letters from John Bayley rounding off the letter sequence.

The Paris Review and Denver Quarterly articles are fascinating (although part or all of these have been previous published in Gillian Dooley’s “From a Tiny Corner in the House of Fiction” published in 2003). There is a good deal of detail about how IM planned and wrote her novels, and about goodness, particularly the ‘good’ writer expunging themselves from their own novels as the good characters seek to become invisible and ‘unselfed’. There were also some nice passages about the ‘ideal reader’ which I’ve noted down for my own research. The deleted sections are interesting, although it might have been more useful to include these, marked in some way, in the text of the article itself, for continuity’s sake.

The extended essay about the books written after IM’s death by A.N. Wilson and John Bayley are basically long reviews of their books. Again, in an intensely personal book, they add the facet of information about someone who knew IM’s reaction to these books which is of interest.

In summary, as I said, an intensely personal book, written from an intimate viewpoint which will add a new dimension for the IM completist. And a call for a Collected Letters for us completists (and a Selected one for the rest of the world)!

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For more Iris Murdoch stuff on this blog, running a search for Iris Murdoch will give you all of my book reviews and updates on my research project.

Current reading: I am coming to the end of positively WALLOWING in Adam Nicolson’s “The Gentry” – more of that later!