This, like the last one, but for different reasons, is an intimidating book to review. Published in 2015, not only has it thus been reviewed fairly recently in the Serious Papers, but it and those reviews have been discussed by much greater and more academic minds than mine in the Iris Murdoch studies community. In addition, I know not only the two editors, but also those who keep the archive and who consulted on and even proofread the volume, to varying degrees. On top of all that, it’s also the letters of my much-loved favourite author; indeed, I once received a letter from her myself (not so surprising, given the volume of her correspondence), alas lost decades ago in a house move. So I hope I do it justice, and I’m responding to the book here in a personal, not critical way (which does fit in with my use of Reception Theory in my research, right?!).
Avril Horner and Anne Rowe (eds.) “Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch 1934-1995”
(Bought from Foyles, 2 July 2016)
Murdoch’s collected correspondence at last (or at least a small proportion of the huge amount that must be out there), boosted by the acquisition by the Archives at Kingston of several important runs of letters in recent years.
My main reaction to this was that she was so darn busy. She often writes to the same person on consecutive days, and these are big, meaty, handwritten letters. She does say she can’t act without speaking in one letter, and indeed she works out thoughts, feelings, reactions and relationships through the letters. On any one day she appears to be answering letters (for up to 4 hours per day, apparently), carrying on affairs, often simultaneously, being married, making, breaking and remaking friendships and relationships, doing philosophy and then writing – no wonder she and John Bayley let the housework slide a bit!
The other massive point this made to me was the difficulty of making arrangements in a pre-digital era. I remember this – of course I do – but it’s quite shocking to see the amount of time and energy that has to go into, for example, letting people know which address to write to; making silent phone calls to alert people that she needs to speak to them; sending stamped addressed postcards for people (mostly Canetti) to use to let her know if they can meet her (I really don’t like the way she debases herself in front of some people, primarily him, however much he inspired her to create her wonderful fictional monsters); and trying to recall the names of pubs, outside which she will be at 3.40 on 4 March, for instance. I couldn’t help wondering how many more novels we’d have had if she’d lived in the age of the Smartphone, although given her propensity for writing in longhand into the 90s, I wonder if she’d have taken to it. Surely, she’d have loved the intrigue of Facebook Messenger, though?
I was struck by how interwoven Iris and John were into her mother’s mental decline, and this was distressing, imagining how she might have felt as her own brain started to skip words and lose things. Indeed, the final letters show this – or discuss it – hard things to read but I felt just the right representative examples were included, and nothing too intrusive.
On a lighter note, although the novels are not much discussed, save the odd research trip to, for example, Lot’s Road Power Station to research the location of “Bruno’s Dream” and some discussion of points raised in people’s letters, her reading does come up quite a few times, and I was regularly entranced by finding favourites there. She reads Ada Leverson’s “The Little Ottleys” in 1966; I bought the first volume late last year and of course had to download the whole lot; she enjoys Sylvia Townsend Warner’s “Lolly Willowes” in 1967. She demonstrates a good working knowledge of Tolkien, mentioning his magic metal, mithril, and falls in love with Widmerpool from Anthony Powell’s “Dance to the Music of Time” in 1971. She discovers Trollope at the age of 54, a decade and a bit older than my discovery of him, but finding him more conducive to a good solid read than she did at a younger age. I smiled as she struggles through having to (re) read the whole of Virginia Woolf in a short space of time for a lecture, and was surprised to find her not discovering John Cowper Powys (who I knew somehow to be a favourite author) until 1984 – I have yet to explore him but really want to, as he apparently affected her later novels.
I was very pleased to find her in Iceland at one stage, although she does claim there aren’t any trees – maybe they’ve grown since then. But it’s always nice when your interests overlap. She even meets Halldor Laxness, “a very nice old bean”!
Of course it goes without saying that the introduction to the book, the introductions to the sections, the captions to the letters and the notes are impeccably done. The introductory pieces set the letters in their contexts and also discuss the novels in some detail, which is useful for the reader coming to this book from those. It’s an excellent read, the product of a busy but overwhelmingly warm, attentive and caring person, sometimes very cross indeed but always human and thoughtful.