IRIS MURDOCH, by AN Wilson
See IRIS MURDOCH, by Peter J. Conradi, here
A lifelong friend of Iris Murdoch takes issue with AN Wilson's new memoir, Iris Murdoch As I Knew Her
Sunday August 31, 2003
Iris Murdoch As I Knew Her
by AN Wilson
Hutchinson £18.99, pp384
Judas - as Oscar Wilde remarked when characterising disciples and those they claim to venerate - is the one who writes the biography. Sometimes, having pocketed the 30 pieces of silver, the rancorous former acolyte fails to deliver. In 1989 Iris Murdoch asked AN Wilson to be her biographer; in circumstances that remain obscure, despite his repeated retelling of the story in this new memoir, he began work but then desisted.
Iris's secretiveness, he claims, sabotaged the commission. She brazenly lied to deflect his attention from her abandoned lovers, and kept him from meeting her Dublin relatives by pretending that they did not exist. Now she is safely dead, Wilson feels free to blab out unseemly truths and indulge in lurid speculations that he would earlier have suppressed.
Relying on his own fictional intuition, he outs Iris as a lesbian sadist and as a Russian spy who, while working at the Treasury, supplied her Communist masters with information which she posted in a hollow tree in Hyde Park. Could the fourth man have been, as Wilson crudely calls Iris, a 'rather dykey' woman? The tale of her supposed treason sounds absurdly implausible, and Wilson has no evidence for it. He got the story, he blithely says, from 'one of her friends'. He writes as a self-professed friend of hers, which perhaps is why it does not occur to him that to transmit such vile and tawdry tattle is not an act of friendship.
When Wilson first knew Iris, he was intent on becoming a priest. She encouraged his sense of vocation, though in the end - as he reveals after obliging us to yawn through his dark night of the soul - he thought better of it. For a while, he mistook Iris for the deity's representative on earth: he once said, with a giggly whoop, that his relationship to her resembled that between Maria and the Mother Superior in The Sound of Music. Determined to climb every mountain, he now climbs all over Iris.
While gossiping about her promiscuity, her conniving cruelty, her lapping up of the cheapest booze and her gamey odour, he finds time to defame her husband, John Bayley, who was Wilson's tutor at Oxford, his generous mentor and - once upon a time, I assume - also his friend. How Judas would have rejoiced over such a deft dual betrayal.
His complaints against Bayley begin with pettifogging academic malfeasances. Bayley's critical books contain no footnotes, and Wilson piously contends that: 'We all need rigour.' Is his own unattributed tittle-tattle meant to represent such probity? He discredits Bayley's work indirectly, quoting attacks by others which he pretends to deplore.
Everyone in Oxford, we are told, was outraged when Terry Eagleton described Bayley as a spokesman for 'ruling-class orthodoxy' who was 'educated at Eton and became an officer in the Grenadier Guards'; this does not prevent Wilson - whose notion of rigour seems not to cover such matters as consistency - from later declaring that Bayley should not be mistaken for an unworldly trifler, because he is after all 'an Etonian and a former Guards officer'.
Likewise he quotes a journalistic piece by John Sutherland, slyly mocking the sexual athleticism to which the elderly Bayley laid claim in the third of his marital memoirs, Widower's House. Again Wilson deplores the 'donnish malice' of the source, but goes on to make related charges of his own which are undonnish and frankly malevolent. He implies that, during the last two years of Iris's life, Bayley was conducting an affair with the woman he later married. Inconsistent as ever, Wilson regales us with stories of his own adultery and divorce, but that's a different matter: he suffers, weeps, has nervous breakdowns, goes mad for a while, and so must be forgiven.
But how seriously can Wilson take his own tut-tutting about this infidelity, considering that elsewhere he preposterously suggests that Bayley is gay? The evidence, assembled with Wilson's customary rigour, is Bayley's jokey admiration for some trimly uniformed Israeli soldiers and a moment of tipsy 'enchantment' with a black waiter at an Oxford college.
In Peter J Conradi's biography, Iris's demon lover was Elias Canetti, whom she served as disciple and sexual slave. For Wilson, Bayley inherits the role of demonic abuser. Again the case seems trumped-up: Wilson belabours Bayley for thrusting Iris into depression and creative apathy by moving her from decaying country manor to poky suburban house where her study overlooked a children's playground. Iris, however, did not see this as his black-hearted revenge, and I remember her telling me it was John, loyally deferential as ever, who had done the renouncing. 'He doesn't have a study in the new house,' she said. 'But he doesn't mind.' She beamed at the thought of his generosity.
Wilson, reverting to the 'Why oh why?' mode of his tabloid columns, reports that he was 'sickened' when Bayley's memoirs made public the intimate details of Iris's decline. He is especially censorious when Bayley describes Iris's 'toilet habits', emphasising the infantile pride she took in exhibiting her stools. If I may adopt Wilson's emetic metaphor, I am nauseated by his account of the Bayleys' insanitary housekeeping on an evening when Wilson and his second wife 'supped' with them.
Yes, this is the kind of book in which people sup, though you have to wonder why such a prissy pair accepted an invitation to what Wilson calls a 'pigsty', where they were served a cube of pork pie, whiskery salami, and a Mr Kipling cake. Wilson, having surveyed the mud-black grease in the kitchen, checks out the bathroom, and reports with relish on the shit-encrusted loo.
The Bayleys' grime at least belonged to them. The ordure in Wilson's book,
spicily mixed with bile, is all his own, and he has dumped it on two people
whose only mistake was their kindness to him.
By A N Wilson
Why are we so nosy about writers' lives?
How can one write a writer's life - what is there to write about? The life of a politician or a soldier or courtesan defines itself in terms of its own triumphs and disasters. We are drawn to the lives of writers in a different way.
If the writer is important to us, their finished works have inhabited our heads for years, and shaped the way we look at the world. We might even, for this very reason, not want to go behind the toy theatre and watch the puppet master, or know the outward circumstances of his life.
Iris Murdoch once came upon me on a train reading George D Painter's life of Proust. With the clumsiness of youth, I said that I thought it was a marvellous book, giving as my reason that Painter had identified all the originals in Proust's semi-fictitious account of his life. Murdoch replied that this was precisely why she never wanted to read the book - and indeed, this was why she distrusted biography in general.
The Baron de Charlus and Robert de Saint-Loup and the Duchesse de Guermantes were the important characters for her, not the French aristocrats on whom these great works of art had been based. Likewise, Proust's life was in the book, not the other way around.
Tittle-tattle, in this view, got in the way of art. I think that Iris believed, had she read the Painter book, that she would never again see the Baron de Charlus pure, without thinking of the Comte Robert de Montesquiou.
I have often thought of this over the past 15 years since Iris Murdoch asked me to write her biography. My own tribute to her, which has just been published, is not a biography, but rather an account of what it was like to know her, and a demonstration of how difficult, perhaps impossible, it is to describe the most important part of a writer's life - namely their inner life, the imagination that transforms the world.
As my own book was published, I happened upon another with a highly comparable theme.
I had somehow or another missed Geoff Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage when it was published four years ago, but since it is now out in paperback, I've been making good my omission. One's first difficulty, on approaching a book by Dyer, is to wonder whether any book could be as good as the quotations on the cover suggest - "Sheer pleasure" - David Lodge; "masterpiece" - William Scammell; "marvellous" - James Wood - "quite possibly the best living writer in Britain".
The last quote is from Daily Telegraph, so it must carry some weight.
And here it is only fair to declare an interest. For some years, I was not conceited enough to believe myself the best living writer in Britain, or even in my street - still less in my postal district, which contains Martin Amis, Beryl Bainbridge and Alan Bennett.
But I did hope that some of the time I might be, if not the best writer in my family, then say the second or third best. Now that Geoff has married a niece of mine, it seems as if I have slipped even further down the pecking order.
And deservedly so. I should echo all the plaudits heaped on Out of Sheer Rage by the critics.
It is a difficult book to classify, but it is basically a Shandean monologue about the impossibility of concentrating upon his task in hand - namely to write a study of D H Lawrence. The book is itself a travelogue - he visits many of the Lawrentian sites, from Eastwood to Mexico to Taormina - an autobiography and a work of criticism.
Lawrence's letters are arguably his best work. But in Out of Sheer Rage, Dyer wonders whether our fascination with a writer's biography, the tittle-tattle and the trivia, do not grow naturally out of our earlier relationship with the finished texts, the novels or poems.
"This is not simply because, as an author's stature grows posthumously, the fund of published texts becomes exhausted and we have to make do with previously unpublished or unfinished material, but increasingly, with matter that was never intended for publication. It is also because we would want to get nearer to the man or woman who wrote these books, to his or her being A curious reversal takes place.
"The finished works serve as a prologue to the jottings; the published work becomes a stage to be passed through - a draft - en route to the definitive pleasure of the notes, the fleeting impressions, the sketches, in which it had its origin."
This would be heresy to Murdoch, and probably to Lawrence. But the paperback publication of Out of Sheer Rage by Dyer scuppers even my chance of hoping that Iris Murdoch As I Knew Her will be regarded as the best book about a writer published by a member of my family this week.
Iris Murdoch: As I Knew Her
384pp, Hutchinson, £18.99
something like rage
Claudia FitzHerbert reviews Iris Murdoch: As I Knew Her by AN Wilson
"They were parents to me in some ways," writes AN Wilson of his relationship with John Bayley and Iris Murdoch. When Wilson went up to Oxford in the late 1960s, Bayley was his tutor, and he was soon introduced to Murdoch, whose work he had passionately admired for years.
After Wilson's marriage, while still an undergraduate, to the Shakespearean scholar Katherine Duncan-Jones, "both the Bayleys, who in some senses made the match, took a powerful sight of notice". Bayley became "friend, mentor and supporter" as Wilson embarked on a literary career.
Twenty years on, when Wilson was in the process of extricating himself from both Oxford and his first marriage, he was asked to write Murdoch's biography. "John says you'd be ideal," says Murdoch. Wilson hesitates. He "reveres" Murdoch, but does not want to complicate his friendship with the Bayleys by delving into Murdoch's many love affairs and coming clean about his now mixed feelings about her novels. Don't touch it with a bargepole, advises the wise-sounding wife whom he is in the process of leaving. None the less, Wilson is manoeuvred into accepting the commission over a friendly walk with Bayley. He begins to see Murdoch alone, for the first time. She is benevolent, but resolutely unrevealing.
So far, so Iris Murdoch. Two marriages, the shadows of betrayals past and future, a subtle shift in the relation of tutor and student: only the names are a little on the pedestrian side. But then, very un-Murdochian this, the plot stalls: the impossible project drifts into the shallows and we are told nothing about its rescue by Peter Conradi, whose lovingly detailed doorstopper of a biography appeared two years ago. The focus shifts instead to John Bayley's trilogy about Iris Murdoch, the first part of which appeared to appalled acclaim while she was still alive.
Bayley's books offered a vivid portrait of his marriage – the happy domestic squalor and the joyful babbling closeness – and of his wife, of her goodness, her ease, her unworldliness and her drive. They also described the mental confusion of her last years, and the physical consequences of that confusion. Wilson begins his memoir with an account of coming out of Richard Eyre's film adaptation of Bayley's books and blinking with "a sensation like rage" that his old friend should be remembered not as a writer but in her decline.
Something like rage distorts Wilson's attempt at another version. He aspires to something "more protean, complex and strange" than the neatness of conventional biography will allow: the depiction of an "emotional and spiritual career" and the discovery of the "elements in Murdoch's revealed personality that gave birth to the works".
Wilson uses an artful mish-mash of diary entries and accounts of Murdoch's novels and philosophical positions, padded out with tenuously related reminiscences of writers, Oxford dons and others, ranging from Philip Larkin to Hugh Grant. This method gives full rein to his innate spirit of contradictoriness: he dares the reader to decide how far to travel with him down some malicious series of associations, often doubling back on himself with pre-emptive half retractions, before leaping into a fresh attack. The method is certainly protean (and the motive possibly strange), but the message is eventually unmistakable. It goes something like this.
Murdoch towered over Wilson's intellectual, spiritual and artistic life: "in her presence you felt that you were with a person who was not like other people… a mage, a guru… I still believe in her greatness, or near greatness, or sort of greatness; though I'd be hard put to define what I mean." Her novels, parts of which are "better than anything written in England in my life-time", are "a coruscating analysis of the human capacity to turn love into power-games". But they are also "pretty good tosh" and the philosophy "isn't really philosophy at all, just secular sermonising".
Wilson wonders why an imagination of immense power, intelligence and concentration repeatedly descends into silliness. Enter the husband with whom the fierce young existentialist, brimming with life and sexual and political anarchy, settled for stability and companionship. This involved not only the childish badgers-in-the-garden fantasy described in Bayley's books, but also an implacably conservative and clubbable male ethos nurtured by Eton, the Guards and the Oxford Senior Common Room. In this version Bayley prevents Murdoch from having the children she would have liked, imprisons her in domestic squalor, encourages her mendacity, censors her friendships, ignores her novels, suffocates her progressive views, fuels her Protestant Irish bigotry, makes her want to shoot striking miners and entertain Roger Scruton.
Murdoch gamely struggles with some of these conflicts in her fiction – notably The Black Prince and The Sea, The Sea – but is finally unequal to Bayley's compulsion to be "king of this particular castle or mudpie". The result is Murdoch's imaginative and intellectual decline, which foreshadows by at least 15 years her actual descent into Alzheimer's, a state that finally licensed Bayley to reveal his resentment, envy and outright hatred of his wife.
Beneath this wilfully disobliging account lie the bones of a much more interesting story, which Wilson was uniquely qualified to write. The diary extracts are fresh and incisive, and ironically Bayley is the character who comes most alive. Wilson quotes Murdoch saying if we were characters in a novel, we would all be comic characters. "
As I Knew Her" is the subtitle of Wilson's book. But that is the meaning, if not the name, of the trilogy by John Bayley which was a true comedy in its celebration of the marriage as well as an obsessive exercise in mourning. Wilson's book is something else – the aborted foetus of the biography he was contracted to write, pickled in a disturbing mixture of regret, nostalgia and distaste.
from the enchanters
In the late 1980s, Iris Murdoch, then at the height of her renown as a novelist and philosopher, was faced with the threat of a biography, whether she liked it or not. As a pre-emptive strike, she rang up her younger friend, A. N. Wilson, who had recently moved from Oxford to London to make his name as a writer and journalist.
"Look here, old thing," she said, as he recalls, "I want you to write my biography." Wilson was flattered but reluctant, writing in his diary "Even if one wholeheartedly admired the books, how would one cope with the promiscuity?" Nevertheless, he agreed, urged on, apparently, by his former tutor and Iris Murdoch's husband, John Bailey. "We both trust you," said Bailey to Wilson.
Their trust was misplaced. The biography was eventually abandoned, and the diary-based memoir Wilson has now produced reveals more about himself than about Murdoch. It is a confused, gossipy, spasmodically clever and painfully treacherous book.
When Wilson arrived at New College in 1969, aged 19, he fell in love: first with Oxford itself and then with the Baileys, who showed him great kindness. "They were parents to me in some ways," he writes, adding that while Murdoch once told him that she would have liked a child, Bailey greatly disliked "kids".
Like parents, they were powerful figures in the young Wilson's life: they "had a hand in" his marriage, during his second year, to another of his tutors, they encouraged him to be a writer and they supported his (short-lived) decision to become a priest. At first, like a child, he loved and admired them, believing that their marriage was, in its curious way, perfect, despite infidelity and domestic chaos. Inexorably, as children do, he became aware of their failings.
By the time the biography was proposed, his first marriage was over, he had lost his faith, abandoned Oxford and seen through the Baileys; he still cannot forgive them for their moral and aesthetic imperfections.
It is tempting to dismiss this book as an act of filial punishment, Wilson's revenge on a couple he has come to blame for his own acknowledged inadequacies. Certainly, it has passages of startling, venomous hostility, especially towards John Bailey, whose bumbling, stammering, easygoing manner is portrayed as a cover for a much darker, more calculating nature.
Above all, it appears that Wilson cannot forgive Bailey for the three books he wrote about Iris Murdoch's slow death from Alzheimer's disease, here assumed to indicate "poisonously strong misogyny and outright hatred of his wife". He castigates Bailey for "demeaning" Murdoch by giving squalid details of her decline, while himself telling tales about disgusting food, dirty lavatories, rodent-infested cars and smelly kisses.
When Wilson turns his attention away from the Baileys' sexual history, drinking habits and carelessness about personal hygiene (most of which we already know) and applies his considerable intelligence to Iris Murdoch's work as a novelist and philosopher, his book becomes worth reading. He is particularly interesting on Murdoch's approach in her fiction to the moral vacuum left by the 20th century's collective loss of faith. As he says, her great theme was always "the chaos of the human heart in its quest for sacred and profane love". In the end, he acknowledges, "the privilege of having known her was incalculable".
Murdoch and Bailey were not altogether wrong, perhaps, in their early opinion of A. N. Wilson. He could, if he had wanted to, have written a good book about her. However, by the time the suggestion was made he had decided that biography - like religion, Oxford and loyalty to friends - was not really for him. It is easy to see why: a decent biographer needs consistency, thoroughness and generosity of spirit, and above all to be more interested in the subject than in him or her self.
Anne Chisholm is writing a biography of Frances Partridge.
HUTCHINSON £18.99 £16.99 (+ £2.25 P&P PER ORDER) 0870 800 1122
Iris Murdoch As I Knew Her By A N Wilson
How do you solve a problem like A N Wilson?
By Mark Bostridge
31 August 2003
With friends like A N Wilson, who needs enemies? Following John Bayley's books about his wife, the novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch, and the authorised biography of Murdoch by her disciple Peter Conradi, comes Wilson's memoir of the Iris he knew. Distressed by the portrayal of Iris Murdoch as "the Alzheimer's Lady", a batty old woman in a cardigan, in the Richard Eyre film Iris, Wilson tells us that he has taken on himself the task of setting the record straight. He wants to do proper justice to Murdoch's achievements as a novelist and to show how her philosophical ideas inspire her fiction. He also wants to pay tribute to his friendship with Iris Murdoch, which lasted over three decades, and the influence she had on his own writing life.
So far so good. However, there are much nastier forces lurking here. You don't have to read much of the book to notice the extraordinary attack that Wilson is mounting against John Bayley, his former tutor at New College, Oxford. Wilson was "John's friend" long before he became Iris's - by his own account, they became as parents to him - but all notions of loyalty are thrown to the winds as Wilson unleashes his character assassination of Bayley. He can't, it seems, forgive Bayley for revealing the secrets of his sick wife to the world and so has set out to belittle him.
He accuses Bayley of not knowing the difference between truth and falsehood, and of being jealous of his wife's literary success. Most ferociously, he debunks the image of Bayley as selfless carer: "Inside this uncomplaining little leprechaun," he writes, "there was a screaming hate-filled child."
A N Wilson's stock-in-trade is to mock and scorn. Even in his serious works of non-fiction, like those on the Death of God or the Victorians, he can't resist the humorous aside or catty remark. Pursuing this vein, he can often be diverting, though the flipside is that it can also lead to him being tiresomely provocative. The Iris of Iris Murdoch As I Knew Her doesn't entirely escape this waspishness, and it was Murdoch's own awareness of this characteristic of Wilson's writing that caused her to discourage him from attempting her biography after initially suggesting him for the task. She thought him, so I've been told, too gossipy and spiteful; she was also clearly concerned that he would dig too deeply into her colourful sexual history. She appears to have been right on both scores.
One of the starting points of Wilson's new memoir is the story of how, in 1988, Murdoch approached him about becoming her biographer. This wasn't a positive action on her part, rather an attempt to put other would-be biographers off the trail. Indeed, Wilson's attempts to gather information from Murdoch, often of a basic factual nature, were generally met by a smokescreen. Wilson is very funny about Iris's need to claim an inheritance with "Oirish literary chic", and the confusion she created around her Irish origins, sometimes giving the impression that she was Anglo-Irish rather than born into a lower-middle-class family in the suburbs of Belfast. But something rings false about Wilson's account of himself as prospective biographer. Murdoch was obviously suspicious of Wilson from the outset, and both she and Bayley seemed to have delighted in sending him off on false trails. Yet Wilson persists disingenuously in portraying himself as a naïve innocent in the affair.
This book reads like a hastily constructed hotchpotch. For those who have a taste for Oxford gossip, there's High Table frolics aplenty (Iris caught in flagrante with one of Bayley's New College colleagues); for students of Wilson's own autobiography, there's a glimpse of the teenage kleptomaniac, later of the religiose undergraduate, queening it about with other aspirants to Holy Orders (Wilson once compared his relationship to Murdoch to that of the young postulant Maria and the Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music). Among all this flimflam, there is an interesting attempt to get to grips with questions of how Murdoch's novels held up a mirror to a generation of the cultured metropolitan classes, and of how the reality of goodness, formed in an existentialist framework, lies at the heart of her best work.
What really motivated Wilson to write this book? Clearly he was an esteemed friend of Iris Murdoch's (she remembered him in her will), though John Bayley may want to give him a wide berth next time he sees him. And Wilson may feel that he owes something to her memory, though the level of sheer malice in the book is hardly something she would have condoned. Iris Murdoch was one of those individuals with a mana, an almost supernatural quality of power and authority, which makes people want to possess them. (I'll never forget the sight of two middle-aged writers squabbling over which one of them was the last to see her before her death.) In his own way, A N Wilson is eager to claim relationship with her, though from his slighting reference to Peter Conradi, the man eventually chosen to write Murdoch's biography, I'd say the strongest odour emanating from Iris Murdoch As I Knew Her is one of sour grapes.
'I'm Mr Evil'
John Bayley claims that his late wife Iris Murdoch didn't want AN Wilson to write her biography. The critics are lambasting it. Even the author himself was reluctant to embark on the project. So how did it ever come about? Matt Seaton finds out
Wednesday September 3, 2003
As literary feuds go, it's as good as they get. Novelist and newspaper columnist AN Wilson has just published a biographical sketch of his erstwhile friend and heroine, the writer Iris Murdoch. Among other things, the book is mischievously revelatory and quite spectacularly rude about Murdoch's widower, John Bayley. He, of course, has already published three well-received books about his wife, their marriage and her death from Alzheimer's disease (successfully adapted for the cinema as Iris, with Kate Winslet and Judi Dench sharing the starring role).
As an antidote to what might be seen as the beatification of Iris and John, Wilson's Iris Murdoch As I Knew Her claims that Bayley confessed that he [Bayley] did not like, or even read, his wife's novels; that Bayley's political opinions, allegedly including a "whooping enthusiasm for capital punishment", placed him to the "right of Genghis Khan"; that Bayley's accounts of life with Iris were at times misogynistic and motivated by envy of her success, and in general served to trivialise a great writer by reducing her to an "Alzheimer's Lady".
Wilson's pungent revision of Bayley's story has provoked a bitter backlash. Over the weekend, reviewers were swift to tag him a traitor, false friend, sneak and prig. On Monday, the controversy was ratcheted up several notches when the London Evening Standard published - simultaneously - a hostile review of Wilson's book by Murdoch's authorised biographer, Peter Conradi, and Wilson's own regular column, which he used to hurl back the criticisms with interest.
"Her husband, John Bayley, has now started to say that Iris sacked me as her biographer, but this is not true," wrote Wilson. "She made me her official biographer. Until shortly before Iris died, Bayley was writing letters urging me to continue with my book and expressing candidly demeaning views about the pedestrian quality of Conradi's mind. Of course, I was too kind to put these things in my book..." One could almost hear the chant of "Fight, fight, fight, fight" from diary editors all over London.
Regent's Park Terrace showed few signs of storm damage on Tuesday morning. Situated in that part of literary London between Primrose Hill and Camden Town that is also home to Alan Bennett, Martin Amis and others, it has probably seen worse, and will do so again. Wilson opens the door before I knock. Though now agnostic, Wilson once intended to be a clergyman, and something of that is still visible in his bearing: erect, but solicitous, and slightly buttonholing.
He shows me into the front room, evidently his study. Extremely polite, with old-fashioned manners, he is not obvious bare-knuckle fighter material. He looks much like his picture byline: thin-faced, hair brushed over, fiftysomething but quite boyish, with penetrating blue eyes. His shirt cuffs are too long for the black V-neck sweater he is wearing, giving him an appear ance of scruffy fogeyishness that is at once bohemian and a bit square. Later, he commends my questions; I feel I am seeing an Oxford don for a tutorial.
"Although I was impressed by the film, I began to realise that [Iris's] life had turned into fiction in the minds of most people," he says. "All that was left of Iris was a young woman cycling in Oxford and a very old woman going demented. Whereas for me, the really interesting fact about Iris Murdoch was that she wrote some pretty good novels."
The "pretty good" is revealing. Wilson acknowledges that his feelings about her writing are mixed - the same doubts expressed in his book, where he wonders, in flashback, whether her novels are not "pretty good tosh" as well as being at times brilliant. This seems already an equivocal statement from someone who claims that his book about Murdoch is intended to rescue her, above all, qua writer.
I explain that I will only be taking notes of our conversation, rather than recording the interview. Wilson approves. "I know: you can make it up a bit, but it'll be more truthful that way." Another slightly disconcerting statement, but an interesting point of view for a biographer.
"I had lost faith in biography," he explains. "I don't think you can tell the objective truth about a person. That's why people write novels." His misgivings about biography - he casts himself in his book as deeply reluctant, cajoled and pushed into the role - were shared by Murdoch, he says. For four or five years after his "appointment", he recorded lots of tapes with Murdoch, but she would discuss only generalities and external things - why she joined the Communist party and so on - but nothing about her personal life. "She knew I would never write a kiss-and-tell biography," says Wilson. "Nowadays, I understand, you have to do some of that, but I wouldn't have written about nearly as many lovers as Conradi lists."
But if he shared her distrust for the whole enterprise, why did he embark on this book? "This is an anti-biography," he says, looking pleased with his sophistry.
But there is an element of truth in it. As biography, Iris Murdoch As I Knew Her is extremely partial - in every sense. It makes no claim to be comprehensive, objective or even fair. Gossipy and speculative, it is a series of snapshots with waspish captions attached.
"I wanted to tell the truth. I'm not surprised by the reactions, but I think they're hamfisted," says Wilson. One defence is that while he has been castigated for his unflattering portrait of Murdoch (her drinking, her promiscuity, her faux-Irishery, her deceptions) and frank criticism of Bayley, he has reserved his harshest eye for himself. "I appear as a complete twit, among this couple who are really mainly trying to be nice. I'm an absolutely ridiculous character - not realising how ambitious I am, how socially clumsy I am... If [his critics] have interpreted this as inadvertent, they're wrong. I don't write books inadvertently."
For Wilson, the vitriol comes with the territory. "There is a weird barricade around John Bayley. If you criticise him, you're accused, as I have been, of being Judas Iscariot." Privately, though, he insists that the reception has been very different.
"I've had five or six horrid reviews, but I've also had 25 phonecalls from friends [people who also knew Iris and John] who've said they were hooting with laughter," he remarks. "And yet if one of them had to write a review, they'd probably do the same."
He seems philosophical about this fate, but perhaps one sees a glimpse of the same priggish young man he describes in his book - someone ambitious, yet with a sense of himself as an outsider, rubbing up against a literary establishment that seemed ambivalent about admitting him and, in his mind, quick to close ranks against him. If he was ambitious, was he not also envious?
"Iris Murdoch did influence my early novels very much, and influence is never entirely good," he admits. "Blake loved Milton so much, he hated him; he wanted to kill him." But if Wilson was not immune to envy, he was at least aware of it, he argues. "It's patronising for me to say this - I'm playing God here, I know - but John doesn't know how envious he was of Iris. I'm sure it's unconscious."
In the book, Wilson relates several incidents in Iris and John's company where he was not quite sure whether some "tease" was being perpetrated - and whether he was the butt of the joke. Later, Wilson relates how Murdoch failed to realise that the game "Mornington Crescent" on the radio show I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue was a spoof. It seems so trivial a reminiscence - what does it add to our understanding of Murdoch as a writer? - that it is hard not to see Wilson repaying his mentor for the perceived slight. Surely, there is an Oedipal drama here of which Wilson is only partly conscious himself? He makes his barbs then disavows them - he's only joking, it's just a tease. "Everyone in this country says that we're a cynical culture, but in many ways we're very innocent: if you tease or criticise anyone, then it's treated as an outrage and people get terribly upset."
Wilson quotes Murdoch herself to say that, in the novel of our lives, we would all be characters in a comedy - except comedy, of course, can be very cruel. It seems safe to say that Bayley does not appreciate Wilson's sense of humour.
"He wrote me a very angry letter after I had mocked him in a newspaper article for being in the line-up with Kate Winslet at the premiere of Iris. It was unkind," he concedes. "It was meant humorously, but I think he took it as an attack - that I was criticising him for making money out of the film."
When he first started work on Iris Murdoch As I Knew Her, Wilson wrote to Bayley to ask if they could talk. "He wrote back a rather cross letter, saying Iris had never liked me, had never wanted me to write her biography, and would I please go away, basically."
Perhaps, with his curmudgeonly letters to Wilson, Bayley unwittingly gave his former friend licence to be as indiscreet as he liked. The Evening Standard column about Conradi's review demonstrates that, when piqued, Wilson counterpunches hard. And, like many writers, he seems to thrive on such negative energy: the radioactive fission of feud and betrayal.
"My publishers are pleased," says Wilson. "Last week they thought I was a mild
little man, now they they're thrilled I'm Mr Evil."
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
September 05, 2003
LONDON (AP) — Four years after Iris Murdoch's death from Alzheimer's disease, a battle is raging over her reputation.
A.N. Wilson says his warts-and-all memoir "Iris Murdoch as I Knew Her" is "a humorous, affectionate attempt to recall what the great novelist was like." Reviewers have called it "lurid," "vile" and a "character assassination" of Murdoch's devoted husband, John Bayley.
Biography can be a savage business.
When she died at 79 in 1999, Murdoch — author of 26 novels including "The Bell" and the Booker Prize-winning "The Sea, The Sea" — was hailed as one of the most important British novelists of the century.
Through a best-selling memoir by Bayley and an Oscar-winning film, "Iris," starring Judi Dench, many more people now know her as a poignant figure in a shapeless cardigan sinking into the abyss of Alzheimer's.
Wilson, who knew the couple for 30 years, says he wants to reclaim Murdoch from her image as "the Alzheimer's Lady" and paint a picture of a vibrant, charismatic woman and a dazzlingly original thinker.
"All that was left of Iris was a young woman cycling in Oxford and a very old woman going demented," Wilson was quoted as saying by The Guardian this week. "Whereas for me, the really interesting thing about Iris Murdoch was that she wrote some pretty good novels."
In a rambling memoir that's as much about its author as about Murdoch, Wilson recounts his relationship with Bayley and Murdoch from 1969 — when he entered Oxford University, with Bayley as his tutor — until Murdoch's death. He discusses her philosophical writings and novels, and dips into her sexual affairs and slapdash personal hygiene.
Along the way he characterizes Bayley — widely praised for his steadfast care of his wife — as a "spoilt child" who never read Murdoch's books and was guilty of "resentments, envy, poisonously strong misogyny and outright hatred of his wife." Wilson criticizes Bayley for recounting intimate details of his wife's final years in his three volumes of memoirs — but reproduces some of the offending passages.
Reaction to Wilson's book has been scathing. Peter Conrad in The Observer lamented what he called its "lurid speculations" and "vile and tawdry tattle." Alex Clark in The Sunday Times called it "furious, spiteful and, ultimately, self-serving."
"With friends like A.N. Wilson, who needs enemies?" asked Mark Bostridge in The Independent, accusing Wilson of conducting a "character assassination" of Bayley.
Reviews of Wilson's book have largely ignored his assessment of Murdoch's novels and philosophical writing and honed in on the gritty details — Murdoch and Bayley's apartment, with its "encrusted" toilet and "heaps of unwashed crockery"; an occasion on which Bayley and Wilson found Murdoch "tightly entwined" with another man.
Writing in London's Evening Standard, Conradi accused Wilson of suffering "indiscretion and inaccuracy attacks the way some unfortunates have Tourette's syndrome." In the same paper, Wilson dismissed Conradi's hefty life of Murdoch as "tedious" and "mistake-ridden."
"This sort of biographical feud could go on endlessly, because no one really knows — any position is valid," said Taylor.
"Biography is a kind of snapshot of random impressions. That's the exhilarating and dispiriting thing about it. There can be no such thing as the definitive life of somebody."
Bayley did not respond to a request, through his agent, for an interview.
D.J. Taylor, who has written biographies of George Orwell and William Makepeace Thackeray, says the spat illustrates the pitfalls inherent in transforming life into a book — especially if the writer knew the subject.
"Sometimes you can be too close to the person you're writing about," he said. "Everyone has their own view of people they know well.
"Iris Murdoch is a more difficult subject than most, because she had this extraordinary aura about her. So many people regarded her as a secular saint. People like that are very difficult to penetrate."
Born in Dublin and educated at Oxford and Cambridge universities, Murdoch wrote her first novel, "Under the Net," in 1954. She married Bayley in 1956.
Her novels depict the lives of middle-class professionals in plots laced with mythology, philosophy, dark humor and the macabre.
Wilson, who has written biographies of Leo Tolstoy, C.S. Lewis and Jesus Christ, was chosen by Murdoch in the late 1980s as her official biographer, although the book was never completed. An authorized biography by Peter Conradi was published in 2001.
Iris Murdoch As I Knew Her by A N Wilson
A writer traduced by her squabbling biographers
By Richard Canning
04 September 2003
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.
B B C
Iris Murdoch: Between the lines
By Chris Jones
BBC News Profiles Unit
Published: 2003/05/02 16:11:44 GMT
More than four years after her death, the novelist and philosopher, Dame Iris Murdoch, still seems to generate more controversy than when she was alive. The latest concerns the decision by her husband, John Bayley, to sell her library of nearly 1,000 books.
John Bayley perhaps won't have been surprised at the implied criticism from several quarters that he is being disrespectful to the memory of his dead wife, acknowledged as a literary genius of the 20th Century.
The unease is heightened by the fact that many of the books she acquired in her colourful lifetime evoke memories of Iris herself, containing as they do margin notes and improvised bookmarks of leaves and bus tickets.
Bayley simply says that he doesn't have enough room at his house in Oxford since he remarried three years ago.
It's probable that he and his wife, Audhild Villers, are intent on some semblance of order he never knew with Dame Iris, even though she preached its virtues.
He experienced similar mutterings in 1998 when he published a revealing memoir of his wife, on which the Oscar-winning film was based.
Dame Judi Dench's portrayal of her descent into Alzheimer's is the sum of many people's knowledge of the writer.
While it proved a moving experience for some, Dame Iris and Professor Bayley apparently lived in what was once described as "heroic squalor" long before her disease developed.
A beautiful mind
But probably the greatest complaint was that the film seemed to focus on her journey from "bonking to bonkers", as AN Wilson put it, saying little about the way Dame Iris thought and wrote.
Confused by Alzheimer's, the mind that had produced 26 outstanding novels and six works of philosophy derived its greatest pleasure from the smiley sun face in The Teletubbies and had forgotten which of her books had won the Booker Prize - it was The Sea, The Sea.
But while the disease can manifest itself in childlike behaviour, Bayley perhaps found it less distressing than most: "She was like a very nice three-year-old. We'd always been rather childish together and we just carried on that way."
Dame Iris was "an enchanter", says her biographer, Peter Conradi. "She could fascinate, she could hold people."
Bayley, later to become Warton Professor of English, was a junior academic at Oxford when he fell under her spell. She was a brilliant teacher of philosophy who had already attracted several proposals of marriage.
And as she cycled past his college window, Bayley thought "she looked rather agreeable and I had a fantasy that we would live together."
They married four years later in 1956, an unlikely union of a man for whom sex was still a mystery and a woman who had had many lovers.
"People have obsessions, fears and passions they don't admit to," Dame Iris once said. And it was certainly true of her.
In the early years of her marriage, she had an intense love affair with a fellow female tutor at St Anne's College and the liberated characters of her books made them particularly appealing to young people in the swinging sixties.
She regarded each novel as written before she put pen to paper, because she held the plot and structure in her head.
In her complex morality tales, she said her subjects were usually searching for "real love".
In love again
But while Dame Iris was apparently preoccupied with the notion of goodness, she was also "curious about the perversions of power", according to her friend, the novelist Margaret Drabble.
Throughout her many adulterous affairs, Bayley was her anchor, while Peter Conradi attests to her ability to make each of her friends feel "uniquely befriended".
"She fell in love all the time," Bayley has said. "But she also fell into friendship all the time - the two were so much the same with her. She lived literally for love and for friendship. That's very rare in novelists, who are extremely egocentric."
Reading poetry in several languages, Dame Iris was fully aware of her immense intelligence, asserting that her novels were more valuable in analysing human relationships than any psychotherapy.
But she was not too superior to communicate with lesser mortals, insisting on answering all of her fan letters personally.
Perhaps this should be considered before her library is sold to the Bodleian in Oxford or the British Library, assuming they can raise the asking price of £150,000.
One opponent of that proposal, Adam Nicholson, writing in the Daily Telegraph, has a different idea. If people love the memory of Dame Iris, he says, they should be allowed to acquire one of her books, scribbled in or not, to keep at home.
To make them into a "museum resource" would be to "kill the spirit" of the fertile, unorthodox and "explosively dangerous" mind that animated her collection.
AN Wilson's prurient portrait, Iris Murdoch As I Knew Her, adds little to our understanding, says Galen Strawson
Saturday September 6, 2003
Iris Murdoch As I Knew Her
by AN Wilson
384pp, Hutchinson, £18.99
What was Iris Murdoch like? I think we can now see much more clearly. Her writings don't take us very far, and she was in any case "better than her books", as an old friend remarked. But now, less than five years after her death, by an accidental and oppositional conjunction, I believe we have the fundamental materials. First, a memoir by her husband John Bayley, Iris: A Memoir, published in 1998 when she was already lost in Alzheimer's disease, and followed in 1999, the year of her death, by Iris and the Friends. Second, the fat biography, Iris Murdoch: A Life (2001), 700 pages and nearly 2,000 notes by her long-time admirer and later close friend Peter Conradi. Finally, Iris Murdoch As I Knew Her, by AN Wilson, once Bayley's pupil, and a friend of the couple for 30 years.
"No words can convey what X was really like," say the friends. But it's not clear that this is true. Even a short and glancing work can give a person's essence in so far as it can be done at all (there is nothing quite like glancing), and there's a robust sense in which those who did not know X can grasp X's root form better than those who were close.
Bayley, Conradi and Wilson all write from close up. Taken singly, their books offer no overall portrait of "IM" (to adopt Wilson's notation). Together, though, they precipitate insight, in a process that depends on their partialities and incompatibilities. The effect is startling. It's like being given IM by Van Gogh, Rowlandson, and Braque, and being able, from this weird syzygy, to infer her heart and her "daemon". (Like Socrates, she had a notion of her daemon, an independent, inner, inspirational spirit, self-willed, fierce, not particularly interested in the proprieties of life.)
Wilson's book is the most incapable of standing on its own, and it has worth - biographical worth - only for someone who has read Bayley and Conradi. It is for the most part strikingly ill-written, a jerky, clichéd, tabloid-paced congeries of bits and pieces - pushy speculations, diary entries, unconnected life-facts, ethical lunges and philosophical pratfalls - that is primarily about AN Wilson and his meetings with well-known people, and only secondarily about IM. It is catty and ignorant and sloppy. But it is also, given Bayley and Conradi, just the thing.
This is not because it tells a number of things that might not otherwise have been told; many know about IM's sea of lovers, and her boast that she could have anyone she wanted. Nor because it contains some good thoughts of a more general sort (they're not less good for resembling bull's eyes scored inadvertently with a Gatling gun). Its value lies in the way it changes the ambient light - the light in which one reads Bayley and Conradi. Its petulance is crucial. It shows the ugliness in IM's life, in her "near-greatness" or "sort-of greatness", and pushes the other two books into the larger truth.
Even as we believe, correctly, in the kindness, generosity, lovingness and "remarkable sunniness of disposition" of this "Wise Woman" - Wilson's final judgment on IM - we need to register the violence of mind. We need also to sense the violence of the acclaimed Bayley-Murdoch "perfect marriage" (which was, for all that, as successful as it was said to be). Seeing the adult eyes, "so sad and humorous", of this over-cherished only child, we need to be clear about the sheets of mendacity and concealment that underlay her daily life, and the huge hurt she caused, and knew she caused, and caused again, as she continued to follow her daemon to whichever bed or book it led, unable in the end (or so it seems) to deny it - in other words herself - anything for another's sake.
And then, in the long counter point of qualification, we need to be clear about her silliness, her silliness in the favoured sense that Auden ("You were silly like us") attributed to moon-struck, monkey-glanded Yeats. And then we have to see the way in which her utter promiscuity of heart was her misfortune (it showed the affliction of faithlessness; the respect in which she could not love; the unknown canker in her rosy childhood) as well as her misdeed. And then I think we have to accept the sense in which it was, nevertheless, what she had to do: her research, her task, her assignment on earth, for all the squalor that it generated and somehow floated over. It was as if she had a duty of irresponsibility, lost in the vast selfishness of her odd lack of ego.
Take Wilson's central example. In 1974 Bayley invited him to dinner in New College and then pressed him, rather oddly, to accompany him on an after-dinner visit to one of the college's history fellows, Eric Christiansen. They arrived at Christiansen's rooms. Bayley knocked and went straight in. "E-e-eric, my d-d-dear fellow... [long delay] I've brought someone to see you." Christiansen is lying on his black leather daybed. "Some bright turquoise arms are clutched about him, and a head of hair is tousled against his shoulder. Eric gets up very hastily from the daybed and blinkingly puts his spectacles back on his nose. The turquoise figure stands up. It is IM." There follows general conversation, whiskey all round, and the birth of the plot of IM's 1975 novel A Word Child.
It seems someone wanted this to happen. To know who, one would need to know why Bayley suspected what he did and why Christiansen not only had his outer door open but also had his inner door unlocked. Many who have read Wilson's account of this in the Daily Mail think that IM planned the confrontation. Wilson is non-committal, but the sense that he is out to get somebody, and that it doesn't really matter who, although it would be best if it were Bayley, is clear.
What is most palpable is Wilson's pleasure in telling the story. He feels some need to justify his disclosure, but all he can do is to refer to the "shockingly candid accounts [of IM's promiscuity] already in print". But it isn't enough to point at others and say "They started it." If shocking candidness is wrong, one outbreak can't justify another.
It doesn't bother me in this particular case. It's part of IM's destiny (a better sense of the stakes and the scale of human life is available beyond the grave). At the same time, I don't think Wilson should declare himself "sickened" by Bayley's frankness about the "intensely private" IM, even as he himself goes far further in his account of this woman who "thrived on acts of betrayal", engaged in "shameless and habitual social lying", had a "weakness for cruelty", and (two pages after the claim that Bayley could appear "passionately and unreasonably jealous") was "clearly... prepared to go to bed with almost anyone". Nor do I think that he should cite the theologian Donald McKinnon's remark "There was real evil there" as a direct "denunciation" of IM in the absence of further proof. And even if IM does classify neatly as a "bisexual who was largely lesbian in approach", Wilson's pronouncement is far too categorical.
Bayley and Wilson are both, by common consent, fabulists, and Wilson quotes Bayley's claim that "I've never set much store by the t-t-truth" as part of his general assault on Bayley's books. In fact, though, it seems that Bayley moves very close to truth, and that his remark has more to do with the whole truth than the nothing-but-the-truth truth. Of the two men it is Wilson who seems the kind to jimmy the facts to fit if he needs more support for an unsubstantiated conviction. His position is made clear by his leading epigraph, an idiocy from the creepy pen of Elias Canetti, one of IM's principal lovers and her persistent dark master: "Every spoken word is false. Every written word is false. Every word is false. But what is there without words?"
What to do? Don't read Wilson's book unless you've read Bayley or Conradi or both. Do if you have. You'll get things right if it is Bayley and Conradi who remain with you, retuned by Wilson's twist. Applied in this way, Iris Murdoch As I Knew Her is a useful work.
Galen Strawson is professor of philosophy at the University of Reading.
As biography becomes more intrusive, we learn less about the subject and more about the author
Sunday September 7, 2003
Although I was chucked out of Oxford in the mid-Seventies after only two terms, it still seems remarkable now that I never met Iris Murdoch. Judging by the controversies that have sputtered and flamed since just before she died, everyone else did. X first met Iris in the mid-Fifties, when he went up to read PPE; Y was introduced to her at a sherry party in the Master's Lodgings at Redeemer College; Z was invited to lunch at the Bayleys (her husband was John Bayley, the don and critic) in 1962, where he met Elizabeth Bowen and David Daiches. They discussed God and drank gin and Russian pre-mixed in a plastic bottle.
X, Y and Z all seem to have become biographers, literary critics or both. And, for the past five years, have contended among themselves as to who knew Iris best and who traduced her worst. At stake in this is not only the reputation of the writer herself, but (Hollywood being involved) the perceived character of an age and the people who inhabited it.
The proximate reason for the renewed outbreak of the War of Murdoch's Posterity, was the publication a week or so ago by the biographer/novelist/journalist A.N. Wilson, of 260-odd pages of reminiscences of, and musings about, Iris Murdoch and (necessarily) John Bayley. Here in The Observer, readers were treated to one of those naughtily satisfying book reviews in which the reviewer discovers that the writer has given him or herself away as an utter, unmitigated scumbag. In his piece, Peter Conrad accused Wilson of purveying 'vile and tawdry tattle', 'unseemly truths' and 'lurid speculations' about Murdoch. Wilson had, said Conrad, defamed 'his generous mentor' John Bayley. 'How Judas would have rejoiced over such a deft dual betrayal,' he lamented.
But the moment that seemed most to anger Conrad, the moment when Wilson was at his most shitty, was in his description of a 1992 dinner at the Bayleys' London flat, in which the kitchen is filthy and the loo is filthier. 'Nauseated' by Wilson's account, Conrad concludes: 'The Bayleys' grime at least belonged to them. The ordure in Wilson's book, spicily mixed with bile, is all his own, and he has dumped it on two people whose only mistake was their kindness to him.'
Wilson got it in the neck from just about everyone else as well. Another critic accused him of the 'character assassination' of Bayley, adding (without a hint of irony) that Iris Murdoch had thought him (Wilson) 'so I've been told, too gossipy and spiteful'. She had been worried that Wilson, were he to write a biography of her, would insist on including her various affairs and liaisons. According to Claudia FitzHerbert in the Telegraph, he was responsible for producing 'the aborted foetus of the biography he was contracted to write, pickled in a disturbing mixture of regret, nostalgia and distaste'.
And yet, if you negotiate the mountains of Irisiana produced in the last half decade, some of these criticisms seem a little odd. Two years ago, when Peter J. Conradi published his big biography of Murdoch, Peter Conrad (no relation) began his very entertaining review by recalling the way that Iris 'once materialised in a corner of my college rooms... the way our teeth clashed when she gave me a kiss, and the darting, adder-like sorties (am I being caddish?) of her tongue between my lips'.
You can see why I'm puzzled. This was someone else's wife French kissing a much younger man, as casually revealed in a book review. I wasn't at Oxford very long, but in Manchester, where I actually got my degree, that kind of behaviour would have caused quite a stir. Yet Conrad's recollection is presumably not 'unseemly'. Nor, apparently, was the revelation by her friend and biographer, Conradi, that she enjoyed erotic risk-taking, nor his speculation that she might even have fucked her weak-hearted lover, the anthropologist Franz Steiner, to death.
Conrad is not, as far as I know, 'nauseated' by Bayley's own description of Iris's toilet habits in her last, demented years. Or even Bayley's various surprising admissions that he had not had sexual feelings until he was 27, that he had not found Murdoch attractive, that they had not had much sex, and that Murdoch had preferred women or young men.
Given that these memories, plus the film, now constitute most of what it is that people now 'know' about Murdoch, the reaction to Wilson must be about something other than his indiscretions and gossipy style. It is, one must conclude, his daring to have a negative view about John Bayley that has caused the trouble. Briefly, what Wilson believes is that Murdoch was held back and limited by Bayley and - ultimately - betrayed by Bayley's first book about her, written when she was still alive. Wilson traces, if you like, Bayley's slow transition in his own mind from amiable, wise manchild Mr Dick, to childlike, leeching Harold Skimpole, to Chucky, the malevolent doll. Bayley cocooned her in his own limited world of Oxford, with its misogynous donnery, its snobbishness and its conservatism.
The once radical Murdoch, under this influence, becomes repetitive, isolated and constrained. Not only does Bayley do all that but also, suggests Wilson, he acts out of envy, having once admitted that he never read his wife's books.
It is so obvious what is going on here, that it makes you wonder about the whole process. Wilson is reclaiming (in true oedipal style, as Matt Seaton pointed out in the Guardian last week) 'his' Iris from Bayley, the father who failed. Conrad, in turn, demands his Bayley back from Wilson. It reminds me of the Rashomon -like debates - stories retold from every point of view - that often go on between siblings when a parent dies. Everyone wants to control their own version, but, in the case of someone as elusive as Murdoch, no one can. When the contenders are writers they seek to possess the love object forever in their books and articles, rather as Dennis Nilsen and Jeffrey Dahmer kept the heads of their victims in the fridge. Writing for Company, if you like.
Part of the trouble is that the rest of us get in on the act. For us, the most shocking revelations about Iris in Wilson's book may variously be (in ascending order) her fancying Jack Woolley in The Archers, her love of The Lord of The Rings, or her determination to vote Conservative in the election of 1992.
Actually, what I now find most striking is John Bayley's child-hating, which she may or may not have shared. Martin Amis commented on how Murdoch and Bayley were not saved from their own childishness, as those with kids usually are. Wilson amplifies this point, remembering several instances in which Bayley spoke slightingly and in disgust about children. As recently as this March, Bayley - writing in the New York Review of Books - began a piece with the words: 'Children at the moment are made far too much of by the press, television, and movies.' Had, he one wonders, read the Climbié report?
No wonder that Murdoch (and, I imagine, Bayley) so disapproved of psychoanalysis. That someone could write so much about love, without appreciating or desiring to experience the most basic form of love, that between parent and child, is remarkable. For me, this idea now colours most of my thoughts about the eccentric couple.
Writing about other people's lives is not an objective business, even though biographers rarely show their hands. And it also, these days, creates a vast amount of collateral damage. I had it in mind at some point to read the Nobel Prize-winner Elias Canetti's two great works, Auto-da-Fé and Crowds and Power. Now that I know (from Conradi) that he used to take Murdoch in an arm-chair, holding the future Booker prize winner 'savagely between his knees', while his one-armed wife, Veza, made supper next door, I may pass.
But nobody has made a film about Canetti and no one (as far as I know) complained.
Sunday Herald - 07 September 2003
For the love of Iris
Iris Murdoch As I Knew Her by An
Wilson (Hutchinson, £18.99)
Reviewed by Alan Taylor
WHEN Kate Winslet, the actress who played the young Iris Murdoch in the biopic Iris, was asked what she thought about the great novelist she said that she “hugely admired” her. Her admiration, however, was not for her fiction which, it transpired, she had not yet had time to read. Winslet is not alone. Iris Murdoch, as AN Wilson notes, is now better known as a victim of Alzheimer’s disease than for her novels.
For this, the blame has been dumped unceremoniously on her husband John Bayley who, since his wife’s death in 1999, has written no fewer than three books about her. Until then Bayley, an Oxford don, eminent literary scholar and occasional novelist, was regarded largely with affection as a somewhat eccentric, sweet man with an unconditional love for his more famous wife. No more. Murdoch’s friends, of whom Wilson was one, have revised their opinions. Were Bayley’s incontinent, posthumous proclamations a form of revenge?
Was this “uncomplaining little leprechaun” really “a screaming hate-filled child” who minded very much the accolades heaped on his wife?
The evidence against him is pretty damning. Not that Wilson himself is any wide-eyed innocent. His book is somewhat belated, given that Murdoch asked him to write her biography 15 years ago. Having been gazumped by Peter Conradi, it is hard to see his contribution to an industry, which seems set to rival that of the Bloomsbury set or Sylvia Plath, as other than mercenary. On many levels it is a nasty, hasty piece of work, pockmarked with gratuitous insults, unprovable anecdotes and cruel asides, the brunt of which are directed against Murdoch and Bayley. It is a very odd way for a so-called friend to behave.
What cannot be disputed is the weirdness of the Bayley-Murdoch household. By all accounts, the couple were spectacularly dirty, neither of them showing any interest in household duties, either inside or outside the house. Indeed, when statues were vandalised in their overgrown garden, to Murdoch’s great distress, friends wondered how she could tell. Both she and Bayley were careless regarding personal hygiene and would accept any invitation to eat out to save them the bother of cooking. On the plus side, they were generous with the wine, though its quality was unremarkable. Quantity was the principal concern.
Wilson first encountered the couple at Oxford. His generation, he says, was rather dull, which we must take as read since notable contemporaries included Ann Widdecombe and Gyles Brandreth. Originally, Wilson wanted to enter the priesthood and his application was supported by Bayley and Murdoch, but he was rejected. Given his indiscretion, this must count as one of the wiser decisions taken by the Church of England in recent years. He went on to find his true vocation as a writer of fiction.
The Iris Murdoch who emerges in his memoir is hard to like. Unlike Wilson, I have never found her “compellingly readable”. That, though, is a matter of taste. We all have our blind spots. Perhaps one day I will see the light. In the meantime, it is almost impossible to make out the wood from the trees. For this Wilson, with his holier-than-thou attitude, is as culpable as Bayley, who ought to have stopped writing about Murdoch after his first book.
Instead, he has spawned a genre which, as Wilson acknowledges, is more interested in a writer because of her illness than her genius. Oxford University is apparently keen to cash in on this phenomenon, seeking not to perpetuate Murdoch’s memory with a Chair of Literature or Philosophy, but of Alzheimer’s. You could not make it up.
With friends like this... Indiscretion and malice enliven a new biography of the novelist.
The Evening Standard (London, England); 9/1/2003; Conradi, Peter J.
PETER J CONRADI
IRIS MURDOCH AS I KNEW HER
by AN Wilson (Hutchinson
Read this article here
Power of the widow's grief.(Column)
The Evening Standard (London, England); 9/1/2003; Wilson, A.N.
Read this article here
I have just returned from the UK where the air is thick with literary dust-ups. The annual grumbling about the forthcoming Man Booker prize is building nicely with the release of the long list.
That former winners Peter Carey and Pat Barker have not made the cut is causing much hand-to-forehead gasping.
The (literal) dirty laundry of poor Iris Murdoch is being hung out again, courtesy of an old "friend", the novelist A N Wilson. One would think that after Peter J Conradi's mammoth official biography, her husband John Bayley's three memoirs and the film Iris, not much more could be revealed about the life of the acclaimed writer. But Wilson has reared up like a cobra in Iris Murdoch as I Knew her, spitting venom about Murdoch's alleged sadistic sexual tendencies and lesbian affairs. He mischievously claims, with no evidence other than that "a friend told him", that she was a Russian spy who posted information in a hollow tree in Hyde Park.
Murdoch and Bayley were famous for their squalid housekeeping, and Wilson reports with relish on the filth of their home, the crusted lavatory and thickly greased kitchen. He saves most of his poison, though, for Bayley, whom he insists is nothing like the gentle carer we saw on the screen but "a leprechaun, a screaming, hate-filled child", who is a latent homosexual and who was so jealous of his wife's success he refused to read her books.
The couple's supporters are furious. Writing in The Observer, lifelong friend Peter Conrad pointed out that Bayley was Wilson's tutor and generous mentor at Oxford, so this spiteful book must be all the more painful to him. Wilson has dumped this ordure, wrote Conrad "on two people whose only mistake was their kindness to him".
Kindness is something Martin Amis needs . He's bleeding from some dreadful reviews of his latest book Yellow Dog, particularly a panning from fellow novelist Tibor Fischer: "Yellow Dog isn't bad as in not very good or slightly disappointing. It's not-knowing-where-to-look bad. . . It's like your favourite uncle being caught in a school playground, masturbating."
It just so happens that Fischer's latest book Voyage to the End of the Room was published at the same time, a fact that he mentions in his review: "As a writer I'm relieved that Amis has produced a novel unworthy of his talent. No one wants a masterpiece knocking around when your own book is looking for attention." The literati have climbed in, penning more attacks on Amis's straining cleverness and some energetic defences of him, too.
Amis has had the last laugh, though. When the Booker long list was published, Yellow Dog was on it. Fischer's book wasn't.
I cheered when I read that South African author Damon Galgut is on the list, and at the time of writing the 6-1 favourite with the bookies was J M Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello. Can he make it a hat-trick?
The New Zealand Herald
Iris Murdoch As I Knew Her
Reviewed by MICHELE HEWITSON
Iris Murdoch - who, we might remember, was a novelist - was consumed with the idea of goodness. She was also intrigued, through her fiction and, as we now know, in her own life by "the human capacity to turn love into power-games ... She stared with wide-awake intensity into the muddied waters of our emotional lives, exposing our confusions, our need to deceive ourselves and other people".
So writes A.N. Wilson in the first chapter of his memoir of Murdoch.
And, goodness, what a lot of ill-feeling has come out of this latest attempt to make sense of Murdoch.
Because Wilson should have paid better attention to his motives, to his own need to expose his confusions, to the need for retribution for perceived deception.
In 1989 Wilson was asked by Murdoch to be her official biographer. As a project it did not get far - Murdoch, despite the approach, was at pains to be of no help whatsoever. There has since been a biography, by Peter J. Conradi. Wilson's memoir reads like that of a biographer spurned.
He wrote, early on, in his diary, that he had doubts about how to handle her many affairs.
"They were parents to me in some ways," writes Wilson of Murdoch's husband, John Bayley, his tutor at Oxford, and of Murdoch. And how does one write a biography about a promiscuous de facto mother?
By telling all, it seems, on the grounds that it has been told before.
And with venom. But Wilson's venom is reserved for Bayley, in particular for the trilogy Bayley wrote about his life with Iris which turned her in the Richard Eyre film adaptation, into "the Alzheimer's Lady". Wilson fairly laments that Murdoch has been so reduced.
Bayley, asserts Wilson, wrote from a position of "poisonously strong misogyny and outright hatred of his wife". That seems a bit strong, but he can't have been the only person to have been repelled - while reading on in avid, horrified fascination - by Bayley's description of, among other ghastly details, Murdoch's toilet habits.
Or the only person to wonder why Bayley felt the need to share this with us. But Wilson compounds the sin he accuses Bayley of: he takes us on a tour of a disgusting kitchen and even more revolting toilet.
There is a scene from Iris, the Eyre film adaptation, where Murdoch has a fleeting memory that she may have written books. Bayley responds, that indeed she did: "You wrote books. Wonderful, wonderful books."
And she did. The better part of Wilson's account is an attempt to grapple with Murdoch's place in literary history. The great shame - perhaps the greatest shame - about Wilson's attempt to give us back Iris Murdoch, the writer, is that it is unlikely to cause readers unfamiliar with Murdoch's writing to turn to her books.
It is more likely it will point people back in the direction from whence Wilson set out: to John Bayley's writing about Murdoch; and to the video of the film.
This could be cause for rage. But if that rage was, as Wilson states, his starting point for writing this clumsy, angry account in an attempt to square previous accounts, then he has failed.
of a writer at her powerful peak
By Judith Armstrong
October 18, 2003
IRIS MURDOCH AS
I KNEW HER
By A.N. Wilson
It's better to shut your eyes to other people's reviews before writing your own, but sometimes, especially when there is a whiff of scandal or malice, opinions leap out.
British reviewers' reactions to Wilson's book have been harsh.
Anne Chisholm wrote in The Sunday Telegraph: "He decided that biography - like loyalty to friends - was not really for him. It is easy to see why: a decent biographer needs consistency, thoroughness and generosity of spirit, and above all to be more interested in the subject than him or herself." Ouch.
The Observer decried treason of "Judas-like proportions" in regard to both Iris and her husband, John Bayley.
I disagree quite vehemently with these put-downs, both on generic grounds and in regard to the case in point.
The term biography has become more elastic than when it conjured only academic works heavy with footnotes, bibliography and index. These appendages, while welcome, can be associated with scholarly works heavy on fact, including trivia, and light on nothing, including tone.
The term "life-writing" is sometimes used to cover entertaining stories about people of lesser importance but greater accessibility. In fact, neither category defines or exhausts the possibilities. Wilson was a student of John Bayley and a long-standing friend of both him and Iris. As far back as June 1988, Iris telephoned Wilson: "Look here, old thing, I want you to write my biography". The request was repeated over the years until Wilson agreed. Iris and John were delighted, and made regular shy inquiries as to the progress of "their" book.
In 2001, two years after Murdoch's death and about five years after her descent into dementia, a mammoth 700-page biography appeared - but not by Wilson. The author, Peter Conradi, also a close friend of both Iris and John, produced an admirable work, to be recommended to anyone who wants a thoroughly comprehensive and unobtrusive account. But, the march stolen, Wilson still had his old promise to honour, plus new dismay at how obstinately Bayley's two post-mortem books, and the film they gave rise to, focused on Iris's last years and the horrors of her decline.
Wilson resolved to do something tangential, calling his book, very properly, Iris Murdoch as I Knew Her. He does not attempt to repeat the fruits of Conradi's diligence - what would be the point?
He sets out to give a different picture of his subject from anything already in existence. This a vivid and intimate portrait, essentially Iris in Oxford and London at the height of her powers. Wilson regularly shows her interacting with the many individuals whose company she greatly enjoyed and constantly sought.
Unlike Bayley, she relished social intercourse, because it meant conversation and the exchange of ideas, not to mention white wine and jollity. Some of the most fascinating insights into this woman famed as both writer and philosopher are made known to us simply because Wilson was there, observing or talking to her, and because he kept a diary.
Of course, it is only a partial picture, but it gives, as in the phone call mentioned above, the essential flavour of the woman. This includes everything from the quality of her Northern Irish intonation to her habit of tugging at her fringe, to her confession that childlessness was a great sadness for her, and Wilson's brave, non-prurient glimpses into her rampant, promiscuous sexuality.
Wilson openly shares with us the deliberations that exercised his mind in regard to what kind of book he could and should write. "A biography of a writer which came close to understanding the mystery of its subject would in all likelihood have ceased to be a biography. It would in fact have become a novel... or several novels... The best picture of Iris Murdoch is actually to be found in the novels of Iris Murdoch. She certainly felt this. She was a more than usually secretive person."
These few lines, ranging from a discursive meditation to a startling personal apercu, are typical of a book that engages both the mind and the heart. It in no way supersedes those that have already been written, but beckons us in the mental and physical spaces that Iris Murdoch occupied alongside her closest friends.
Judith Armstrong's books include an academic biography, a factional biography, a life-story and, most recently, a novel, The French Tutor (Text).