Tuesday 20 August 2019

Iris Murdoch the Irishwoman, and a feast of food and words

Born 100 years ago tomorrow on Dublin's northside, Iris Murdoch didn't grow up in Ireland but retained a lifelong affinity with this 'dream country'. Friend and lifelong admirer Niall MacMonagle recalls his encounters with this dazzlingly intelligent writer

Iris Murdoch photographed by Lord Snowdon in 1980. Photo courtesy the National Portrait Galley, London
Iris Murdoch photographed by Lord Snowdon in 1980. Photo courtesy the National Portrait Galley, London

Niall MacMonagle

Lunch with Iris Murdoch at Charlbury Road, Oxford, began with an endearing invitation. Shown two beautiful, hand-painted plates, I chose mine. Cold meats, warm potatoes and salad followed.

Charles Arrowby, eccentric foodie and narrator of Murdoch's 1978 Booker Prize-winning novel The Sea, The Sea, mentions "exquisitely dressed green salads and new potatoes, a favourite dish of mine". He would have approved.

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There was a very good red wine, cheese, chocolate and almond shortbread slices and the conversation ranged from teaching to Ireland, swimming, the Irish language and religion.

Iris's husband, John Bayley, whom she called 'Pussy', was heading into college but he did confirm that he contributed one sentence to that wonderful Murdoch novel: "Only a fool would despise tomato ketchup". She herself wrote the more memorable one: "One of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small treats".

I first met Murdoch in August 1984. She was living in Steeple Aston then, north of Oxford. I admired her work. I was in Oxford for the summer and I just looked up "Bayley, John" in the telephone directory. Murdoch answered and was so startled, perhaps, when I announced that she didn't know me from Adam, that I was Irish and that I would love to meet her, she agreed immediately.

Cedar Lodge, an 18th Century building, was large and bright, its tall windows facing south. The elegant green, high-ceilinged sitting room had a book-lined gallery, the blue library next door had tapestries and a white marble figure.

She signed my books, gave me her book on Plato and, when I asked if I could photograph her, she asked, while I was focusing, if I believed in God. Commenting later on the photo, she wrote "very good of the ivy and not bad of me".

Ireland always featured in our conversations. The Healy Pass, the Forty Foot, the North, Cahal Daly, Mary Robinson. But how Irish is Iris is a question frequently asked. Born at 59 Blessington Street, 100 years ago tomorrow, she didn't grow up here but knew Dublin well and Ireland, for her, remained "somewhat of a dream country connected with childhood, where everything happens with a difference".

Murdoch's earliest memory is swimming in the saltwater baths in Dun Laoghaire when she was three or four years old, and the first letter included in Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch 1934-1995 was written in Dun Laoghaire on August 29, 1934, when 15-year-old Murdoch was on holiday with her parents. In another letter, written in May 1983, she recalls how the Martello Tower in Sandycove - Joyce's Tower - "was a place where I played often in childhood on that heavenly coast".

She thought the west of Ireland "probably the most beautiful place in the world (if you don't mind rain)" but at Buckingham Palace when the military band played The Rose of Tralee and Kathleen Mavourneen as Queen Elizabeth made her a dame, Murdoch referred to them afterwards as "soppy pieces".

And yet towards the end of her life, as Alzheimer's took hold, she announced: "Well, I'm Irish anyway, that's something."

Her biographer Peter Conradi acknowledges many Murdochs: novelist, philosopher, playwright; he lists Murdoch the Communist-bohemian, Treasury civil servant, worker in Austrian refugee camps; the Anglo-Catholic retreatant; the Royal College of Art lecturer; the lifelong devotee of friendship conducted at a distance and by letter; the Buddhist-Christian mystic, but Iris the Irishwoman he places first.

Murdoch believed that "real life is so much odder than any book", But in her novels her characters do the oddest, most unexpected things.

Brilliant at describing physical details, people's faces, clothes, houses, rooms, she also captures their emotional, sometimes frantic states. A storyteller, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Dickens, George Eliot her inspiration, Shakespeare above all. She explores profound philosophical ideas, asks interesting questions about the nature of love, evil, ego, desire, jealousy, memory, power and always writes sympathetically about outsiders, refugees, homosexuals, the displaced.

In The Book and the Brotherhood, she wrote: "The heroes of our time are dissidents, protesters, people alone in cells, anonymous helpers, unknown truth-tellers".

Murdoch herself avoided publicity, no book tours, no signings, no television. This intellectually rich, brilliant woman, her mind teeming with ideas, dressed down, carried a plastic bag.

She wrote thousands of letters and would spend hours every day answering every letter she received. One, out of the blue, went: "Dear Niall, Sorry to bother you. Some friends of mine who have never visited Ireland are driving later on to Dublin, and asked me to recommend hotels. I can't think of any except the Shelbourne and Buzzwells (if that's how it's spelt?)! Could you possibly mention a few, one or two or so, (not too expensive, not Shelbourne level) hotels in Central Dublin? I should be most grateful. I hope you are very well dear boy - let me know if you are in London or a fortiori Oxford. Much love to you, Iris."

In a final letter, dated March 1996, she was sailing away into the darkness of Alzheimer's: "I've have had a jolly time in various parts of Europe, especially the top part, and have only just now come home... At present, I find I cannot write any more literatures. It may come to me perhaps".

When Murdoch's final novel, Jackson's Dilemma, was published in 1995, the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience did a textual analysis, comparing it with The Sea, The Sea and discovered that syntactically and in terms of vocabulary, her talents had declined. She died on February 8, 1999. Her brain was donated to Alzheimer research, she had asked that no one be present at her cremation or at the scattering of her ashes.

Married to John Bayley for 43 years, she also had several intense relationships with men and women, proving, perhaps, what James says in The Sea, The Sea: "We are such inward secret creatures that inwardness is the most amazing thing about us, even more amazing than our reason".

Iris Murdoch's brilliant mind darkened but its bright inventive energies live on in her 26 novels, five plays, five philosophical works, a book of poems. Murdoch, at the height of her powers, was dazzling, as in this passage from her 1973 novel The Black Prince: "The division of one day from the next must be one of the most profound peculiarities of life on this planet. It is on the whole a merciful arrangement. We are not condemned to sustained flights of being, but are constantly refreshed by little holidays from ourselves... Angels must wonder at these beings who fall so regularly out of awareness into a phantasm-infected dark. How our frail identities survive these chasms no philosopher has ever been able to explain."

Read more: Finghin Collins: In praise of Iris Murdoch on centenary of Dublin-born author's birth

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