A full and revealing biography of one of the century’s greatest English writers and an icon to a generation
Dame Iris Murdoch has played a major role in English life and letter for nearly half a century. As A.S.Byatt notes, she is ‘absolutely central to our culture’. As a novelist, as a thinker, and as a private individual, her life has significance for our age. There is a recognizable Murdoch world, and the adjective ‘Murdochian’ has entered the language to describe situations where a small group of people interract intricately and strangely. Her story is as emotionally fascinating as that of Virginia Woolf, but far less well-known; hers has been an adventurous, highly eventful life, a life of phenomenal emotional and intellectual pressures, and her books portray a real world which is if anything toned down as well as mythicised. For Iris’s formative years, astonishingly, movingly and intimately documented by Conradi’s meticulous research, were spent among the leading European and British intellectuals who fought and endured the Second World War, and her life like her books was full of the most extraordinary passions and profound relationships with some of the most inspiring and influential thinkers,artists, writers and poets of that turbulent time and after.
Peter Conradi is very close to both Iris Murdoch and John Bayley, Iris’s husband, whose memoir of their life together has itself been the subject of an enormous amount of attention and acclaim. This is an extraordinarily full biography, for there are vast resources in diaries and papers and friends’ recollections, and whilst it is a superlative biography it will also be a superb history of a generation who have profoundly influenced our world today.
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In Iris: A Memoir, Iris Murdoch's husband, John Bayley, charted in tender if often terrifying detail the writer and philosopher's final years battling against Alzheimer's Disease. Rather than duplicate Bayley, Peter Conradi's extensive and scholarly biography, Iris Murdoch: A Life, wisely devotes the majority of its attention to exploring Murdoch's formative years. Conradi, a close friend whose dog was immortalised in one of Murdoch's novels, occasionally gets bogged down in minutia. (At one point he expends considerable energy and several footnotes discussing whether her prep school headmistress presented prizes with a wooden sword or a rolled-up piece of cardboard.) On the whole though his painstaking attention to detail pays immense dividends; reminding us of the sheer inventiveness of Murdoch's work revealing that her life was if anything "more improbably packed with strange coincidences than her plots".
Born into an unorthodox Irish Protestant family, she never lost her sense of being an outsider in England--a theme meditated upon in several of her finest novels. At Oxford University just before the Second World War she was a dedicated member of the Communist Party and an avowed bohemian. Stalin and a wartime spell in the civil service dimmed her commitment to Communism (in the 1980s she even voted Conservative) but she always remained a "free spirit". One former lover described her as being "monumentally unfaithful" and throughout her adult life she conducted numerous affairs with men and women. If her fictions sometimes presented interrelations of almost Shakespearean complexity, Murdoch's own trysts with Nobel Prizewinner Elias Canetti, the novelist Brigid Brophy and the philosopher Philippa Foot were no less dramatic. Later she praised monogamy, attacking the very promiscuity of her youth. Conradi acknowledges rather than condemns Murdoch's contradictions, presenting us with a fallible, mercurial human being--the inspiring college lecturer who was sometimes too wrapped up in her own problems to teach; the advocate of tolerance who could be censorious; the existentialist who questioned freedom as a value in morals and the novelist who sought critical approval and yet was nauseated by praise. --Travis ElboroughReview:
With a new film of Murdoch's relationship with her husband John Bayley in the offing, the timing of this revealing authorised biography is propos. Dame Iris Murdoch played a major role in English life and letters for nearly half a century, and while her achievement may have been said to falter in the later years (only the most devoted admirer of the author could accept the bagginess and repetition of the later work), she was undoubtedly one of the great English novelists, with much of her best work as powerful and relevant today as when it was written. The adjective Murdochian now enjoys much currency, and her turbulent life story is quite as fascinating as that of Virginia Woolf. Conradi's assiduously detailed research paints a picture of the complex and engaging woman, and as a biographer he goes to some lengths to avoid interposing himself upon the subject. Conradi is particularly interesting on Murdoch's relationships with some of the most challenging thinkers, artists and writers of the 20th century. With access to a massive amount of diaries and papers, Conradi creates a vivid panoply of Murdoch's whole generation while never losing the focus on his fascinating subject. He is particularly moving on the sad final years when the author's faculties deserted her, although the definitive account of this period is to be found in John Bayley's book.
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Book Description W. W. Norton & Co, 2001. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # 0002571234