“Her books are full of passion and disaster.”
July 18, 2019 10:48 PM   Subscribe

Nathan Gelgud honors Dame Iris Murdoch, born 100 years ago this week, with a graphic appreciation of his “favorite writer” in the NYRB. Elsewhere online: “Iris Murdoch at 100” in The Guardian,On the Centennial of Iris Murdoch’s Birth, Remembering a 20th-Century Giant,” in The New York Times, and “The Moral Vision of Iris Murdoch,” in the Jesuit review America.

Fans can take the same walks in London as Murdoch’s characters. Or, 20 years after her death, write to her in Dublin c/o the Philosophy by Postcard program (and perhaps be one of the 100 people who will receive a reply). Murdoch, among many other honors, was the first Irish writer to win the Booker Prize. The Times, in 2008, placed her 12th on its list of the 50 greatest British writers since the end of WWII, between C. S. Lewis and Salman Rushdie.
posted by LeLiLo (5 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I've avoided Iris Murdoch out of a sense gleaned mainly from critical essays of a proliferation of fine philosophical distinctions I wouldn't be able to feel the points of as they were made flesh in her works, yet which I'd know existed by the mess they made of the plots.

But that essay by James K A Smith about her moral vision has convinced me I made a huge mistake.
posted by jamjam at 11:51 PM on July 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

You definitely don't need to engage with the fine philosophical distinctions to enjoy her work, or rather, her talent was such that you don't always notice when you're doing so.
posted by aspersioncast at 4:39 AM on July 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

I was entranced by The Bell by Murdoch when I read it for a class but have not read anything of hers since. I see now I need to fix that. Where should I start?
posted by carrioncomfort at 6:14 AM on July 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

Hi CarrionComfort! I have no idea where you should start, but I think some of the better Murdoch novels are:

The Sea, the Sea: One of her more novelistic novels. I *love* Iris and I love her novels, but she is often times more interested in conveying and expounding her ideas than in writing a brilliant work of fiction. The Jam, the Jam, refers to that effect up above. The Sea, the Sea avoids that problem to a good degree, and so might be an enticing entry point for a newer reader.

A Fairly Honorable Defeat - my personal favorite; it has my absolute favorite Murdoch character, it encapsulates a lot of her best ideas, and it is a good example of how her philosophical views and her novels are mutually supporting.
E.g. 1) one part of her philosophy is the importance of close and precise attention to the world and people; and her books exemplify this with some crazy precise detail in some scenes, and some of the astounding "mimic" work that she does when creating the consciousnesses of her different characters. (Sidenote: Speaking as a guy, I'm always amazed by how well she writes male characters. It gives me some faith that if she can get my "mind" right, maybe she gets the other people right as well?).
E.g. 2) This novel has two of her best gay characters, who, like everyone else, get to be fully realized and detailed characters. In this way and a lot of others Murdoch was a couple of decades ahead of the moral curve of her time, which is a good place to be if you are a moral philosopher. I feel like it lends credence to a theory of decision-making if it consistently yields correct answers long before the rest of society comes around to the same answer. I have 100% confidence that if Iris was alive today she would be right behind AoC and the most progressive parts of our society.
Also, in a minor incident, a Nazi is punched.

The Black Prince - Her most structurally inventive/Nabakovian novel. There is a forward by a mysterious publisher, a jailed and partially unreliable narrator, 4 afterwards by characters that give their own interpretation of the novel, and then one final-final afterward. Two of the characters are authors, and their arguments about their different writing styles are also arguments about her own writing. It's both a novel by her and a (often hilarious) critique of her novels, a critique that makes much sharper points than any of her actual critics do. There's also a ton of pratfalls, emotion, romance, opera, etc.

The Nice and the Good - This isn't so much a brilliant novel as it is one filled with highly memorable incidents and characters. For whatever reason I remember this one much more vividly than most. There are love affairs, noir investigations in Whitehall, sex, self destruction, sex, and yachts.

Ok I need to stop writing now but hopefully that will give you some ideas. :D
posted by Balna Watya at 8:16 AM on July 19, 2019 [9 favorites]

Thanks, Balna Watya! Your descriptions and suggestions are great. Now I'm off to the library to see what's on the shelves!
posted by carrioncomfort at 9:05 AM on July 19, 2019

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