The good apprentice

Most writers might prefer their works to stand in for biography in the messy stand-off with posterity; fat chance in a culture obsessed with not only retrieving the facts of who did what to whom, but teasing out the secret, unacknowledged meanings of each action. For Iris Murdoch, who consistently denied that she could lay claim to a clear self-image or even a memory, a biography might have seemed a puzzling enterprise.

In her polemic Against Dryness, Murdoch argued that literature must resist the temptation to smooth over the contingencies of everyday life, saying that against the consolations of form “we must pit the destructive power of the now so unfashionable naturalistic idea of character”. Modern biography, instead of grappling with the opposition, dissolves it, arguing for a “character” that, however complex, can yet be apprehended.

If Conradi is aware of this problem, he battles valiantly to disguise it.
His introduction establishes his credentials, hinting that Murdoch all but authorised him as her biographer, and making it clear that he was both fan and friend. He was there when Murdoch began her descent into Alzheimer’s, and was remembered in her will, so we believe in their closeness even if we wonder why we are being told.

Conradi has clearly laboured long over this insanely detailed account of Murdoch’s earlier years — the final few are “too close for objectivity” and have already been staked out by her husband, John Bayley — and his portrait offers us some fascinating insights into her intense strangeness and the originality of her mind.

Conradi’s readings of her novels and his willingness to admit their patchiness also make sense, and show a keen understanding of her own commentary on them. Yet just as Murdoch peopled her life and works with gurus, some of whom may have been charlatans, Conradi’s subject seems to wow him to the point where he imperils any sense of distance.

Nowhere is this more evident than in his description of Murdoch’s early adulthood. A series of losses — of her soulmate Frank Thompson in the war, of her anthropologist lover Franz Steiner to heart disease — played themselves out against the backdrop of numerous dalliances, flirtations and triangles.

If Iris the bohemian lover juggled a post-war libertine sensibility with a more punitive moral self-consciousness, then she met her match in Elias Canetti, the “black prince” of her life and, later, her novels. In Conradi’s version Canetti was a man who knew how to wound, accusing Murdoch of hastening Steiner’s death. It was not long before he had added her to his harem. “Canetti has all possible mythological meaning for me,” she wrote, and, separately: “He subjugates me completely.”

Conradi competently traces Canetti’s appearances in her fiction, most notably in The Flight from the Enchanter, but he is never able to resist entirely the supposition that, in choosing Bayley over Canetti, Murdoch was choosing a good life over a morally dubious one. The truth must have been more complicated, although Murdoch’s disdain for psychoanalysis warns Conradi off more than a peremptory investigation.

With the adventures of youth largely suspended in favour of domesticity, Conradi turns his attention to Murdoch’s philosophical voyaging; to the influences of Sartre, Queneau and Weil, and to her growing Platonism. The tensions between literature and philosophy, and between ideologies and the search for a secular religion, absorbed Murdoch throughout her life, but Conradi never fully animates these intellectual positions.

Neither does he explain Murdoch’s greater success as a novelist than as a philosopher (given the obvious popularity of one form over the other), construing blandly that her relative lack of distinction in philosophy sprang from an urge towards more direct communication. Murdoch “helped restore moral philosophy to the people”, he argues, without adequately explaining how her densely allusive fictions performed this function. Writing of The Black Prince, Candia McWilliam notes that “you are bound at some point to wish existential freedom upon the characters in order that they may arrange things another way”. This is an intensely clever formulation of a question that should have been central to Conradi’s book, and that goes right to the heart of Murdoch’s identity. In her fictions as in her life, freedom was the key; but some freedoms come at a higher price than others.

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