Oct/Nov 2003 Book Reviews

Tiny Corner in the House of Fiction: Conversations with Iris Murdoch

Gillian Dooley, ed.
University of South Carolina Press (2003) 267 pages

Review by Kevin McGowin

Iris Murdoch, who died of complications from Alzheimer's in February 1999, was without doubt one of the most important postwar British novelists, whose keen psychological and philosophical insights were complimented in part because she was also a quite important professional philosopher. But since her death and before, her artistic legacy has suffered a series of patronizing insults, first from husband John Bayley's three (3) slender volumes of slightly senile impressionistic reminiscences (one of which has been rendered as a regrettable film) of a woman who began as his intellectual superior and ended as a small and helpless child, to Peter J. Conradi's coy and unsubstantial "authorized" biography (2001).

The present volume is a collection of twenty-two interviews or excerpts of interviews with Dame Iris, ranging in date from 1962-1996, and is as close as we'll perhaps ever have to an autobiography about a notoriously private genius. On its back cover, we find a blurb from a subtly defensive and slightly oily Conradi, who, in seeming to praise the book, observes that it is a presentation of Murdoch's "occasionally misleading public self." Having observed thus, I refuse to dignify such an artistic truism from a man who knew Dame Iris only at the end of her life and was left money in her will, save to state that for an understanding of Murdoch's life or art, this collection is essential, while Conradi's is opportunistic at best.

While the material discussed necessarily overlaps in places topically (like themes in the novels of Iris Murdoch), it rarely if ever does so in the same way—Dr. Dooley has done a wonderful job here, and provided an indispensable service to both Murdoch scholars (she has long been one) and the "fan"or curious reader alike (myself). The Introduction is as well-written and concisely done, as one might expect from one who included Murdoch in her dissertation, and the Index is comprehensive and quite informative. The average reader would be surprised (or maybe not) at how seldom these seemingly "basic" criteria are met by professional scholars. And further, the Introduction provides commentary that is downright fun for the Murdoch reader, with analysis and background information provided on most of the interviews included.

And what interviewers! From the smug theatre critic Harold Hobson (Iris sets him straight, and sets us laughing) to the revered Sir Frank Kermode, to my personal favorites, those with Stephen Glover, Simon Price and Richard Todd, the reader will find delightful the witty interplay and perspicuity of certain questions—or Dame Iris's response to the lack of them! I choose not to offer quotations here because something tells me that many of her own remarks, like those of her many memorable characters, will make it into Bartlett's.

The book comes at a time when the long-popular though lately neglected Murdoch has begun to get the respectful treatment she merits. Penguin has selected six of her novels—The Bell (1958), A Fairly Honourable Defeat (1970), The Black Prince (1973), The Sea, The Sea (1978), Nuns and Soldiers (1980) and remarkably, my favorite, her much underrated The Good Apprentice (1985) to their series of "Twentieth-Century Classics"—and they certainly form a good cross-section of her work (26 novels and several plays, works of criticism, even a book of poems). Not all 26 are currently in print, which is unfortunate in the case of some (The Italian Girl) and not in the case of others (The Sandcastle), and one wonders if another Penguin Classic or two is on its way. I can certainly think of two that deserve it, but so long as Black Prince, The Sea, and Good Apprentice are available, and thus their likelihood of remaining in print and continuing to be widely read is fixed, that's a blessing.

Though Penguin's introductions to the novels vary widely in quality (like the value of the "introduction" to most novels) from the wonderful (Mary Kinzie in The Sea...) to the ridiculous (Martha C. Nussbaum's attribution of the beliefs of Murdoch's first-person narrator in The Black Prince to the author herself), this reviewer prefers classic novels that don't have one at all (Good Apprentice), as we really don't need things explained to us as if they referred to conventions from two centuries ago.

Yet the introductions, like the book of selected interviews, suggest that a once-popular author who had fallen out of favor, as it were, is being considered anew—last year, in his monumental and controversial tome Genius, Harold Bloom pronounced that since Murdoch's death, there were no more great novelists left (paraphrase mine). While many see this contention as silly or worse, it's really Bloom whose championing of The Good Apprentice helped give it its present status (see the last page of Robert Weil's "Memories of Iris" on the last page of From a Tiny Corner...), about which two more things, I think, must be said.

It is through no fault of the editor or actually of any of the many interviewers that Dame Iris finally comes across as seeming a bit distant, even aloof. I am neither attracted nor put off by this—the way to know Iris Murdoch is to read her books. Some people are naturally more comfortable than others in an "interview" setting, no matter what their profession or how they go about it. For those who wish to see Iris Murdoch swimming nude as Kate Winslet or suffering from a terrible and terminal disease as Judi Dench, well, the movie's out there.

Finally, hardcover books of this sort from smallish university presses are traditionally "library" books, which of course doesn't prevent one from buying a copy, but libraries also tend to welcome input from their patrons about which books are of interest, or, to put it bluntly, are worth owning. From a Tiny Corner in the House of Fiction is the only new or recent book about Iris Murdoch of which I can honestly offer that suggestion.


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