Reviewed by S.B. Julian
I call them my Irises — my copies of the novels of Iris Murdoch. They have played such an intimate role in my life that we can’t but co-exist on a first-name basis. I found my first “Iris” at age eighteen while back-packing in Europe. Near my hostel in Germany was a shop which offered a few books in English. One was a tattered secondhand copy of The Bell. Back at the hostel, I sat up most of the night reading it, entranced and absorbed with an absorption which only grew throughout the publication of all 26 of Iris Murdoch’s novels.
For me, these books and the Murdochian way of interpreting the world and the world of the mind were formative. For better or worse, this reader would be a different person today without a lifelong “Iris study”. Call it an addiction, but I must re-read the Irises regularly for they make one feel steadied in a chaotic and disorienting world, providing ballast in ways too mysterious to pin down. We know they are being pinned down (in sanity) yet simultaneously launched to float free in some sort of promising cognitive limitlessness. Iris Murdoch’s novels are all about mysticism, so it seems natural to describe them in semi-mystical terms. They have a life of their own, which seems entirely separate from the quotidian life of their author, at least as we glimpse it through her correspondence and posthumous biographies.
Although more a collector of ideas than physical books, I nevertheless, have collected all the Iris first editions. I enjoy their presence ranged along my shelves, situated handily for looking up the snippets and quotes which serve as mental vitamin pills. The books are like the tomatoes growing on my porch, those small objects packed with universes of invisible life and biochemical energy, of what Hildegard of Bingen called “viriditas” — divinity manifested in nature. If one could summarize Iris’s subject in a word, divinity would be it.
Not that her stories aren’t earthy and human, concerning as they do the morally-middling beings she says we all are, egotists and animals to a person. Her plots sail and swoop romance, myth, psychology, existentialism, social mores. Her characters are academics, vicars, rogues, actors, civil servants, failed artists, yearning poets, dazed parents, eccentrics. They are ex-centric, but we by some pleasurable literary alchemy become centered while reading their stories, which instruct while they entertain. “Pleasurable” is the keyword: Iris Murdoch novels are addictive because they please, at least they please readers of a certain temperament, readers who don’t mind what sometimes seems bizarre and what may now be considered old-fashioned. The world of today’s movements and moments, of #me-too and globalization and anti-globalist new nationalism, isn’t the Murdochian world, but Murdoch’s are books for the ages, not the moment. Although their settings — the neighborhoods of London or the coast of Dorset or the broads of Norfolk – feel recognizable to anyone who has been to those places, the physical world is somehow askew in the Irises; the world of ideas rumbling below the surface is their real locale.
Besides pleasure, the other keyword here is humor. When your plots concern a tyrannical romantic eroticism which reaches mythic proportions, humor can’t be far behind, subtle humor that refers to a set of scholarly correlatives which Iris expected the intelligent reader to access. That we all inhabit a personal inner reality, and forget that others have a different one of their own, and wouldn’t recognize themselves in the mental drama we have created for them and ourselves makes for comic misunderstandings. As in classical theatre, the gods are laughing. It still comes as a surprise to us mortals that other people exist independently of us, and are not mere supporting characters in the drama invented by our own dreaming egos.
The lazily “dreaming ego” was one of Iris’s favorite terms, indicating the thing that pulls us away from her other favorite motif, the exacting divine, which she frequently indicates with the image of a free animal swimming or flying through the elements “like a soul seeking its way to God”. Something as serious as the divine is best approached through something as profound as humor – and play – and that would be why theatre and theatrical players are prominent in many of Iris’s most amusing plots.
We are indeed serially a-mused as we read and re-read these novels, for in them the muses are never far away: they live in natural landscapes, in dogs and cats, in great paintings loved by the characters, and in the characters’ unconscious minds. On the anniversary of Iris Murdoch’s birth (July 1919), her oeuvre remains one of the richest departments of the Museum of Reading. The test of greatness for a novel is that on each re-reading you read a new version of it. You are doing what Heraclitus did when he repeatedly stepped into a river and noted that each time it was a different river. That is why we Iris Murdoch fans continue to read her novels: they refresh us anew even now, twenty years after her death and 100 years after her birth.
About S.B. Julian
S.B. Julian, a former librarian, present book retailer, and memoirs coach. Julian is a playwright, columnist, and fiction and nonfiction writer working from home on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, on Vancouver Island, Canada. Find out more about S.B. Julian in her interview about her published piece, Women Who Made the Word.
S.B. Julian invites you to visit her on the web at www.overleafbooks.blogspot.com