Wednesday, 10 February 2010
Iris Murdoch: A Writer at War - Book Review
When I was 16 and supposed to be revising for my GCSE's, BBC Radio 4 serialised Iris Murdoch's The Bell. Every Sunday afternoon I would sit down at my desk with a cup of tea, arrange my textbooks in front of me, turn the radio on and sit back entranced. My desk was strategically positioned so that should an unsuspecting member of my family come up the stairs I could quickly bend over my papers and start 'memorising' imporant facts such as how Oxbow lakes are formed (actually I do still remember how they are formed - fascinating, beautiful and I look out for them wherever I go).
This introduction to Iris Murdoch's work came at a time in my life when, like any 16 year old, I was hungry for knowledge, certainty and answers. Suddenly, I wanted to know more - who was this writer? I had never heard of her before so I swiftly demanded that my mother (who has survived two teenage daughters - I don't know how) tell me more. She directed me straight to her bookcase and handed me a copy of The Bell to read. That was it. It started with The Bell and then The Unicorn, then Under the Net, then The Book and the Brotherhood and on it went and on it still goes.
The Bell remains my favourite and is in fact the inspiration for the second part of this blog's name. The first, of course, is a nod to Bloomsbury my favourite area in London and perhaps also to the work of the Bloomsbury Group - particularly Keynes, Forster and Woolf (both Leonard and Virginia) but that is all for another post.
I am the luckiest girl in the world to have been sent a review copy of Iris Murdoch: A Writer at War from Melanie Paget at Short Books. Edited and introduced by Murdoch biographer Peter J Conradi, this collection of letters is absolutely fascinating.
The book opens with extracts from the journal that Murdoch kept when she was part of a travelling dramatic society during the university summer holiday 0f 1939 - when she was 20 years old. This candid yet reflective journal charts the goings on of a group of students during a heady summer with the shadow of a world war casting its uncertainty over them all.
What struck me most about reading this section of the book is how energetic Murdoch was - she threw herself into any challenge, adventure or experience with barely a backward glance which at times made her seem naive in the face of the political situation at the time. The youthful Iris did not share the memories of her elders for whom the first world war took its toll. She is jovial when she recounts the reason why no tickets have been sold for the Northleach show, ".. as we came into the hall we saw one reason - the place was stacked with gas masks. Apparently Northleach is scared stiff & in an appalling state of nerves. [...] they are now in a panic & imagining slaughter and sudden death".
The extracts from her journal show a fun and intelligent young woman who is enjoying herself. Her summer seems idyllic and the reader is swept along with all her boundless joy that she finds in her friendships and experiences.
The middle and last section of the book are the letters that Iris wrote to Frank Thompson between 1940-44 and David Hicks between 1938-46. I couldn't stop reading and re-reading these. Not only do you read a young woman's correspondence to her close male friends during the second world war but you get to dip your toe into her literary mind. She shares with both men her ideas for novels, her ideas about life, about what she is reading and how she is feeling about herself as she questions and ponders upon what to 'do' with her life.
Murdoch exposes in herself that universal uncertainty that people experience in their early to mid-twenties, "Altogether gloom & obscurity prevails about the future. I might try to get some academic job - but that mightn't be too easy & anyway would I make the grade? Heigh ho." At times I want to jump in and tell her not to worry - that all will be well. But, she knows this herself, "Lately various problems have become clear to me - I don't mean the answers - that's too much to expect at 22 (probably at 40 one realises there aren't any answers) - but just the problems themselves."
Her uncertainty and vulnerability are further exposed through her letters to David Hicks - towards the end of their correspondence (once they are engaged) his letters start to dwindle and then cease. Her pleading with him and constant craving for his affection is difficult to read at times - she relinquished power to him and he abused it. Ultimately, he became frightened of her, of her potential, vigour and ambition so he married someone else and Iris flew. He stated as much in his final letter to her "Brain, will and womb, you are formidable".
This book also highlights just how funny Murdoch was - I absolutely love her exclamations and turns of phrase, a favourite was 'Gentle gloom and bloody hell.' Essentially, this book is an interesting read for anyone who wants an enjoyable insight into the workings of the young mind of a brilliant philosopher and author. You don't need to be familiar with her work to appreciate the musings, wit and philosophical ponderings of a budding author in these letters.
I no longer have to memorise facts about Oxbow lakes (which really are fascinating and lovely see here) so I didn't have to read Iris Murdoch: A Writer at War in secret but I did have to re-read it and thumb through the pages like an obsessive. Perhaps I should soothe myself with some light reading on meanders.