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Discipleship and Influence

Iris Murdoch’s ‘Negative Capability’ and the Question of Influence

Iris Murdoch, la capacité négative, et la question de l’influence
Peter J. Conradi


Cet article est un essai spéculatif produit par quelqu’un qui est à la fois critique littéraire, historien et biographe de Murdoch, et ne suit donc pas toujours un paradigme académique conventionnel. L’exposé porte sur les grandes questions d’influence en rapport avec la fiction d’Iris Murdoch et est organisé en trois parties. Dans la première, j’explore l’idée qu’Iris Murdoch était protéiforme, à la fois dans son moi intérieur et dans ses premiers romans. La partie centrale esquisse l’influence de trois précurseurs très différents : Raymond Queneau, Walter Scott et Elias Canetti. Enfin, je passe à la question de l’importance de Murdoch pour les autres romanciers. Dans l’espace disponible, on ne peut esquisser que des questions que — espérons-le — d’autres souhaiteront approfondir.

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Iris Murdoch and the Protean

1During the first two decades of her writing career, Iris Murdoch’s journals record her occasional surprise at the advent of a new fiction. She announced in her journal on 28 March 1953—for example—the gestation of what would eventually become The Flight from the Enchanter: ‘The next thing. Which is already present, only I have not yet turned to look at it. Like a king whose bride has been brought from a far country. But he continues to look out of the window, though he can hear the rustle of her dress’. It is as if each new novel were midwifed out of her sub-conscious, unbeknownst, unheralded, and unpredicted. Thus, some sixteen years later, on 31 December 1969, she noted for her own benefit: ‘What comes is always so very surprising’. During that month Chatto and Windus must have been readying A Fairly Honourable Defeat for publication; but, as had become her long-established working practice, she was already planning the next novel, accumulating its quarry of new ideas and characters. Two weeks later, on 13th January 1970 she echoes the same note of surprise: ‘Odd how different the atmosphere of one novel is from another. This new one is a completely different world, an unexpected and somehow unrecognizable one. Where has all this come from?’ This new novel would evolve into An Accidental Man and the wonder she evinces at its appearance is noteworthy: it reminds us that the artist can never be in complete control of her creation.

  • 1 Martin Amis in a number of essays has recorded something similar of his own creative daemon (Amis 2 (...)

2It sometimes feels as if she were struggling to meet and understand her own creative daemon or spirit in the hope of educating, taming and improving it. A novelist’s writerly ‘voice’ may appear even to herself as something extraneous, alien, emerging from her subconscious. As she remarked to Brian Magee, ‘Any artist must be at least half in love with his unconscious mind, which provides his motive force, and does a great deal of his work’; and ‘Art is close dangerous play with unconscious forces’ (Conradi 1997, 7 and 10).1

3This point could be illustrated in different ways. Consider, for example, the Dryden epigraph she appended to Under the Net, whose final couplet is ‘Tis well an old age is out/and time to begin a new’. Did she think Under the Net might catalyse a social revolution or that it partook of social realism, rather than of speculative and discursive fantasy? Might this epigraph perhaps have contributed to the famous early misperception of Murdoch as an ‘Angry Young Man’ (Conradi, 2001, 428 and footnote)?

  • 2 A.S. Byatt was my doctoral supervisor at University College, London in 1980–83.

4A.S. Byatt was inspired in 1965 to write her pioneering study of Murdoch’s work Degrees of Freedom precisely because both the variety and the authority of the first seven novels puzzled her.2 Readers who got used to the later novels more obviously coming from within a single stable—with their predictable love imbroglios and wounded patriarchs—may find it hard to remember how astonishingly various her early output was. Under the Net, The Flight from the Enchanter, The Sandcastle, The Bell, A Severed Head, An Unofficial Rose, The Unicorn: they are so different one from another that to read them in sequence resembles watching Murdoch taking a tour d’horizon to explore her own gift, and discover its potential and its limits.

5Under the Net is an exercise in philosophical picaresque set in bohemian Fitzrovia, The Flight from the Enchanter a metropolitan fable contemplating Simone Weil’s The Need for Roots. The Sandcastle explores a love-triangle in a suburban school. The Bell, a tragi-comedy of the spiritual life, is set in a contemplative community in Gloucestershire; then, out of the blue, we suddenly get A Severed Head, a Restoration comedy-of-manners set in Knightsbridge; and, after the more conventional An Unofficial Rose, a pioneering gothic romance set in an un-named West of Ireland: The Unicorn. Her early range and versatility are protean and shape-shifting.

6She and I started to become friends in 1982 while she was giving the eight Gifford lectures in Natural Theology that were later published as Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals. My notes from those talks record that on one single occasion she appeared to me as ‘A mixture of small girl, grande dame, steely-eyed don, warm-hearted mother-confessor, depressed liberal who thought the human race would blow itself up, and “lonely seeker”’. That makes six different personae. When I wrote her biography, I had to fight my editor at HarperCollins to have a chapter called ‘Discontinuities’ included, to accommodate much that seemed to me contradictory. She seemed to encompass many different faces or masks—or what Canetti would call Verwandlungen (Transformations). As Bradley Pearson remarks in The Black Prince, ‘We are tissues and tissues of different personae, and yet we are nothing at all’ (Murdoch 1973, 164). It is fitting that ‘Iris’ in Greek mythology was goddess of rainbows, incorporating all possible colours.

7To take another striking example of this many-sidedness: while Rosemary Hill, contributing editor at The London Review of Books thought her ‘demonstrative to the point of exhibitionism’, philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who knew Murdoch, thought she wanted to ‘prevent people from finding her where she was’. Was she secretive or exhibitionistic or alternately both? Was she puritan or libertine, straight or gay? What did it mean that she called herself in letters a male homosexual in a female body? These are some of the questions I try to address in my recent memoir Family Business. Leo Robson, the New Statesman’s lead fiction reviewer, drew attention in July 2019 to these perplexities in a 3000 word long and detailed five or six pages of centenary celebration, appropriately entitled, ‘Iris the Insoluble’. The third section of this article is indebted to Leo Robson’s article as also to my unpublished correspondence with him.

8My thesis is that what is true of Murdoch the woman is also true of Murdoch the novelist. If no single influence cuts very deep, then this is because she is both open to so many, and also strong enough to contain them all. . . Moreover, if she is protean as a writer, this surely reflects how she was protean as a person. The Greek sea-god Proteus is invoked in John Bayley’s memoir in the context of his bewilderment during his engagement. In reply to his despairing comment that he couldn’t understand her, or the different person she became for the many others with whom she seemed, in his view, helplessly entangled:

‘Remember Proteus’, she used to say. ‘Just keep tight hold of me and it will be alright. Proteus had the power of changing himself into any shape he wished—lion, serpent, monster, fish—but when Hercules held tightly on to him through all these transformations he was compelled in the end to surrender, and to resume his proper shape as the man he was’ (Bayley 40-41). This oddly echoes the passage in The Flight from the Enchanter where Mischa Fox teases and torments John Rainborough who has concealed Annette in a cupboard. ‘Women are protean beings. . .’ Mischa discourses. ‘The way to overcome Proteus was to hold onto him until he finally took on his real form. You must tire a woman out, even if it takes years. Then you will see what she really is’. (Murdoch 1956, 134)

9This convergent rhetoric about Proteus is striking; it appears that an analogy between Goethe’s eternal feminine, Iris herself and ‘the Protean’, was current in her circle during the 1950s. John Updike gravitated independently towards the same Protean imagery, when he recorded the excitement A Severed Head generated in small-town Massachusetts in 1961. ‘It was passed around as a species of news: it revealed that anyone could love anybody, and frequently did. This news—that we tend to love, that love is ambient and uncontrollable and comically, cruelly protean—never grew stale for her’ [my emphasis]. Updike continues: ‘Her promiscuity, if we call it that, manifested the openness of which other aspects were her avid intellectual appetite, the empathy with others that made her a famously kind and attentive friend, and the ‘Negative Capability’ that Keats named as Shakespeare’s secret’. Updike continues ‘Her tumultuous love life [was] a long tutorial in suffering, power, treachery, and bliss; the romantic seethe was for her, like the sea for Conrad and war for Hemingway, a treasury of essential impression’ (Updike 2001, passim).

10Negative Capability was of course, as Updike implies, Keats’s way of describing Shakespeare’s genius. Murdoch venerated Shakespeare as a model novelist and I’ve argued elsewhere that her Shakespearian novels—A Fairly Honourable Defeat, The Black Prince and The Sea, The Sea—are her strongest (Conradi 2016, 29–38). Keats invented the idea of ‘Negative Capability’ as a way of explaining the extraordinary, seemingly limitless range of Shakespeare’s vision, contrasting in his view with the more constricted and self-centred practices of lesser writers. The concept illuminates Shakespeare’s aesthetic quest while also implying an ethical angle, an aspect of virtue.

11‘Negative Capability’ seems an apt term to describe Murdoch’s particular openness to the world, and her willingness to be influenced without necessarily being deeply touched. The idea that Iris’s Negative Capability entailed some necessary coldness or toughness is one John Bayley and I once discussed. He thought that a combination exactly of toughness and openness might well have obtained in Shakespeare’s case too, adding ‘How can we know?’ (Private conversation). Stuart Hampshire, a friend of Dame Iris’s over half a century, celebrated her in the New York Review of Books in a striking phrase as ‘completely unwounded’, a sentiment Canetti shared but turned into an accusation in his memoir of his life in England, Party in the Blitz.

12My contention is that she is what Harold Bloom termed a ‘strong poet’, who absorbs and also deflects influences. That she possessed an emotional facility in her work as in her life is Canetti’s fierce charge against her too. It is arguably her own facility that she is ironising in The Black Prince when Bradley criticises Arnold Baffin, for ‘always trying to take over the world by emptying himself over it like scented bath-water’ (Murdoch 1973, 186). Julian’s critique of her father for living ‘in a sort of rosy haze with Jesus and Mary and Buddha and Shiva and the Fisher King all chasing round and round dressed up as people in Chelsea’ has been widely noticed. But Bradley’s critique of Baffin bears consideration too. He questions Baffin’s ‘wide catholic imperialism’ and his ‘enthusiastic garrulous religiosity […]. For Arnold, the artist, life was one big gorgeous metaphor’. Negative Capability, in other words, might itself have an imperialistic aspect. Murdoch makes clear she wanted to see the world and other people in her work, and was disappointed when she found herself instead. But these two aspects are inescapably and necessarily entwined.

The influence of Queneau, Scott, and Canetti

13Influence among novelists is surely harder to demonstrate or classify than among poets. Doris Lessing’s first novel The Grass is Singing has cadences recalling D. H. Lawrence; the plot of James’s Portrait of a Lady echoes that of Daniel Deronda; Dostoevsky may possibly have said ‘We all came out from Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’. Whose overcoat did Iris Murdoch come out of? I want to share a few thoughts concerning her indebtedness to Queneau, Scott and Canetti, and to preface this with her observation in one interview that she ‘had no contemporaries’: that she was unique, sui generis.

  • 3 Copied into a 1994 journal, ascribed an original date of April 25 1946 (but 1947 more likely since (...)

14My contention is that the process of influence may be partially blind. The three cases I want to discuss are very different. The first is that of Raymond Queneau, about whose work Murdoch was hugely enthusiastic. Philippa Foot recalled that first Murdoch and later she herself read his Pierrot mon ami not long after the liberation of Paris, in 1944, when the first French books started to come to London out of France. She noted that ‘Part of me wants to be Raymond Queneau, another wants to be Thomas Mann’.3 She started to translate Pierrot before she had met its author.

15Twelve days after meeting him in Innsbrück early in 1946 she wrote to Queneau, ‘Question de chercher un maître, problème important et dangereux’. The sub-text is clear: she would elect Queneau her first Master. She recorded her admiration for his work the following year (July 12 1947) when she noted ‘that vertiginous heart-breaking absurdity which Queneau achieves by his ambiguous serio-comic play. Oh oh I wish I could write like that’ [my emphasis]. This discipleship soon included personal devotion too. On 24 August 1952, while still working on the first draft of Under the Net, she wrote ‘I love you in the most absolute sense possible. I would do anything for you, be anything for you, be anything you wished me, come to you at any time or place if you wished it even for a moment’ (Rowe 145). (I still remember the fear and dismay I experienced finding this 14 page letter in the flat belonging to Raymond Queneau’s son Jean-Marie Queneau in the 16th arrondissement in the spring of 2001. I had written at length about Iris Murdoch at that precise point being happily and mutually in love with Franz Steiner, albeit taking time to go to Italy with Momigliano, who was in love with her also. In a state of shock I telephoned my editor at HarperCollins in London to seek his advice. We agreed that, rather than burying reference to this letter to Queneau in a footnote, it should be mentioned up-front within a short parenthesis that, I decided, ended with Queneau making clear in his reply that he, at least, was hors de combat).

  • 4 In 1962, she recorded ‘I imitated these two great models with all my heart,’ Murdoch said in interv (...)

16Murdoch dedicated Under the Net to Queneau. She noted that this, her first published novel, ‘was much influenced by Samuel Beckett and Raymond Queneau […]. I was copying them as hard as I could though I don’t think [Under the Net] particularly resembles anything by either of them’ (Dooley 75).4 This retrospective judgement of hers is surely accurate: the rhetoric of intense discipleship and passionate allegiance, I would suggest, contrasts with the rather different reality of her literary practice.

17So Under the Net is in fact very unlike Pierrot mon ami. True, both are comedies set in a raffish world, both have a cast of outsiders struggling to understand and grow up, and both use picaresque love-plots. Murdoch’s scenes on the film-set and in the theatre may loosely echo Queneau’s scenes in the fun-fair. Both novels contain financial chicanery. Queneau’s wit is famous—to my generation—mainly from Louis Malle’s 1960 film adaptation of Zazie dans le métro starring Catherine Demongeot. What were the effects of Dame Iris’s own discipleship to Queneau—his verbal wit, inventiveness, and ambiguous ‘serio-comic play’—on Under the Net?

18Both are indeed comic novels. Queneau names his anti-hero ‘Pierrot’, the sad clown figure from Commedia dell’Arte who absorbed so many artists of the time: I think of Jean-Louis Barrault’s moving performance in Les Enfants du Paradis. But Jake, though belonging within a comedic world, is not an innocent and is more than a pathos-leaning clown. His reflections are also given to a lyricism alien to Queneau’s Pierrot. And although this is comparing apples with pears, Under the Net is—surely—the bigger book. For all that his milieu is Bohemian, Jake refers to himself in chapter 12 as ‘intelligentsia’. He knows French well enough to be a translator; and late in the book he refers in an interesting and remarkable list to other friends who aspire to be ‘higher civil servants, columnists on the London dailies, officials of the British Council, fellows of colleges, and governors of the BBC’ (Murdoch 1954, 235). This suggests or reminds us that Jake, Dave Gellman, Hugo Belfounder, Lefty Todd are almost certainly college-educated; and moreover that Jake is what a later generation would term a ‘dropout’.

19Under the Net explores difficult ideas about language, about theory, about seeing beyond dualism, that it brilliantly renders accessible even to a lay readership; these ideas interrogate the very act of fiction-making within which they occur. Under the Net is self-reflexive, as—in a rather different way—The Black Prince would be. None of this is true of Pierrot mon ami. Its characters—Petit Pouce, Paradis, Tortose, Pradonet, and Mounnezergues—are not dropouts from the Grandes Ecoles but petites gens. Pierrot mon ami carefully skirts profundity. For example, the use of patois in Pierrot and the novel’s predisposition to a mildly louche sexiness, seem to me a kind of nostalgie de la boue. Queneau invests in what an English-speaking reader might construe as a form of ironic ‘slumming’ or counter-pastoral, like John Gay in The Beggar’s Opera. Hugo’s is a voice of wisdom, especially in his last interview in the hospital with Jake, puncturing Jake’s immature world-view, and suggesting, movingly, a more grown-up and virtuous one. He has no equivalent in Queneau’s novel. Last but not least, Pierrot is narrated in the third person, while Under the Net the first of Murdoch’s novels to be narrated in the first… Perhaps as a result, Iris inhabits Jake in a way that Queneau never attempts with Pierrot. I will return later to her use of first-person voice, whose fierce originality has been over-looked and underplayed.

20Under the Net’s debts to Beckett and Queneau seem to me superficial or catalytic at most. Her novel deeply reflects or echoes neither Murphy nor Pierrot mon ami. Had we never been told how much each mattered to her—except for the fact that Jake treasures both books—we might never have guessed at the affinity. I puzzle a little over this dissimilarity. (And please forgive here what may be a biographer’s brief non sequitur: I also puzzled over the address to which all Murdoch’s letters to Queneau were sent: 5 rue Sebastien-Bottin Paris 7e. It slowly dawned on me that this was his work address at Gallimard where Queneau each morning brought his Tibetan terrier to work. Queneau was a married man, indeed a family man, and may have held Murdoch at a distance. No letter survives that Murdoch ever wrote to Queneau chez lui.)

21But perhaps Murdoch also kept herself at a distance from Queneau’s world, so that, in digesting his influence, she turned this into something uniquely her own: it is surely an idée reçue that if you imitate somebody else, you don’t of course add to their oeuvre, but you may famously find your own voice. If Under the Net is in dialogue with anyone, this is—as many by now have pointed out—with Sartre’s La Nausée. And Sartre, not Queneau, is her first novel’s inadvertent midwife in terms of theme, not style. Her imagination often relishes a deuteragonist to struggle with, what she once called—à propos Derrida—a ‘worthy adversary’. And Under the Net concerns Jake’s finding his own voice, outgrowing both Breteuil, and possibly also Hugo—going beyond influence.

22My thesis is that no single influence cuts very deep, because she is open to too many, and is ‘strong’ enough—in Harold Bloom’s parlance—to contain them all. As an apprentice writer in the 1940s she admired Beckett and Queneau. During 1959, by contrast, in her essay ‘The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited’ she singles out Tolstoi, George Eliot and Walter Scott for special praise. Her admiration for George Eliot and Scott—albeit expressed with considerable force and passion at the time—was short-lived. It may well be that she later came to think George Eliot too rationalistic and too optimistic. But Murdoch also expressed great admiration for Scott, comparing him only to Tolstoi, both ‘to a staggering degree better than the most praised of contemporary novelists’ and Scott in particular as ‘paradoxically […] an un-Romantic writer’ (Conradi 1997, 272 and 281).

23Not long after this essay praising Walter Scott—inventor of historical fiction—she was engaged in writing her own solitary historical fiction The Red and the Green. This novel does not appear to owe much to Walter Scott. True, the conflict between Irish Republican and English sides is dramatized within a single family, just as families featuring internecine conflict occur in Rob Roy and Waverley. That the Easter Rising of 1916 in a sense constitutes a family quarrel is (surely) a valuable perception. Scott put real historical personages into his fiction, which Tolstoi imitated in War and Peace, with cameo appearances by Napoleon. Iris Murdoch does not follow suit. True, Lady Millie practices shooting with her revolver à la Con Markievicz, who in real life famously advised Irish women to ‘leave your jewels in the bank, and buy a revolver’. But resemblances between Scott and Murdoch are quickly exhausted, and the essentially comedic character of Lady Millie, who has four suitors visit her on a single evening, was thought by some to demean the historical drama.

24Scott’s influence may be hard to detect. That of Elias Canetti, by contrast, is palpable, though the questions of how this influence operates is a moot one. Indeed Elaine Morley would have us believe that Murdoch and Canetti are ‘intellectual allies’ (Morley passim). I have doubts about this, to which I shall return. I’m impressed by contrast by the (as yet unpublished) work-in-progress of Pamela Osborn, who offers a more complex and nuanced picture. Friendship with Canetti, I believe, certainly affected Murdoch’s characterisation, her image-play and her idea-play. I will try briefly to address each of these in turn.

25First of all—characterisation. Canetti described himself as a compulsive and serial liar. He recorded on May 1 1954:

I have always to remember exactly what I have said to this person and to that, and, as I never give up on anyone, I am forced to continue this game with ingenuity and circumspection. It is as if I live in many novels at the same time, instead of writing them. The incompatibility of these fictions together, the tension between them I need. […] The risk of confrontation I love above anything in the world; in little and also in large I cause [such confrontations] myself and know how at the last minute either to impede or guide [the outcome]. (Hanuschek, my translation)

26He delighted in telling untruths, which his biographer excuses either as practical jokes, as teasing or as Viennese cabaret turns. How much you appreciated the humour, and how much you resented the cruelty, perhaps depended on whether the joke was at your expense. On April Fool’s day 1952 Canetti rang the dying Franz Steiner to lie to him that his poems had finally been published. Steiner changed colour but carried this off with good grace.

27There is surely an echo of Canetti’s habit of teasing and/or practical joking when Mischa Fox detains and torments Rainborough while the latter sweats over having hidden or trapped Annette in his cupboard—the passage alluded to earlier. And I find another echo in Julius King awarding Simon and Axel a huge pink teddy bear as a birthday gift in A Fairly Honourable Defeat. Both Mischa and Julius take pleasure in discountenancing, embarrassing, and causing pain. Anne Wollheim recalled an occasion when Canetti arrived for lunch on the Isle of Wight and stayed an extra twelve hours. Both Julius and Mischa outstay their welcome too.

28As much as he lies behind some of her characters, Canetti sometimes haunts Murdoch’s imagery too. A strange and disturbing image that I connect with Canetti recurs in three of her novels, from 1966 to 1970. In The Time of the Angels, Carel asks ‘Suppose the truth were awful, suppose it was just a black pit, or like birds huddled in the dust in a dark cupboard?’ (Murdoch 1966, 163). These birds in a dark cupboard return in The Nice and the Good, where Radeechy, the civil servant who killed himself, practiced in a basement a form of black magic entailing the sacrifice of pigeons. Finally, in A Fairly Honourable Defeat we learn that Julius King, while both taught in Carolina, has shown Morgan ‘a deep truth . . . [or] . . . mystical vision into the heart of reality’ that turns out to be ‘with all the sense of significance and finality fully preserved […] a few mouldering chicken bones lying in a dark corner covered with dust and filth’ (Murdoch 1970, 149).

29Where does this uncanny image come from? I believe that it originates in the Epic of Gilgamesh, a book Canetti celebrates as having influenced his work and way of thinking more profoundly than any other (Arnason 118). Like so many epic narratives, it includes a trip to the Underworld to try to understand human mortality. And in Tablet 7, days before his death, Enkidu has a terrifying dream of the afterlife, in which the souls of men resemble birds trapped in a dark under-world.

30Canetti certainly influences Murdoch’s idea-play also. In An Unofficial Rose where Hugh thinks about his dead wife, ‘Already he felt, from her death, obscurely more alive. She fed him’ (Murdoch 1962, 49). There are other scenes of elation at funerals. Murdoch noted in her review of Crowds and Power that ‘a key to all power is the instinct to survive. There is always satisfaction in the thought that it is someone else who is dead: and this satisfaction may become an addiction’ (Conradi 1997, 184). ‘All grief’, Canetti maintained, ‘is insignificant compared to this elemental triumph’ (Morley 107). And she pays lip-service to this idea for example when Martin Lynch-Gibbon fears his sister’s ‘glow of excitement and pleasure’ analogous to that ‘felt at the death of an acquaintance’ (Murdoch 1961, 44). I have no doubt that Iris is parroting Canetti here. This belief seems to mark Canetti as very strange; as does his confession of the animus he felt against other writers: ‘one would like to be the only one’; or his oft-trumpeted assumption that his task in life was to ‘defeat death’.

  • 5 See also the dying Ralph Touchett in Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, who comments movingly to (...)

31Is it true that we all, either secretly or openly, experience excitement, elation and pleasure at the deaths of friends and relatives? Dostoevsky in Crime and Punishment comments on this special joy when he writes of ‘that strange inner feeling of satisfaction that may always be observed in the course of a sudden accident even in those closest to the victim and from which no loving man is exempt, however sincere his sympathy and compassion’.5 Dostoevsky’s analysis, including as it does a place for sympathy, compassion and love, is more complex than Canetti’s crude and reductive Schadenfreude. This belief is Canetti in his tough-talking, anti-sentimental mode; one he conveniently forgot when—to the disgust of some—he made his wife Veza’s Hampstead flat into a shrine after her death in 1962. His lived experience gave the lie to his own theory. Canetti found no place for the role of survivor guilt in his theorising, though it featured in his life. Murdoch, by contrast, took such complexities on board.

  • 6 Publication of Party in Blitz seems to me a disastrous mistake, that has harmed Canetti’s reputatio (...)
  • 7 John bayley observed to me when I was writing Murdoch’s authorised biography that she tried various (...)

32Martin Lynch-Gibbon avows atheism on the grounds that he ‘cannot imagine an omnipotent sentient being sufficiently cruel to create the world we inhabit’ (Murdoch 1961, 11). This is a standard Canetti line. So, perhaps, is the distinction Murdoch presses in ‘Against Dryness’ between art that consoles, and art that invigorates. What are we to make of such echoes? To say that Murdoch, in Isaiah Berlin’s famous dichotomy, is ‘a fox’, one who believes many things (polyphonic), rather than ‘a hedgehog’ (monological) is yet another way of ascribing Negative Capability to her. Perhaps Canetti’s own private privileging of Verwandlung or Transformation offers another echo of the same theme. Canetti champions the Dichter as Master of Transformations, which is part of his anti-power rhetoric.6 Yet Canetti’s proclivity towards Verwandlungen sometimes seems to me a mark of his love of mystifying others; while Murdoch’s is a by-product of her strange egolessness.7

Murdoch’s Importance for Margaret Drabble, McEwan, Updike and M. Amis

33Murdoch is surely in Harold Bloom’s terms a ‘strong’ poet who I believe will prove durable, even if some erstwhile admirers have, since her death, changed their tune. A.S. Byatt, who once claimed Iris Murdoch as her literary mother (Byatt 1994, 338), has recently down-played Murdoch’s importance (Byatt 2011). Other British novelists once enchanted—but no longer—might include Alan Hollinghurst and Philip Hensher.

34But the admiration of many writers persists. Margaret Drabble encountered Iris Murdoch’s novels in the late fifties while she was still an undergraduate. She read The Bell first, and wrote to me this year:

They filled me with joy. They have an exuberance, a playfulness, an inventiveness that I still find exhilarating […]. I loved the psychological drama, the complex sexuality, the turns and twists of the plot, the worldliness, the intensity […]. There is a magic about her observations that lights up the mundane world.

  • 8 This section is indebted to my article ‘Recovery of lost things: how Iris Murdoch lit up the mundan (...)

35The notion of a magic that lights up the mundane world is worth contemplation. Iris’s novels display existence itself as mysterious; and she can demonstrate what one Buddhist teacher has called ‘ordinary magic’.8

36Margaret Drabble is not alone in starting with The Bell. Novelist Patrick Gale in 2012 chose it as his Book Of A Lifetime in the Independent, and wrote ‘As for many gay men, it startled me in the way it quite calmly adds homosexual love to the general mix’ (Gale 2012, passim). 1958, when the novel was published, was nine years before the law decriminalising homosexuality would be passed.

37Margaret Drabble’s assertion that ‘There is a magic about her observations that lights up the mundane world’ is echoed by Ian McEwan. He discovered Iris Murdoch shortly after Drabble did, and wrote to me that around 1963 when he was fifteen years old he read Under the Net and The Bell in quick succession and was excited by how richly-textured and strange adult life promised to be. ‘At first, I was disappointed [i.e by adult life]. I was looking in the wrong places. It was not until my thirties that I understood how right she was. Life turned out to be as odd and varied as she said it was. She was unique among British novelists in her insistence that intense, intimate accounts of the personal life offer boundless possibilities for philosophical investigation’. McEwan is saying that her romances contain a degree of realism; he is also asserting that she somehow combines inwardness and objectivity together within the same field of vision.

38Leo Robson, mentioned at the start of this essay, has argued that John Updike himself—surely one of the leading novelists of his generation—had a peculiar relationship with Murdoch’s work. Updike’s first mention of her fiction was a parody in The New Yorker of Bruno’s Dream using the imagery of the Owl and the Pussycat (Updike 1969); parody is of course a form of back-handed tribute. And this parody came soon after he published Couples (1968), a novel Robson believes to be indebted to A Severed Head (1961), singled out by Updike as the masterpiece of her early mode. He recorded that a copy was shared between young suburban couples—as we have noted—as a ‘species of news’. It would perhaps be strange if Updike’s novel, with its ten couples, and its lyrical and explicit sexuality had not been catalyzed or enabled by A Severed Head, which had been the first fiction he encountered that showed—in Updike’s words—that ‘anyone could fall in love with anyone’ (Updike 2001).

39Robson’s belief that John Updike admired her greatly is accurate. In a letter to me in January 2002 from Beverley Farms, Massachusetts, Updike wrote,

To me she was just a marvellous creative spirit, and her novels a comfort and a stimulant both. And such a vote, really, for the human race! I have an academic friend who confesses himself out of sympathy with her later, more wild and roomy work, and I think the less of him for it.

40Leo Robson believes Murdoch’s The Philosopher’s Pupil (1983) had a decisive impact on Updike’s next novel, Roger’s Version (1986). ‘What an incorrigible, irresistible conjuror-up this woman is’ Updike wrote of The Philosopher’s Pupil. Robson cites the use in both novels of a compressed time-scheme, a human narrator who knows more than any narrator could, and the interactions of a man of God with an American teenager.

41Finally, Robson intuits in Martin Amis—as in Updike—a similar tension between public parody and criticism, on the one hand, and private admiration on the other. Amis’s put-downs have been widely noted. He famously wrote—à propos Nuns and Soldiers—that Murdoch’s characters all inhabit ‘a suspended and eroticized world removed from the anxieties of health and money—and the half-made feelings on which most of us subsist’ (Amis 2001, 90). Then, of The Philosopher’s Pupil he quipped, ‘Life is too short. The book is too long’ (Amis 2001, 91) before going on to offer a Murdochian paradigm to serve for all her fiction: ‘Imagine the teaching staff of a toytown university. The men all have names like Hilary and Julian. The women all have names like Hilary and Julian’ Everyone is on ‘permanent sabbatical while continuing to sample the hallucinogenic love-potions available in the SCR [Senior Common Room]’ (Amis 2001, 91).

42But Robson has written to me that he is convinced from the extensive knowledge Amis reveals in his journalism that Amis is in fact ‘a big Murdoch fan’. It is certainly true that Amis has apologized for the acerbity of his youthful attacks on older writers; and he has moreover praised The Black Prince as ‘excellent’ and The Sea, The Sea as ‘her most delightful book to date’. Then critics are accustomed to seeing every borrowing Amis makes as coming from Saul Bellow or Nabokov. But Amis didn’t discover Bellow until after he had written his first three novels. Moreover, as someone who finished Oxford in the early 1970s and moreover was the son of a Murdoch friend and admirer, he is likely to have been steeped in her work almost as his first port of call; and Robson believes Murdoch is the most obvious rival to Amis himself as portraitist of a raffish, seedy, modern London.

  • 9 Robson e-mailed me on 15 July 2019: ‘[…]but that one was [a first-person narrative] and I’m also st (...)

43Thus, when Amis wrote The Rachel Papers Robson believes Under the Net would have loomed large. It is easy to forget how comparatively uncommon the use of the first person was historically. In Robson’s view Murdoch using first person narratives six times and in such distinguished novels (with the partial Italian Girl exception) surely makes her one of the most important practitioners of the mode. It is refreshing to hear this originality properly honoured at last, rather than subjected to tired and uninteresting attack on the grounds that Murdoch writing as a man (and not as a woman) is suspicious or requires apology. Analogously, Robson was struck that Updike used a male monologue for Roger’s Version, the first time he’d done so since A Month of Sundays—very few of his 23 novels are male monologues.9

  • 10 Robson e-mailed me on 15 July 2019: ‘But the thing that tipped me off to it was really the use of p (...)

44And Robson claims that just a few years before, Amis was able to draw inspiration on urban, social and topical subjects from Murdoch’s A Word Child (1975) when writing Success (1978). It might be noted in passing that Amis argues that Murdoch alternates excellent novels with others he terms ‘footling’ and that he puts A Word Child in the second category. Nonetheless, Robson maintains that Amis’s novel bears several similarities to Murdoch’s: ‘it is written according to a calendrical scheme, in a first person replete with eccentric parenthesis and references to the Underground. It portrays a misogynistic man from a deprived background whose (unnamed) mother died when he was six; who lives with another, more physically attractive man in a small flat in Bayswater; experiences protective jealousy towards his sister; and is mocked by a pair of colleagues—one male, one female—while working a dreary office job. Moreover both novels begin with a man reporting to another man in dialogue that a woman has been looking for him—by phone in Success, in person in A Word Child.10

45Around the time of Amis’s takedown, the idea set in that Murdoch was part of a benighted, fussy, inward-looking generation mercifully displaced by Amis and his contemporaries. Robson—by contrast—defends The Philosopher’s Pupil for its setting in a brilliantly imagined fictional spa town and for dealing as much with family and friendship, scepticism and superstition, as with romantic love. And—lastly—Robson offers four different and unrelated interesting reasons for thinking Murdoch’s work of continuing relevance and importance. He argues that ‘in reality, her novels portray, in styles drawing on philosophy, religion, and literature from numerous traditions: 1) romance that defies the boundaries of class, ethnicity, age, nationality and legality (The Bell predated the 1967 Sexual Offences Act); 2) the toxicity of patriarchy, and especially the male inclination to master inner chaos with a desire for power and a resort to violence; 3) the suffering of refugees and immigrants; and 4) the long-term damage caused by childhood abuse and neglect’ (Robson 2019, 46).

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Amis, Martin, Rachel Papers, London: Jonathan Cape, 1973.

Amis, Martin, Success, London: Jonathan Cape, 1978.

Amis, Martin, The War against Cliché: Essays and Reviews 1971–2000, London: Cape, 2001.

Arnason, Johann P. and David Roberts, Elias Canetti’s Counter-Image of Society: Crowds, Power, Transformation, Rochester [NY]: Camden House, 2004.

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Berlin, Isaiah, The Hedgehog and the Fox, London: Weidenfeld, 1953.

Byatt, Antonia, Degrees of Freedom, 2nd edition, London: Vintage, 1994.

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Bloom, Harold, The Anxiety of Influence, Oxford: OUP, 1973.

Canetti, Elias, Party in the Blitz, London: Harvill, 2005

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Conradi, Peter J., Family Business: a Memoir, part 3: ‘Iris Murdoch’, Bridgend: Seren, 2019.

Conradi, Peter J., ‘Recovery of lost things: how Iris Murdoch lit up the mundane world’ TLS, 12 July 2019, 7–8. DOI:

Dooley, Gillian, ed., From a Tiny Corner in the House of Fiction: Conversations with Iris Murdoch, Columbia: The U of South Carolina P, 2003.

Finn, Howard, ‘Under the influence’, London Review of Books 41.4, Letters, 21 February 2019.

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1 Martin Amis in a number of essays has recorded something similar of his own creative daemon (Amis 2001).

2 A.S. Byatt was my doctoral supervisor at University College, London in 1980–83.

3 Copied into a 1994 journal, ascribed an original date of April 25 1946 (but 1947 more likely since originally written in Paris).

4 In 1962, she recorded ‘I imitated these two great models with all my heart,’ Murdoch said in interview (Dooley 4). Discipleship is a major theme in her life and her work. She once claimed that Samuel Beckett was the only person she had ever written a fan letter to’ (Finn 2019). However, her letters and journals—especially before her marriage in 1956—chronicle a series of engouements with one person after another, and with a special leaning towards older men and father-surrogates. This pattern of discipleship was an enduring one: see Conradi 2001, passim. Both Under the Net and Flight from the Enchanter explore discipleship: Under the Net concerns the effect of Hugo Belfounder’s ideas on a group that includes Jake, Anna, and others. Flight from the Enchanter concerns the thralldom of a group of Londoners to the uncanny and disturbing Mischa Fox, famous, we are told, for being famous.

5 See also the dying Ralph Touchett in Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, who comments movingly to Isabel, ‘There’s nothing that makes us feel so alive as to see others die. That’s the sensation of life. That we remain. I’ve had it, even I. But now I’m of no use but to give it to others’ (575).

6 Publication of Party in Blitz seems to me a disastrous mistake, that has harmed Canetti’s reputation, not just because of the portraits of T.S. Eliot and Murdoch. There are also disobliging and malevolent asides about ‘Veronica’ (= Wedgewood, who translated Canetti’s Auto-da-Fé in 1946), ‘Carol’ (= Graham-Harrison, translated Canetti’s Crowds and Power) and the poet ‘Kathleen’ (= Raine). For a fuller treatment of Murdoch’s relations with Canetti, see Conradi 2019, chapter 22, ‘Canetti’s Sting’.

7 John bayley observed to me when I was writing Murdoch’s authorised biography that she tried variously to be what each friend or interlocutor wished her to be. Interesting in this connection is her protean susceptibility to his own changing influence. When he publishes his brilliant study Tolstoi and the Novel in 1966, its rhetoric about self-sufficiency finds an echo in The Nice and the Good; while his delight in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground (‘Character and Consciousness’, New Literary History 5 [winter 1974]: 225–235) resonates within her The Black Prince (1973) and A Word Child (1975). See also Conradi, 1987, passim.

8 This section is indebted to my article ‘Recovery of lost things: how Iris Murdoch lit up the mundane world’, TLS, 12 July 2019, 7–8.

9 Robson e-mailed me on 15 July 2019: ‘[…]but that one was [a first-person narrative] and I’m also struck in a smaller way by the use of a possessive title (Roger’s Version/The Philosopher’s Pupil) something he’s not done before. There’s a moment in The Philosopher’s Pupil when Father Bernard worries that looking after Hattie will put him in charge of a noisy American teenager—this proves not to be the case but it is the plot of Roger’s Version. Updike also noted that the New York Times had misidentified Bernard as the main character. He also criticised the treatment of Harriet Meynell in his review on the grounds—a charge he levelled also against Bellow—she didn’t have independent identity. Roger in his book is a former minister and a university professor so combining elements of Rozanov and Bernard and he accesses the movements and thoughts of other characters now and again in a way that cannot but remind you on N [sic] especially given this was a component of The Philosopher’s Pupil he flagged.’

10 Robson e-mailed me on 15 July 2019: ‘But the thing that tipped me off to it was really the use of parenthesis—parenthesis interjections that come in the middle of a sentence and have their own grammar. (I’m also convinced he borrowed from Heller’s Something Happened.) Hilary is divided in Success into two characters, foster brothers, Terry and Gregory, who between them (or in some case it applies to both) have many of Hilary’s attributes—the location of flat, the seeming irresistibility to women, the deprived background, the propensity for panic and self-loathing, the style of job, the preoccupation with the Underground, the weird possessive relationship to a sister […]. But it was the insolent London voice that first caused my ears to prick up […]. I find it pretty easy to read the much later The Pregnant Widow as a book with Murdoch influence (especially in its setting, its time period, its dialogue subjects, and the use of an extensive epilogue)’. Missing exact page reference.

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Peter J. Conradi, « Iris Murdoch’s ‘Negative Capability’ and the Question of Influence »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 59 | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 septembre 2020, consulté le 23 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Peter J. Conradi

Peter J. Conradi in 1997 collected and edited Dame Iris Murdoch’s essays (Existentialists and Mystics); he also published her authorised biography (Iris Murdoch: A Life) in 2001, war-time letters, a journal (A Writer at War) and a study of her novels (The Saint and the Artist) which has gone into three editions. He has also written studies of the Welsh March (At the Bright Hem of God), of becoming a Buddhist (Going Buddhist) and a life of the soldier-poet Frank Thompson (A Very English Hero) who was murdered in Bulgaria in 1944. In 2019, he published Family Business: a Memoir, which contains new material about Dame Iris and about the writing of her biography. He read English literature at UEA, Sussex, then UCL and taught at South Bank Polytechnic, the University of Colorado at Boulder, UEA, the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, and Kingston University where he was head of department. In 1997 he left Kingston, where he is now Emeritus Professor, to write freelance; in 2010 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

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