Friday, July 15, 2011

The other Murdoch

Rupert Murdoch is in the news right now, but a friend tipped me off that today is the birthday of someone who contributed a lot more to the world: the late Iris Murdoch. (See today's installment of The Writer's Almanac.)

The first Murdoch novel I read, more than 20 years ago, was The Accidental Man (1971), one of her few novels with a clearly political context. The plot centers on a young American in Britain who opposes the Vietnam war and struggles with whether he is evading his responsibility by accepting an Oxford job and marrying an English girl (the appropriate word here, given her age) rather than returning to the U.S. to face the draft (and the possibility of prison).

Not Murdoch's strongest book by any means, something about The Accidental Man appealed to me and I went on the kind of binge that I've rarely done with any other author. By the time I was through I'd read a large number of her many novels (though I haven't read all of them -- she turned out almost one a year from 1954 through the mid '90s). Although critical and popular opinion seems to favor the books from her early and middle phases, e.g. The Black Prince or The Sea,The Sea (both of which won awards, the latter the Booker Prize), my favorites are three long, rambling ones she wrote in the '80s: The Good Apprentice, The Book and the Brotherhood, and The Message to the Planet (though I'm probably not quite as high on Message as the other two). These three have rather intricate plots and multiple characters, but nothing feels confused, and there are many pitch-perfect passages. For example, there's a moment in Good Apprentice when one of the main characters revisits, as a middle-aged man, the school where he was a star teenage athlete and student -- a kind of typical novelistic moment that in the hands of many writers, even good ones, would be banal and hackneyed and handled with a sledgehammer. Murdoch navigates it like Roger Federer hitting a cross-court forehand: everything is just right.

I've read some of her non-fiction, including the very rambling (probably by design) Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, and I also have Peter Conradi's biography, which someone gave me. Both Murdoch's life and her books remain somewhat controversial, and her novels are definitely not to everyone's taste. She probably wrote too many, and the weakest ones are not very good; the best ones, however, are, in my opinion, pretty great.

I don't return to Murdoch again and again, re-reading the novels every few years, but then I don't really do that with any authors. It's somehow enough to know that they're all on the shelf, within easy reach.

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