Iris Murdoch: A Life by Peter J. Conradi (W.W. Norton) It has been nearly two years since Iris Murdoch's death from Alzheimer's and the publication of her husband John Bayley's memoir Elegy for Iris, Where he movingly described his wife's struggle with Alzheimer's disease. It seems fitting that the beloved philosopher and novelist should be the subject of a biography nearly as idiosyncratic and charming as she was herself. One of the numerous oddities of this one is its construction: each chapter is broken into numbered sections rarely more than four pages long. This allows the author (Murdoch's longtime friend and biographer of Angus Wilson) to ramble back and forth chronologically, examining a few years at a time through different perspectives literary, romantic, and philosophical and gradually progress forward. The overall effect is leisurely, informal, highly literary and more than a bit uneven. In the first half, Conradi faithfully traces Murdoch's family background and intellectual development, painstakingly tracking down her earliest Latin teachers or the history of modern Irish sectarianism, as the moment requires. Ala in all a warm, appreciative portrait focused on Murdoch's formative years: happy Anglo-Irish childhood; intellectual fulfillment at Oxford University, where she joined the Communist Party and formed many enduring friendships; a stint in the civil service and work with refugees during World War II; and the postwar decade, when she began to write the intellectually challenging yet wickedly entertaining novels that made her reputation. Conradi ncentrates on recapturing the intense young woman who awed fellow students with her brains and enticed men with her blonde hair and generous figure, yet kept everyone at a slight distance, finding epistolary relationships more manageable than the tangled sexual intrigues her fiction explores so acutely. She had many affairs, including a painful one with expatriate (and married) European intellectual Elias Canetti, but marriage to Bayley in 1956 gave her the stability she needed; over the next 40 years she produced 25 steadily more assured and provocative novels, from Under the Net through A Severed Head and The Black Prince to The Green Knight. Toward the end Conradi compresses too much compressing 16 prolific years in one short chapter, and mentioning Murdoch's knighthood almost in passing. The book's great strength lies in its characterizations ("She had a way of staring down at her glass, listening very carefully to the speaker, possibly indicating also that the glass was empty"). Documenting Murdoch's eccentricities and legendary kindnesses, Conradi, literary executor of the estate of Iris Murdoch and her close friend in the 1980s and '90s, succeeds in reviving her presence. Thus, readers who seek a few last glimpses of Murdoch's rare personality will be gratified by this affectionate, if disorganized, tribute; those looking for closure or hoping to make sense of the narrative of her life will not.
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