IRIS MURDOCH: The Saint and the Artist by Peter J. Conradi

IRIS MURDOCH: The Saint and the Artist

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Since Murdoch is still publishing major fiction (The Good Apprentice), it would seem to be early for a summing up of her literary career. Yet Conradi, probably mistakenly, attempts just that: an overview that, while praising such early comedies as Under the Net (1954), pays most respect to the darker novels published after A Fairly Honorable Defeat in 1971. The author has forged uneasy alliances between his elusive, often philosophizing subject (his first publication was a monograph on Sartre), his academic training (this was begun as a University of London dissertation on ""Iris Murdoch and the Purification of Eros"") and his likely audience: the literate but non-academic novel-addict that Virginia Woolf honored as ""The Common Reader"" and that surely forms the majority of Murdoch's following. The result is a basically unsatisfying book that wanders around in its self-proclaimed circle: ""It would be a very odd and unintelligent writer whose work had not developed at all over thirty years, so that her first novel remained her best; and whatever else [Murdoch] is as a writer, she is an exceptionally intelligent one."" As Conradi surely knows, there are plenty of authors, neither odd nor unintelligent, whose first works were their finest: his case for the superiority of Murdoch's later novels surely needed a stronger basis than this merely specious rhetoric. Most of the argumentation here is on a similarly flimsy level of assertion-by-analogy. To critics who charge that Murdoch's plots are too unrealistic, Conradi replies that King Lear and Much Ado About Nothing are equally unrealistic. To an important question--""in retreating from the vanity and inflated claims of the Moderns,"" does Murdoch become ""middlebrow?""--Conradi replies, "". . .the word obscures as much as it illuminates. Dickens and Dostoevski were accessible to non-specialist audiences and have remained so."" There is somewhat more critical meat in Conradi's lengthy analysis of individual texts, where the author shows himself to be a sympathetic, though at times maddeningly discursive, reader. Though a conscientious book, this is not a readable one. The paradoxical Murdoch--philosopher, anti-romanticist, lapsed comedian--finally eludes this diligent but unimaginative critic.

Pub Date: Sept. 15th, 1986
Publisher: St. Martin's