A long but selective biography that focuses on the distinguished British novelist as an expert on love, emphasizing her many affairs and intense friendships.
Briskly summarizing Murdoch’s Anglo-Irish ancestry and birth in Dublin in 1919, Conradi devotes the longest portion to the period from his subject’s years as an Oxford undergraduate through jobs as a civil servant in wartime London and as a UN refugee worker in postwar Europe, to her teaching post at Cambridge in 1947 and ’48. During those years, richly detailed through her letters and journals, Murdoch joins the Communist party and excels in her philosophy studies. She works hard, yet everything seems almost effortless to her, including maintaining close ties with her many friends. These early connections are frequently the models for her novels’ characters, though she denies the portraits are directly drawn from life. Conradi deftly weaves throughout the text an account of Murdoch’s political activism, including her complicated views on Ireland. The author loses steam a bit in the second half, when he introduces her future husband, literary critic John Bayley, whom she met around the time she was writing her first novel, Under the Net (1954). Conradi discusses Murdoch’s fiction best in terms of the relationships that influence it. And he leaves out a lot. After her school days, there is scant mention of her family, though she was close to both her parents. There is only one description of the strain her enduring marriage to Bayley might have suffered because of her extramarital attachments, lesbian and otherwise. Her illness and death from Alzheimer’s in 1999 are briefly, though movingly, touched upon. Given the fact that the author is Murdoch’s literary executor (and the book is dedicated to Bayley), it’s not too surprising that no one has a bad word for her, with the exception of one former lover, novelist Elias Canetti. It’s also true that, as Murdoch herself admitted, very few people really know her. Conradi could well be one of them.
Illuminating, but as the author himself suggests, it’s the beginning of the discussion about Murdoch’s life, not the end. (50 photos, not seen)