Iris Murdoch

This morning, early, I woke up and grabbed my phone to take a look at Twitter before getting out of bed. I saw a post from an Iris Murdoch site and I felt such a warmth, such a glow, that I put my phone down and basked in it a while.

I first discovered Murdoch in the mid nineties or so. About the time I was graduating college and heading to Santa Fe following a boy, a dumb college romance.

The thing about reading back then is that it was a lonely endeavor. The boy, pretentious, liked to read things like Moby Dick and Gray’s Anatomy. He was a lit major, if I recall correctly, but I don’t remember him reading anything for fun or that he loved. He read the way some boys read, competitively.

I loved Iris Murdoch but in the years and years that I devoured her books, I never met a single other person who read her. Not one. This was before the internet and so I knew not a single detail about her life apart from what I could glean from the short author bio, always the same, on the back of each book I could find. And devour isn’t the right word either. You couldn’t devour an author’s entire ouevre back then. It was massively difficult. Any town I was in, I’d check for bookstore. Used bookstores were a boon of course because the books were cheap and I could buy out any and all Murdoch I found. New bookstores often had one or two Murdochs but I could only afford one at a time. And I remember standing amid the stacks weighing the books in my hand. Which had the most pages and would therefore last longer? I’d read the first page to see which I’d like better. I don’t think I’d ever been disappointed by an Iris Murdoch novel. Maybe there were one or two I couldn’t get into. The Unicorn comes to mind. Disappointing because of how much I’d loved unicorns as a girl, I thought there would be a natural affinity. Later, as I worked my way through all her books, I noticed a change in her last two books. They were shockingly bad. Had I grown tired of her as a writer? Or had something happened to her? And I had no idea if she were dead or alive.

Later, working at Henry Holt, her husband’s book came out. I was working in paperback reprints and the editor I worked for handed me the book, Elegy for Iris by John Bayley. I’d stopped reading Iris Murdoch by this point. I think I’d probably read them all, or nearly. Creepy, my editor said. Don’t you think? Her husband profitting of his wife’s death? I didn’t dare say anything because in those days, I didn’t trust my taste in literature. All those young women I worked with in publishing were far better educated than I had been. They’d gone to Exeter and Choate. They’d gone to Yale and Harvard and Brown. Even my editor, midwestern like me, had to gone Wisconsin. When at a company Christmas dinner they all went around the table and smugly announced their college name I said, Red Brick U. Which was as true as anything. Was Iris Murdoch fashionable, beloved, deirided? I had no idea. I didn’t dare tell anyone how I had loved her.

I read the book but I disagreed with my editor—though I didn’t dare tell her. I thought the book was lovely and warm and full of love. I liked how messy they were, how spontaneous they were, how eccentric they were. i come from eccentric stock. We are a rare breed and my love for Iris Murdoch made even more sense to me.

I can’t say how I was influenced by Iris Murdoch. I read her in a kind of pre literary state. Before I really knew anything about writing or reading or influences. I read out of entertainment. I read to be transported to worlds. Those were often very lonely years for me and I read because her books were full of colorful imperfect characters. None too bad but none all that great either. Human. I loved the humid corduroy and wool the characters wore in their grottos and basement apartments. Their messy upper class homes. Their gardens and antiques and furnaces they had to operate with coins to stay warm. She wrote about poverty too and that I could very much, in those days, relate to.

My little glow of happiness this morning? The happiness of this new age of reading. Where any book I like is at my fingertips. My library can get me any book I’ve ever dreamed of reading. My favorite local bookstores can order me any book I’ve ever dreamed of reading. I can read any number of pieces on any writer or book I’ve ever loved—or loathed. I can romanticize the time before. The thrill when I found a book by an author I loved, or ran across an article somewhere, or a bit of bio or a fellow reader. But this time is so much infinitely better, for a reader.

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