With Friends like This. Indiscretion and Malice Enliven a New Biography of the Novelist

Article excerpt

Byline: PETER J CONRADI

IRIS MURDOCH AS I KNEW HER

by AN Wilson (Hutchinson, [pounds sterling]18.99)

MANY around 1990 expressed dismay that Iris Murdoch (or "IM" as AN Wilson calls her here, to invoke distance) had selected Wilson as her biographer.

Had she taken leave of her senses? Wilson is a highly prolific and prize-winning author who has the qualities of one kind of journalist: immensely readable, knowing, and of sometimes doubtful discretion or accuracy.

Indiscretion, it has been often pointed out, is the better part of biography. But Wilson suffers indiscretion and inaccuracyattacks the way some unfortunates have Tourette syndrome.

Editors like him. Friends claim that his malice is "quite impersonal" or that he resembles a figure out of Dostoevsky's The Devils, a minor imp and gadfly of the age.

So far as inaccuracy goes: he falsely claims that IM was born in a "rooming-house" (the census shows otherwise), left more than [pounds sterling]2 million in her will (less, and most constituted the values of the Oxford house and London flat), that Elias Canetti met his wife in Paris (it was Vienna), that Fraenkel came to England in 1935 (1934), that IM met Franz Steiner in 1948 (1941), that a 1988 piece of journalism that claimed IM and Steiner lived together for three years is a "superb piece of research". They never lived together, and were lovers for less than a year.

Why did IM - always headstrong and sometimes astonishingly naive - select him in the first place? Was it to freeze out an American biographer who was on the trail? What did IM understand about Wilson around 1992 that made her "see the light" and swiftly freeze him out? And why has he proceeded now regardless?

Goethe claimed that " posthumous productivity" is a sign of great stature in a writer. Once great artists die, everyone wants to record their friendship with them, to have their say.

By such standards IM was great indeed. In the four years since she died, John Bayley has published three memoirs, there has been a film with Judi Dench and Kate Winslet, I published Iris Murdoch: A Life, and now we have Wilson's memoir. Others will decide how much Wilson has taken from my biography ( unacknowledged).

Much gets dished up again wholesale, including my mistypings of the first names of Arnaldo Momigliano and Jenifer Hart.

This is really three books-in-one, and two of them are good. He ekes out his slender material with a revealing account of himself, his world and friends.

Fiercely ambitious, Wilson noted early that he had the gift of inspiring instant hatred in others.

His vignettes of other writers - J B Priestley (who loathed Wilson), Elizabeth Bowen, Philip Larkin, among others - are superb. …