Iris Murdoch: A Memoir
Meyers, Jeffrey, New Criterion
I have always admired the qualities that made Iris Murdoch a great novelist: her technical skill, richness of imagination, philosophical ideas, and moral vision. In March 1978 I met Iris and her husband, John Bayley, Warton Professor of English at Oxford, when they were invited to teach at the University of Denver. They each gave a public lecture--Iris on "Art Imitates Nature," John on "Hardy's Poetry"--and jointly led a two-week seminar on "Truth and Falsehood in Fiction." When my wife and I drove in to attend the seminar from the University of Colorado at Boulder, where we were both teaching, we were surprised to find only three other participants. We wondered if the locals were too intimidated to attend a class taught by what journalists had called "the most intelligent couple in the world."
The dimly-lit seminar room gave me my first glimpse of them. John, like Professor Calculus in the Tintin books, was short and bald, with little wings of hair on the sides of his head. He had untied shoelaces and mismatched socks, a stained woolly tie, and fly at half-mast. Soft-voiced and benign, he managed to steer his dazzling talk through an alarming, even spectacular, stutter. Photographs of Iris in her twenties reveal that she'd been a great beauty, and in her youth many Oxford men had fallen in love with her. Though bulky now at sixty, she was still attractive. She had a charming expression, serene yet alert and curious, with short, roughly-cut hair, bright, clear-seeing eyes and (as I later discovered when I kissed her cheek) soft, rosy skin. Her dress was donnish and distinctly non-fashionable: full skirts and shapeless smocks, dark stockings and sensible shoes. Like the title of one of her novels, she seemed both nice and good.
The seminar focused on the form of the novel, especially in Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Mauriac's Therese Desqueyroux. But their talk ranged freely over all sorts of novels and they responded easily to any topic the students raised. The intimate class allowed me to observe their brilliant, provocative, even mesmerizing teaching, both when engaged with each other in an intellectual duet and when they questioned and stimulated us to keep up with them. As in the best kind of tutorial, they brought the students up to the level of the teacher by sharing their ideas and creating a collaborative atmosphere. Humane and highly civilized, both combined penetrating--yet entertaining--knowledge of the structure, characters, and ideas of the novels with down-to-earth and humanely engaging analysis of the meaning. Ever-present in the discussion was the deeper structure of the novels, the presence of the author's mind and spirit. In contrast to the linguistic critics that have largely replaced this type of moral teaching, Iris and John recreated and enhanced the experience of reading and invited the students to share their responses.
The Rocky Mountain spring was as capricious as ever, and slush and ice lined the streets. As guests of the university, Iris and John had been cloistered in Denver and were eager to break out of Brown's Hotel and see a bit more of Colorado. They agreed to come and spend some time with us in Boulder. I took them on a campus tour. In our wool jackets and scarves, we gazed down at the students, bronzed already, sunning themselves in bathing suits on the pool patio. I pointed out some of the stranger sights of the university: the office of the Gay-Lesbian caucus (then a rarity for a college campus), the robotic lap-swimmers in the Olympic-sized pool, the grunting brutes in the weightlifting room, the surrealistic ice rink, and the Alferd Packer Grill, ghoulishly named for a convicted cannibal. At lunch I introduced Iris to the bagel.
Warm-hearted and sympathetic, Iris was ready to discuss any subject, and had the novelist's curiosity about new people and places. At a small party we held, she made sure to talk to everyone, tried to draw each person out, …
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Publication information: Article title: Iris Murdoch: A Memoir. Contributors: Meyers, Jeffrey - Author. Magazine title: New Criterion. Volume: 18. Issue: 3 Publication date: November 1999. Page number: 22. © 1999 Foundation for Cultural Review. COPYRIGHT 1999 Gale Group.
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