Monday, October 03, 2005


Biography is impossible. As Iris Murdoch wrote (describing the protagonist's first discovery in La Nausée), "[There] are no adventures. Adventures are stories and one does not live a story." But a biography is a novel. And so it is inevitably false.

This argument assumes, with Forster, that a novel tells a story – not always true in these post-modern times. But the thirst for biography is a thirst for novels that do tell stories: for Victorian novels, with a moral, a beginning, a middle, an end. A human life is bound to have at least two of these; the problem is that the others must be supplied.

If this is impossible in any case, it is especially dangerous in one's own. But I was disappointed, all the same, to see that the title of my prospective autobiography had been scooped by A. N. Wilson, for a chapter of his anti-biography, Iris Murdoch as I Knew Her: "Hull is other people." ("Hull" is the name of my home town in Yorkshire.)

Wilson's book is gripping and occasionally brilliant: he wrestles lazily with the problems of explaining a life by telling it in order, opting first for an account of Murdoch's (possibly disingenuous) request for him to write her biography, and then for a series of episodes in the attempt to understand her work through aspects of her life: her "Irishness", her philosophy, her friends, her attitude to God, and her tactic in conversation of asking incessant but trivial questions.

His approach is resolutely impious. Wilson's Murdoch is no saint, a flawed artist, not much of a philosopher. Amidst the criticism, which is sometimes forced, and which he retracts ambiguously in his final pages, Wilson frames what I think of as the fundamental question about her work: what are we to make of the fact that so many of her novels begin with gravity – with metaphysics and morals – only to descend into melodramatic farce? In a perceptive review, Elijah Millgram argued that even Murdoch's best novels are, by her own moral and aesthetic standards, bad: escapist entertainment, full of comic and erotic capers. They must "be counted as consoling fantasy rather than as truthful art." I am sure he is wrong about this; but the critical challenge is right.

I don't have a firm answer to it. One might attempt to trace the problem to her own life, which was apparently one of intellectual attraction to the Good, combined with a toxic and destructive lust for affairs and intrigues and lies. Murdoch was well acquainted with what she called "the greedy organism of the self".

As befits his scepticism about biography, Wilson has a different idea: that the modern novel lends itself to existentialism, and that this worked for Murdoch in some early attempts, until her conversion to Platonism got in the way.
Is not such a concept [that of a Platonist novel] self-contradictory at a very deep level?

I don't know. After all, what would one expect of a Platonist novel, if not that the souls of its characters should be dragged back to the sordid material world?

A rhetorical question is not an argument – not for Wilson, and not for me. But, still, I can't help thinking that there is a solution to the puzzle, if not of Murdoch herself, then of the novels she so fluently and carelessly wrote.


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