Why Iris Murdoch?

by Corey Mesler

I am often asked (well, as often as people talk to me and think I might have something interesting to say) who my favorite writer is. This is a thorny question, of course, especially for a graybeard like me who has lived long enough to read a lot of books. My favorite book is Ulysses because Joyce wasn’t from here and I appreciate the guidebook to the other reality, the realm of shamanic myth. I also appreciate the whistles I get when I say it’s my favorite book because I seem so smart. I ain’t so smart but I do love a book you have to wrestle with, a book which is just enough beyond you to make you want to run to catch up with it.

But, my favorite writer is Iris Murdoch, the late Dame who was so prolific it took me from age 19 until last year to read every one of her novels. And, listen to me now: I was not disappointed in a single book. I can’t think of another writer I can say that about, especially a writer with such an output. For a while she produced a 500+ page novel a year.

I started, way back in 1974, with Flight from the Enchanter. This was probably lucky because it is, in slightly shorter form, a template for her other novels. Murdoch usually inserts an enchanter into the action, into the semi-mundane lives of her characters, an enchanter, who, by necromancy or perversity or strangeness or boldness, changes things for everyone. They are narrative catalysts. I love her enchanters. I wish I had one in my life, other than my imaginary friend.

Also this: Iris Murdoch is of the world. That is, though metaphysical in her philosophy, she loves the natural world in a way almost lost to time. One of my favorite Murdoch quotes is, “How nice objects are—I’m glad we live in a thingy world.” And, in Peter Conradi’s excellent biography of her, I learned that she would bring home stones from her walks, walks often taken with her husband, the critic and novelist John Bayley. Not magic stones. Not numinous stones. Ordinary stones—the kind kids kick and throw, the kind that nature gives us in abundance–which she would place on various surfaces in her unkempt home. I wish I knew an enchanter and I wish I had one of Iris’s stones.

And speaking of her characters: is there another writer who creates such indelibly alive and convincing characters? I know these people, but only through Murdoch’s books. Like Graham Greene’s Greeneland, Iris Murdoch’s world is a world distant from mine. Yet, it is so fully realized, so richly described, that I believe I have visited. I’ve hung with these intellectuals (perhaps it’s because only in Murdoch’s imaginary world would I be accepted in such a heady group) and thinkers and hopelessly emotionally befuddled folks. Another favorite quote: “‘Ducane’s a man who doesn’t make muddles. That’s one of the marvelous things about him.’ ‘No muddles? That’s a lot to say of any man’.” In almost every novel there is a character I still call a companion. I am forever in love with Daisy from Nuns and Soldiers, which I read about 30 years ago. Daisy, where are you today?

Peter Conradi said, “Life, Iris [Murdoch] (like Dostoevsky) believed, is so fantastic that we instinctively mix in a little fiction to render it plausible. Life feeds the novel as well as literature.” I believe, no matter how outlandish her situations, no matter how ridiculously tangled are her characters’ affairs of the heart, no matter how mysterious her enchanters appear, that Iris Murdoch knew life better than almost any other writer. Inside her intricate plots there is truth. This is why we read, right? This is what we hope for from our best writers. John Updike said this about Murdoch: “Our actions, our decisions, our vows do matter; what can fiction tell us more important than that?”

I am aware, no matter how clearly I attempt to delineate why I love Iris Murdoch, how much I try to wrestle with what is great about her, that a reader’s love for any writer is such a personal thing that it cannot be explained fully, that one can’t pass the fire to another. I’ve had friends tell me that Dame Murdoch’s novels were too long, too literary, too preposterous, too weighty. Some of these people I had to divorce as friends.

One more quote from her: “There were no more gods, but all the minor magic remained, beautiful, terrible, cruel, and small.”

Magic remains. Perhaps it’s sheltering inside a simple stone.

Corey Mesler
Corey Mesler

Corey Mesler has published in numerous anthologies and journals including Poetry, Gargoyle, Good Poems American Places, and Esquire/Narrative. He has published 8 novels, 4 short story collections, numerous chapbooks, and 4 full-length poetry collections. His new novel, Memphis Movie, is forthcoming from Soft Skull Press. He’s been nominated for many Pushcarts, and 2 of his poems were chosen for Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac. With his wife, he runs a bookstore in Memphis.

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