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IRIS MURDOCH: A Life

Peter J. Conradi, Author . Norton $30 (512p) ISBN 978-0-393-04875-9

It has been nearly two years since Iris Murdoch's death from Alzheimer's and the publication of her husband John Bayley's memoir Elegy for Iris. It seems fitting that the beloved philosopher and novelist should be the subject of a biography nearly as idiosyncratic and charming as she herself was. One of the numerous oddities of this one is its construction: each chapter is broken into numbered sections rarely more than four pages long. This allows the author (Murdoch's longtime friend and biographer of Angus Wilson) to ramble back and forth chronologically, examining a few years at a time through different perspectives—literary, romantic, philosophical—and gradually progress forward. The overall effect is leisurely, informal, highly literary and more than a bit uneven. In the first half, Conradi faithfully traces Murdoch's family background and intellectual development, painstakingly tracking down her earliest Latin teachers or the history of modern Irish sectarianism, as the moment requires. But the second half ends as if winded, streaking through 16 prolific years in one short chapter, mentioning Murdoch's knighthood almost in passing. The book's great strength lies in its characterizations ("She had a way of staring down at her glass, listening very carefully to the speaker, possibly indicating also that the glass was empty"). Documenting Murdoch's eccentricities and legendary kindnesses, Conradi succeeds in reviving her presence. Thus, readers who seek a few last glimpses of Murdoch's rare personality will be gratified by this affectionate, if disorganized, tribute; those looking for closure or hoping to make sense of the narrative of her life will not. (Sept.)

Reviewed on: 07/30/2001
Release date: 10/01/2001
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Hardcover - 304 pages - 978-0-312-43614-8
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