Reading Iris. All of it.
The story of a small obsession
Coming back from Dover one Sunday afternoon we turned on the radio to pass the tedium of the M20 and found ourselves listening to a play about an Irishman with an Alsatian. We had both read some Iris Murdoch, mostly a long time ago, and quickly spotted Jake and Mr Mars. Enjoying it, I looked out Under the Net from our bookcase and found a lovely old Penguin with Margaret Foreman’s beautiful painting of Jake in his chair. I was captivated again and found we had The Bell, The Nice and the Good and about four or five more. I had to read all of them and then, being something of a completist, had to read the rest of the novels, most of which I had never heard of or seen in print.
The Oxfam shop in Portobello Road was my source and most weekends I popped in and found another one. The 1990s were far enough into the future from 1954 that her early readers were dying off or moving away and I picked up paperbacks for a pound or hardbacks, usually firsts with their covers, for about £15. I found Peter Conradi’s Life in a second-hand bookshop in Gloucester Road, unconsciously tracing Jake’s footsteps from Notting Hill as he followed Hugo, and put it aside to read when I had read them all.
Eventually I ran out of second-hand copies and was temporarily stalled until the great Vintage Classics' edition of around 2002 when I found the remainder as and when they came out. On one trip home to France I bought four in the bookshop in the North Terminal at Gatwick, including one that has since then been a firm favourite, Nuns and Soldiers, with dear Tim who can be guaranteed to make almost exactly the wrong choice out of any two. I discovered that the 27th novel was in fact a short story.
A friend recommended the two-day conference at Kingston and I met the wonderful Anne. I learned that Iris was also a philosopher and bought Existentialists and Mystics and others works. I started collecting the commentators, Tony Byatt whose library clearances have given me (via Hay on Wye) her first edition of The Green Knight and a copy of Degrees of Freedom dedicated by Byatt to Cecil Day Lewis; Gillian’s brilliant Tiny Corner; the two Muroya/Hullah collections; several more biographical works.
I started buying signed first editions, mostly dedicated by Iris, to among others her mother Rene and her friend Brigid Brophy. I found private sellers and dealers, and got maybe the eyes of my collection, a copy of Under the Net dedicated to her friend Yorick Smithies, widely regarded as a model for Hugo Belfounder. In one of her letters to Philippa Foot in the archives at Kingston, Iris tells how she met Yorick at a pub near Kingston and that he was behaving more like Hugo than ever. I drove to the other side of Oxford and bought a signed and numbered copy of Joanna Joanna from a bookseller who had been a friend of Iris’s, through whom she sold her surplus author’s copies. So I proceeded. One curiosity was Robert Mitchum’s copy of Bruno’s Dream. Hard to imagine the big fellow following the antics of Bruno’s weird household.
I could go on. Each of the books in my collection has its own story. I picked up all the plays, including the rare The One Alone and some acting editions. I have a beautiful box set of A Year of Birds complete with mounted signed prints of the engravings. I found a little first edition of her study of Sartre, which led me to read La Nausée and to reread The Roads to Freedom, a real and unexpected treat. I bought a collection of Paul Valéry’s poems and visited his grave and museum at the Cimetière Marin in Sête. There is always something out there to find. And so it goes.
The massive reading project led me to the creation of an encyclopedia, Iris Murdoch’s People A-Z. This arose from a simple question as to whether she reused characters, whether like Proust she had created an enormous roman fleuve. It seemed not, though a number of characters subsequently appear off stage in a later novel. Hugo famously does not found the original bell for the abbey for which the new bell is being made, but does appear, off stage, in Ennistone where he is said by John Robert Rozanov to have died, leaving his valuable clocks to ‘that writer, I forget his name’, in a conversation which heralds the death of one of the characters in that later book, 30 years after Hugo’s first appearance to Jake Donaghue. I have theories about all that, but that is another story.