For Murdoch, a Life ‘Addicted to Writing’


Those who have intuited (Dame Iris Murdoch’s favorite verb) that the Oxford author is not totally of this world will not be surprised to hear that her face has the familiarity of a legendary creature--the sort you might glimpse tangled in ivy leaves on an ancient oak tree, or reflected in a silty black pond of unplumbed depths.

She wore a perfectly ordinary blue jumper with a striped cotton shirt and gallery-going black lace-up shoes with sturdy soles as she walked across the lobby of New York’s Regency Hotel. Still, she has a fey air about her, suggesting she might wear a cap with tassels and shoes with peaks and bells to dance on the green on Midsummer’s Night.

The British writer would likely reject, huffily, the suggestion that she is in any way related to the Wee People--she makes a big thing about having left her Dublin birthplace for London when she was 9.


Still, at 70, the resemblance is there--in the short, generous stature, heart-shaped face with deeply dimpled chin and hair swirling around her face like blond Spanish moss. Certainly those dark blue eyes peer out warily, like those of some wild creature of the forest, full of knowledge of burrows and barrows and arcane methods of eluding capture.

Hers are not at all like the fox eyes she describes in “The Philosopher’s Pupil”: “cold pale eyes, which were somber and ruthless and sad, awful eyes which knew not of the human world.”

Or like those of the Philosopher himself, whose “stare was startled and disconcerting as if, when he looked at someone, he simultaneously recalled something awful which had nothing to do with the person looked at.”

The oft-honored novelist was in New York recently: to see the pictures at the museums and collections; to receive the National Arts Club’s Medal of Honor for Literature at a gala in its historic house on Gramercy Park; and to talk about her new book, her 24th, “The Message to the Planet” (Viking).

To the black-tie dinner, she went willingly enough. Her speech she wrote in her customary precise longhand, crossed out and inserted.

She spoke pleasantly to those who claimed to have read all 24 books and wanted her to autograph even their paperback copies. She listened without grimacing to master of ceremonies Timothy S. Healy, now president of the New York Public Library. And upon receipt of the medal itself, she admired it enthusiastically.


As for being interviewed, well, she’s very polite, using the disarming technique of questioning the questioner as a way of providing answers of her own.

Anyone who’s read Murdoch would approach her diffidently, worrying about acting like one of the pupils or disciples who harass her guru, her holy man, her philosopher.

In novel after novel, the seekers hunt him (her divine courier is never a woman, nor are her narrators) down. In the new book, the philosopher is Marcus; he is “taken for a god,” and comes to “symbolize perfect goodness.” But Marcus is more troubled than enthralled by the exercise of his powers.

“He had discovered that he had magical powers, paranormal powers,” she writes. “There’s a lot of paranormal about,” Dame Murdoch said, defending a willed death, faith healing and other remarkable events in her new book.

“One of the problems of life is to distinguish between demons, magic and God,” she said.

And then, in her customary defense of turning the questions on the questioner, she demanded: “Have you ever met a saint?”

The stunned interviewer racked her memory for a saint but couldn’t find one. Neither, apparently, could Murdoch. “I have never met a saint. I have met very good people, very unselfish--but the word saint suggests something elevated, superhuman. I have met many demons, some beneficent, but still demonic. And I have known many very great people in my life, even geniuses--but never felt it a religious matter.”


Murdoch believes, she said, in “puzzling things.”

But she distinguishes between the “paranormal, poltergeists or furniture flying around”--she thinks such things may well have more to do with powers or forces that may be “scientific”--than the powers obtainable from a spiritual life.

“You don’t have to live in Tibet, you can live in South Kensington and still undertake religious disciplines to acquire unusual powers. To die by your own will, I don’t know--these things always seem to happen more in Tibet than in California--but you never know what goes on in California.

“I have known people who practice Buddhist technique or devotion. I was taught Buddhist meditation--I even once thought of becoming a Buddhist. But Christian meditation can lead to unusual forms of life. Being selfless or detached from the world is unusual enough--unusual perhaps because ordinary life is so usual.”

She still meditates regularly, using a Christian form of a mantra, “but not as much as I once did or should. But from the fact that I did it ardently for a very long time, something remains. I wish the technique were taught to children. It does what prayer used to do. It helps remove oneself to another kind of being. You relax; it’s not a matter of thought, but you find the things that are worrying you, vanities, desires, and you are liberated. It’s a kind of escape. It does sound pompous, but you soon return to normal.”

Murdoch, for all her glimpses of the unknowable (Hier ist Kein Warum --she quotes the saying, “Here is no why”), her aphorisms, her epigrams, her Minoan maze plots.

But as high-flown as her prose is, she paces it with the prosaic. She uses food, for instance, as she said, “to give a pattern to the day. One of the problems of the novel is to make the ordinary life of the character proceed.


“I like reading in books about people eating,” she said.

And a reader is always told what people are eating.

“The Message to the Planet” begins with a group of male friends eating “fish cakes and boiled potatoes followed by bread and cheese, followed by chocolate biscuits.”

And they drink so much whiskey and talk about Marcus Vallar so long that they have to have brown bread and Cheddar cheese as well.

“The Sea, the Sea,” is full of almost-recipes for food--provided by Murdoch’s husband, Oxford professor, writer, critic and chef John Bayley. Dame Iris does not cook.

“I cooked for a short while after I was married. But I didn’t like to cook. When my husband saw what an awful cook I was, he took over. He’s a creative cook--he could write an interesting cookbook.”

She uses other devices to bring her characters to earth. The writer points out that Tolstoy, in “Anna Karenina,” curses her lover with a toothache while he’s walking up and down in the cold on the train platform. “It makes you think: human life, how awful. The world has collapsed around you--and you have a toothache.” She herself has asthma and occasionally plagues her characters with it.

Murdoch carefully describes rooms, houses (notably the one in “The Sea, the Sea” where eerie faces peered through windows of interior rooms. Her character decides, “It was not exactly a sinister or menacing effect, but as if the house were a sensitized plate which intermittently registered things which had happened in the past--or, as it now occurred to me for the first time, were going to happen in the future”).


She writes every day “all day,” when she’s not in New York, or California, France or Belgium, or running the house or doing the shopping--”there are intrusions, though I’m fortunate enough not to have many.”

As you might expect from one who has written 24 books and three plays in less than 40 years, she’s quite settled--some might say “sot in her ways” about writing.

Amazingly enough, her manuscripts--pages and pages of her small, neat handwriting--go to her agent or publisher in fat, heavy blue laundry bags.

She always uses the same sort of paper and instruments--which may sound a bit superstitious to non-practitioners of the trade but is common enough among writers. She uses the same sort of notebooks to write all her novels, using one side of the page so as to leave room on the other for second thoughts. And she always “writes with a real fountain pen. It seems to me to be the way to think. I can’t imagine thinking with a machine between me and the screen. Of course, a pen is a machine. But I’ve never touched a typewriter.

“I had always used blue-black ink, as my father did. I was very much attached to my father, a bookish man, a civil servant who was very precise about writing. Not long ago, I changed to blue. I’m not sure what it signifies.”

Her change of ink is obviously no rejection of her childhood. “I had marvelous parents. It’s rather an advantage to being an only child. Only in later life did I learn that children don’t always get along with parents.”


To those who speak of the ease of a computer, she says frostily, “I rather do my own writing, not let my computer do it. I like to keep my sentences more closely on a rein.” And indeed, every Murdoch word reads as though premeditated. “I have it all in my mind before I begin,” she has said.

Perhaps this prewriting is the reason she doesn’t report the feeling many writers (as well as artists, actors and athletes) sometimes have of “going with the flow”--automatic writing or plugging in to the universal muse.

“There are moments,” she concedes, “when you feel your heart beats faster. You feel something. There is an energy--days when you can do nothing and days when you can do everything--days when it goes and days when it doesn’t.”

Her work is her pleasure. “I’m firmly addicted to writing. I do read a good deal, the great novels in English, Russian--and of course French for Proust. I know these novels by heart. The element of surprise is no longer there.”