I scoured the airy, cliff side house until, finally, up high in a closet, I found a small box of books in English. All by a contemporary British writer I had never heard of: Iris Murdoch. The first one I opened was called “The Severed Head,” and it — like much of Murdoch’s work — combined a kind of dark mythological bent with a cerebral, talkative, psychologically misguided set of characters. Oh, and lots of discreetly mentioned sex — hetero- and homo-, extramarital, even incestuous, all charged with violence, betrayal and yearning — utterly thrilling to an overly protected kid like me.
If you’re not familiar with the works of Iris Murdoch, “The Severed Head” is an excellent place to start. Married man with mistress discovers wife is leaving him for their psychoanalyst. Everyone is so concerned for everyone else — husband and wife help each other move, the analyst’s sister (also his lover, it turns out) sticks her nose in everywhere, and by the end, each character has a new partner and it seems that the world has reshuffled into better order, at least for the moment. Madcap as it sounds, it’s calm on the page. Murdoch’s prose is elegant, validating itself by its own certainty.
“I loved to give Georgie outrageous things, absurd garments and gewgaws which I could not possibly have given Antonia, barbarous necklaces and velvet pants and purple underwear and black openwork tights which drove me mad. I rose now and wandered about the room, watching her possessively as with a tense demure consciousness of my gaze she adjusted the lurid stockings.” Reading this passage alone in my room, I began to see why my sisters found the adult world so fascinating.
I went on to read the rest of the books in that box, which included “The Bell,” “The Red and the Green,” “The Italian Girl” and “The Nice and the Good.” This was the summer of 1969, and so Murdoch had only published 12 of what would turn out to be 26 novels. She was 50 years old, and had not yet been named to the order of the British Empire or won the Booker Prize, nor exhibited symptoms of the Alzheimer’s disease that would end her life in 1999. The sexually open-minded Murdoch had only a few years earlier married the largely asexual literary critic John Bayley, but I knew nothing of her past, or her present, and, of course, nothing of her future. (I would learn more later by reading A.N. Wilson’s “Iris Murdoch as I Knew Her” and John Bayley’s own memoir, Elegy for Iris.) I only knew at the time that I responded to — no, loved — her books.
I read “my” Murdochs in my tiny bedroom that summer, acutely aware of the noises of my family going about its vacation life on the other side of the door. I did not share her with them. If someone had asked me, “What’s your book?” I might have lied, even going so far as to say I was reading “Murder on the Orient Express” yet again.
After all these years, I have to ask myself why did I need to keep Iris Murdoch’s novels to myself? Was it simply because the books were “dirty”? They weren’t really, at least not in the way of dirty books, which I would find my way to later on. They were frank about the omnipresence of sex, of longing, the wish to be taken seriously, of grown-ups with sudden childish passions that seemed, at least to me, to be true. Her people voiced prejudice, held misguided notions, and Murdoch took them down, but with understanding and affection. Marriages ended, things were said, there was way too much drinking and even some fighting, and life went on. Yes, in Murdoch’s world, characters behaved badly and were not always punished for it. And even if they were, they found their way to reasonable fates.