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Picture of Iris Murdoch by Tom Phillips; twentieth century Irish Literature

July 15, 1919
Iris Murdoch   (1919 - 1999)
Attending to Iris Murdoch
by Steve King

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On this day in 1919, the novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch was born in Dublin. Many of Murdoch's twenty-six novels present the horrors of modern egomania, so given the chance she may not have enjoyed all the attention that her life has received since her death in 1999: her husband, John Bayley's, Elegy for Iris and Iris and her Friends; Peter Conradi's authorized biography, Iris Murdoch; and the Oscar-nominated movie, Iris.

The movie was based on the Elegy memoirs, and Conradi was a friend of Murdoch and her husband; one common ground in all three works is water. In his review of the film, Martin Amis notes the prevalence of water imagery, and that one of Murdoch's more famous philosophical essays was "Against Dryness," as one of her most famous books, the 1978 Booker Prize winner, is The Sea, The Sea. Amis's review also forewarns of other water, as we witness how the abundant mind -- Murdoch was a professor of philosophy at Oxford, as well as a novelist -- is inexorably reduced by Alzheimer's Disease: "Hold yourself in readiness, too, for the floods of your tears."

In her journal, Murdoch says that her earliest memory, from the age of 3 or 4, is of swimming with her father. Conradi cites this, saying that "Swimming was the secret family religion." Bayley's Elegy begins with a skinny-dip memory from 45 years earlier, a hot summer's day at the beginning of their courting life:
    Crouching in the shelter of the reeds, we tore our clothes off and slipped in like water rats. A kingfisher flashed past our noses as we lay soundlessly in the dark, sluggish current. A moment after we had crawled out and were drying ourselves on Iris's half-slip, a big pleasure boat chugged past within a few feet of the bank. . . .

    I still have the half-slip, I rediscovered it the other day, bunched up at the back of a drawer, stiff with powdery traces of dry mud. It is faded to a yellowish colour, with a wrinkled ribbon, once blue, decorating the hem. . . .
As bookend to that, Bayley also recalls their last swim, Murdoch now very ill:
    In her shabby old one-piece swimsuit . . . she was an awkward and anxious figure, her socks trailing round her ankles. She was obstinate about not taking these off, and I gave up the struggle. A pleasure barge chugged slowly past, an elegant girl in a bikini sunning herself on the deck, a young man in white shorts at the steering wheel. . . . We must have presented a comic spectacle -- an elderly man struggling to remove the garments from an old lady. . . .
In her last years, Murdoch could startle: "Who am I?" and "How did this anguish start?" and a series of unfinished letters always beginning with "My dear, I am now going away for some time. I hope you will be well." Whether as anchor to or escape from memory, swimming seems to bring relief: she writes of one last dip, "Indescribable. Holiness."

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Related authors:  E. M. Forster, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Henry David Thoreau, Henry Miller, J. D. Salinger, Michel de Montaigne, Saul Bellow, Vladimir Nabokov, William Shakespeare
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