Interviews

Iris Murdoch, The Art of Fiction No. 117

Interviewed by Jeffrey Meyers

Iris Murdoch was born in Dublin on July 15, 1919 and grew up in London. She was educated at Badminton School in Bristol and studied classics at Somerville College, Oxford from 1938 until 1942, receiving first-class honors. She was assistant principal in the treasury from 1942 to 1944 and an administrative officer with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in England, Belgium, and Austria during the years 1944 to 1946. She held a Sarah Smithson Studentship in philosophy at Newnham College, Cambridge in 1947–1948, and became a fellow of St. Anne’s College, Oxford, and a university lecturer in philosophy the following year.

She published her first book, Sartre: Romantic Rationalist, in 1953 and her first novel, Under the Net, the next year. Since then she has published twenty-four formal, traditional novels, including The Sandcastle (1957), The Bell (1958), A Severed Head (1961), A Fairly Honourable Defeat (1970), A Word Child (1975), The Sea, The Sea (1978), which won the Booker Prize for that year, The Philosopher’s Pupil (1983), The Good Apprentice (1985), The Book and the Brotherhood (1987), and The Message to the Planet (1989).

Murdoch married John Bayley, an Oxford don, in 1956, and for many years lived in Steeple Aston, a village near Oxfordshire. In 1963 she was named Honorary Fellow of St. Anne’s College, and for the next four years was a part-time lecturer at the Royal College of Art in London. She moved from Steeple Aston to Oxford in 1986.

Though best known as a novelist, she has also published literary criticism, including the influential essay, “Against Dryness” (1961); a volume of poetry, A Year of Birds (1978); three dramatic adaptations (two of which were collaborations) of her novels, as well as two original plays; and an additional three books of philosophy: The Sovereignty of the Good (1970), The Fire and the Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artists (1977) and Acastos: Two Platonic Dialogues (1986).

Iris Murdoch has received many honors. In addition to the Booker Prize, she has won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for The Black Prince and the Whitbread Literary Award for Fiction for The Sacred and Profane Love Machine, and is an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She was named a companion of the British Empire in 1976 and a dame of the British Empire in 1987.

Murdoch and her husband live in a house in academic north Oxford. In its comfortably untidy rooms books overflow the shelves and are piled high on the floor. Even the bathroom is filled with volumes on language, including Dutch and Esperanto grammar books. Her paper-strewn second-floor study is decorated with oriental rugs and with paintings of horses and children. The first-floor sitting room, which leads out to the garden, has a well-stocked bar. There are paintings and tapestries of flowers, art books and records, pottery and old bottles, and embroidered cushions on the deep sofa.

Additional questions were proposed to Murdoch by James Atlas in front of an audience at the YMHA in New York last spring.

 

INTERVIEWER

Do you think you could say something about your family?

IRIS MURDOCH

My father went through the first war in the cavalry; it now seems extraordinary to think there was cavalry in World War I. This no doubt saved his life, because, of course, the horses were behind the lines, and in that sense he had a safer war. My parents met at that time. My father’s regiment was based at the Curragh near Dublin and my father was on leave. On his way to church he met my mother, who was going to the same church on the same tram. She sang in the choir. My mother had a very beautiful soprano voice; she was training to be an opera singer and could have been very good indeed, but she gave up her ambitions when she married. She continued singing all her life in an amateur way, but she never realized the potential of that great voice. She was a beautiful, lively, witty woman, with a happy temperament. My parents were very happy together. They loved each other dearly; they loved me and I loved them, so it was a most felicitous trinity. 

INTERVIEWER

When did you know you wanted to write?

MURDOCH

I knew very early on that I wanted to be a writer. I mean, when I was a child I knew that. Obviously, the war disturbed all one’s feelings of the future very profoundly. When I finished my undergraduate career I was immediately conscripted because everyone was. Under ordinary circumstances, I would very much have wanted to stay on at Oxford, study for a Ph.D., and try to become a don. I was very anxious to go on learning. But one had to sacrifice one’s wishes to the war. I went into the civil service, into the Treasury where I spent a couple of years. Then after the war I went into UNRRA, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Association, and worked with refugees in different parts of Europe.

INTERVIEWER

You were a member of the Communist Party, weren’t you?

MURDOCH

I was a member of the Communist Party for a short time when I was a student, about 1939. I went in, as a lot of people did, out of a sense which arose during the Spanish civil war that Europe was dangerously divided between left and right and we were jolly well going to be on the left. We had passionate feelings about social justice. We believed that socialism could, and fairly rapidly, produce just and good societies, without poverty and without strife. I lost those optimistic illusions fairly soon. So I left it. But it was just as well, in a way, to have seen the inside of Marxism because then one realizes how strong and how awful it is, certainly in its organized form. My association with it had its repercussions. Once I was offered a scholarship to come to Vassar. I was longing to go to America—such an adventure after being cooped up in England after the war. One did want to travel and see the world. I was prevented by the McCarren Act, and not given a visa. I may say there was a certain amount of to-do about this. Bertrand Russell got involved and Justice Felix Frankfurter, trying to say how ridiculous this was. But the McCarren Act is made of iron. It’s still here; I have to ask for a waiver if I want to come to the United States.

INTERVIEWER

Even now?

MURDOCH

It’s lunatic. One of the questions sometimes asked by some official is, Can you prove that you are no longer a member of the Communist Party? 

INTERVIEWER

I should think that would be very difficult to do.

MURDOCH

Extremely! I left it about fifty years ago!

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell me a little bit about your own method of composition and how you go about writing a novel?

MURDOCH

Well, I think it is important to make a detailed plan before you write the first sentence. Some people think one should write, George woke up and knew that something terrible had happened yesterday, and then see what happens. I plan the whole thing in detail before I begin. I have a general scheme and lots of notes. Every chapter is planned. Every conversation is planned. This is, of course, a primary stage, and very frightening because you’ve committed yourself at this point. I mean, a novel is a long job, and if you get it wrong at the start you’re going to be very unhappy later on. The second stage is that one should sit quietly and let the thing invent itself. One piece of imagination leads to another. You think about a certain situation and then some quite extraordinary aspect of it suddenly appears. The deep things that the work is about declare themselves and connect. Somehow things fly together and generate other things, and characters invent other characters, as if they were all doing it themselves. One should be patient and extend this period as far as possible. Of course, actually writing it involves a different kind of imagination and work.

INTERVIEWER

You are remarkably prolific as a novelist. You seem to enjoy writing a great deal. 

MURDOCH

Yes, I do enjoy it, but it has, of course—I mean, this is true of any art form—moments when you think it’s awful, you lose confidence and it’s all black. You can’t think and so on. So, it’s not all enjoyment. But I don’t actually find writing in itself difficult. The creation of the story is the agonizing part. You have the extraordinary experience when you begin a novel that you are now in a state of unlimited freedom, and this is alarming. Every choice you make will exclude another choice, so that it’s rather important what happens then, what state of mind you’re in and what you think matters. Books should have themes. I choose titles carefully and the titles in some way indicate something deep in the theme of the book. Names are important. The names sometimes don’t come at once, but the physical being and the mind of the character have to come pretty early on and you just have to wait for the gods to offer you something. You have to spend a lot of time looking out of the window and writing down scrappy notes that may or may not help. You have to wait patiently until you feel that you’re getting the thing right—who the people are, what it’s all about, how it moves. I may take a long time, say a year, just sitting and fishing around, putting the thing into some sort of shape. Then I do a very detailed synopsis of every chapter, every conversation, everything that happens. That would be another operation. 

INTERVIEWER

Which tends to come first—characters or plot?

MURDOCH

I think they all start in much the same way, with two or three people in a relationship with a problem. Then there is a story, ordeals, conflicts, a movement from illusion to reality, all that. I don’t think I have any autobiographical tendencies and can’t think of any novel I’ve written that is a copy of my own life.

INTERVIEWER

And you write by hand? 

MURDOCH

Oh, yes, yes, yes.

INTERVIEWER

No machines, no computers?

MURDOCH

No.

INTERVIEWER

And then take them up to your publisher who’s terrified because there’s only one copy?

MURDOCH

Yes, at the end there’s only one copy. I know that some people like word processors, but I do a great degree of correcting as I go along. I think if one had that green screen in front of one, one would be so fascinated by the words on it one wouldn’t want to change any of them! 

INTERVIEWER

What are your daily work habits? 

MURDOCH

I like working and when I have time to work, I work. But I also have to do other things like washing up and buying food. Fortunately my husband does the cooking. I sometimes have to go to London or I want to see my friends. Otherwise, I work pretty steadily all the time. I go to bed early and I start work very early. I work all morning, and then I shop and write letters—the letters take up a lot of time—in the afternoon. Then I work again from about half-past four until seven or eight. So I work steadily when I’ve got the open time, which is more days than not.

INTERVIEWER

How many words a day do you usually write?

MURDOCH

I’ve never thought of counting words. I’d rather not know.

INTERVIEWER

A moment ago you mentioned the names of your characters. How do you choose them?

MURDOCH

They have to choose themselves; one just waits. If you make a mistake there, this can be quite a serious matter. The character has to announce his own name. I make lists of names; I often invent names. I once invented the name Gavender; I thought, Nobody’s named Gavender. Then I got a letter from someone in America saying, How did you know about our family? It is fun inventing names. Names are very important because a lot of atmosphere comes with a name. The way a person is going to be addressed by his fellow characters is important too.

INTERVIEWER

How do you find specific details about experts, like Bruno and his spiders, in your novels?

MURDOCH

I’m very interested in spiders. I like spiders. Spiders are my friends, and I have read books about spiders. So that part of the book was just part of a spider lore which I happen to possess. 

INTERVIEWER

But if a man has a job like a wine merchant or soldier? 

MURDOCH

I ask my wine merchant friends to help me. As for soldiers, my brother-in-law is a soldier. Everything to do with guns my husband, John, supplies because he is very interested in weapons. He knows all about weapons from the early Greeks up to the latest machine guns. One’s friends can help. And of course there are books.

INTERVIEWER

What’s your most difficult technical problem? 

MURDOCH

It’s the one I mentioned earlier, the beginning, how to start and when to begin structuring the novel. It is this progression from complete freedom to a narrow cage, how fast you move and when you decide what the main things in the book are going to be. I think these are the most difficult things. One must consider what one’s characters are like, what jobs they do, what religion they have, what nationality they are, how they are related to each other, and so on. Here at the beginning one has infinite possibilities, this choice of what sort of people they are and what sort of troubles they are going to have, who wins, who loses, who dies. Most of all one must reflect upon their values, their morality, their moral dilemmas. You can’t write any novel without implying values. You can’t write a traditional novel without giving your characters moral problems and judgments. That is what is most difficult of all. 

INTERVIEWER

You’ve said that “one constantly takes prototypes from literature who may actually influence one’s conduct.” Could you give specific examples?

MURDOCH

Did I say that? Good heavens, I can’t remember the context. Of course, one feels affection for, or identifies with, certain fictional characters. My two favorites are Achilles and Mr. Knightley. This shows the difficulty of thinking of characters who might influence one. I could reflect upon characters in Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy; these writers particularly come to mind—wise moralistic writers who portray the complexity of morality and the difficulty of being good.

Plato remarks in The Republic that bad characters are volatile and interesting, whereas good characters are dull and always the same. This certainly indicates a literary problem. It is difficult in life to be good, and difficult in art to portray goodness. Perhaps we don’t know much about goodness. Attractive bad characters in fiction may corrupt people, who think, So that’s OK. Inspiration from good characters may be rarer and harder, yet Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov and the grandmother in Proust’s novel exist. I think one is influenced by the whole moral atmosphere of literary works, just as we are influenced by Shakespeare, a great exemplar for the novelist. In the most effortless manner he portrays moral dilemmas, good and evil, and the differences and the struggle between them. I think he is a deeply religious writer. He doesn’t portray religion directly in the plays, but it is certainly there, a sense of the spiritual, of goodness, of self-sacrifice, of reconciliation, and of forgiveness. I think that is the absolutely prime example of how we ought to tell a story—invent characters and convey something dramatic, which at the same time has deep spiritual significance. 

INTERVIEWER

If your fictional characters are not based on real people, as they are for most novelists, for example Hemingway and Lawrence, then how are your characters created? 

MURDOCH

Just by this process of sitting and waiting. I would abominate the idea of putting real people into a novel, not only because I think it’s morally questionable, but also because I think it would be terribly dull. I don’t want to make a photographic copy of somebody I know. I want to create somebody who never existed, and who is at the same time a plausible person. I think the characteristics gradually gather together. The first image of the character may be very shadowy; one vaguely knows that he is a good citizen or a religious sort of chap. Perhaps he’s puritanical, or hedonistic, and so on. I must have some notion of the troubles he’s going to be in and his relationship to the other characters. But the details on which the novel depends, the details of his appearance, his peculiarities, his idiosyncrasies, his other characteristics, his mode of being, will come later—if one is lucky—and quite instinctively, because the more you see of a person the more a kind of coherence begins to evolve.

INTERVIEWER

Your characters are not necessarily innocents. They’re able to commit violence and all sorts of misdeeds, and yet there exists this imperative within them toward the good. Does philosophy apply here?

MURDOCH

I don’t think this connects with philosophy. The consideration of moral issues in the novels may be intensified by some philosophical considerations, but on the whole I think it’s dangerous writing a philosophical novel. I mean, this is not a thing writers can easily get away with. Take the case of Thomas Mann, whom I adore, for instance. When his characters start having very long philosophical conversations, one feels, Well, perhaps we could do without this. My novels are not “philosophical novels.” 

INTERVIEWER

Well, your characters also have long philosophical arguments.

MURDOCH

Well, occasionally, but not very long.

INTERVIEWER

You once wrote, “A great artist is, in respect of his work, a good man and in the true sense a free man.” I wonder if you could interpret that?

MURDOCH

The important phrase is “in respect to his work,” because obviously great artists can lead less than perfect lives. Take Dante for instance. Or Shakespeare. We know very little about Shakespeare’s life. You could name almost anybody who has written a great or good novel and see that their lives are imperfect. You can be unselfish and truthful in your art, and a monster at home. To write a good book you have to have certain qualities. Great art is connected with courage and truthfulness. There is a conception of truth, a lack of illusion, an ability to overcome selfish obsessions, which goes with good art, and the artist has got to have that particular sort of moral stamina. Good art, whatever its style, has qualities of hardness, firmness, realism, clarity, detachment, justice, truth. It is the work of a free, unfettered, uncorrupted imagination. Whereas bad art is the soft, messy self-indulgent work of an enslaved fantasy. Pornography is at one end of that scale, great art at the other end.

The reading of great books, the contemplation of great art, is somehow very good for one. There’s a truthfulness of great art that one sees in the great nineteenth-century novels. It is very difficult to attain, to create something which is not a fantasy. I’d want to make a distinction between fantasy and imagination, not the same as Coleridge’s, but a distinction between the expression of immediate selfish feelings and the elimination of yourself in a work of art. The most obvious case of the former would be the novel where the writer is the hero and is always succeeding. He doesn’t succeed at first, but he’s very brave, and all the girls like him, and so on. That tends to spoil the work. I think some of D. H. Lawrence’s work is spoiled by too much Lawrence. What is important is an ability to have an image of perfection and to expel fantasy and the sort of lesser, egoistic cravings and the kind of imagery and immediate expressions that might go with them, and to be prepared to think and to wait. It’s difficult, as I say, to make this into any sort of program, to overcome egoism and fantasy.

INTERVIEWER

What would be an example in the novel?

MURDOCH

There would be very obvious cases—the whole tradition of the English novel from Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Emily Brontë, George Eliot, and of course, Henry James, whom I love. I also love the Russian novel. In a curious way English-speaking people feel a great affinity with the Russians. Somehow, the works of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky in translation seem very natural to us. It’s as if they were already writing in English. I think that we have the same feeling about Proust—that he’s really an English writer! He speaks to us very directly . . . whereas Stendhal and Flaubert are more remote. We know they’re French. It was the great age of the novel. One can always return to them and find marvelous wisdom.

INTERVIEWER

Should the novelist also be a moralist and teacher?

MURDOCH

Moralist, yes. Teacher suggests something rather more didactic in tone. A novelist is bound to express values, and I think he should be conscious of the fact that he is, in a sense, a compulsory moralist. Novelists differ, of course, in the extent to which they set out to reflect on morals and to put that reflection into their work. I certainly do reflect and put this reflection into my works, whether or not with success. The question is how to do it. If you can’t do it well, you had better not do it at all. If you have strong moral feelings, you may be in difficulties with your characters because you may want them to be less emphatic than you are yourself. In answer to your question, I think a novelist should be wary of being a teacher in a didactic sense, but should be conscious of himself as a moralist. 

INTERVIEWER

In your work you consider what religion means for people who do not believe in God. Can you say something about this? 

MURDOCH

This question interests and concerns me very much. Looking at Western societies I think that if we have religion, we shall have to have religion without God, because belief in a personal God is becoming increasingly impossible for many people. It’s a difficult question actually to know what believing in a personal God is. I know that I don’t believe in one. I don’t want to use the word god in any other sense. I think it’s a proper name. I don’t believe in the divinity of Christ. I don’t believe in life after death. My beliefs really are Buddhist in style. I’ve been very attached to Buddhism. Buddhism makes it plain that you can have religion without God, that religion is in fact better off without God. It has to do with now, with every moment of one’s life, how one thinks, what one is and does, about love and compassion and the overcoming of self, the difference between illusion and reality.

INTERVIEWER

In your book on Jean-Paul Sartre, you write of a kind of breakdown of moral authority, the disappearance of religion and a sense of chaos that’s ushered in and reflects itself in your work. 

MURDOCH

Well, it’s a long way back to the Sartre era. His popularity immediately after the war was extraordinary. People who had nothing to do with philosophy felt that a philosophy had been invented for them. The war had been so terrible and so destructive, and the Hitler era had been so unimaginably awful. People wanted to find a way of having some kind of spirit come back into their life. Sartre’s existentialist ethic with its notion of complete freedom, and the notion that you should get yourself into a state where you can make a choice that transcends conventions and the dull feeling of being contained, submerged, and so on—this (and his novels too) reflects a, in a way, heroic ethic. It did cheer people up a lot. I don’t particularly go along with this myself, but it had a great revivifying effect.

INTERVIEWER

I wondered how you feel about your own achievements and what you’ve done? 

MURDOCH

Well, one is always discontented with what one has done. And also, of course, one’s always afraid that even the things one has done can’t be done again. I don’t know. I think artists live in the present, really. I mean, forget about the past and what you’ve done because it’s what you think you can do next that matters. For any writer it’s terribly discouraging if somebody says, Oh, I loved your first novel! My heart sinks when they say that, because that suggests it’s been downhill all the way!

INTERVIEWER

What were you able to accomplish in the play, The Black Prince, that you did not accomplish in the novel?

MURDOCH

Well, the theater is such a different game. Writers of fiction, of novels, are pleased when they can see something of their work on the stage and hear people uttering their lines and so on. But a play is made of lines, and it’s got to be . . . I mean, the miracle about the theater is why people stay there. Why don’t they get up and go? It’s not at all easy to write a play. There’s a special kind of magic involved. My first adventure in the theater was a very pleasant one because I worked with J. B. Priestley on making a play out of a novel of mine called A Severed Head. He said to me, Duckie, this is a difficult game; a very few people can succeed at it. If it was all that easy everybody would be doing it. It is very difficult to compress the reflections of one’s characters and the great pattern of a novel into drama where it is a matter of lines and short speeches and actual actors and so on. The forms are so different that they can’t possibly be compared. A play is much more like a poem.

INTERVIEWER

Could you say something about your use of painters and painting in fiction? I’m thinking of Max Beckmann in Henry and Cato, Bronzino in The Nice and the Good, and Titian in The Sacred and Profane Love Machine.

MURDOCH

I am very interested in painting. Painting appears more frequently than music, for instance, because I know far more about painting than about music. The only music that tends to appear is singing, which I know about because of my mother. I love painting. I love looking at pictures, and I did once very much want to be a painter. I understand painting in a way I don’t understand music, though I am moved by music. I know a lot of painters. I know what painting is. I enjoy bringing in painting. I loved doing the Beckmann business in Henry and Cato. I admire Beckmann very much and I’ve seen a lot of Beckmanns in St. Louis and other places. With a bit of luck, one’s own interests and feelings can run straight along with those of the character. But there is also the challenge of inventing characters with alien interests. This can be a dangerous business.

INTERVIEWER

Do you see a painting you are particularly interested in and think, I might be able to use that some day in a novel, or I’d like to use it because it attracts and interests me?

MURDOCH

The novel often indicates a painting during the process of creating the characters. Somehow the character will lead to the painting. A great painting that I have only recently seen—it lives in Czechoslovakia—is Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas. He was over ninety when he painted it. This painting gives me very much, though I have only referred to it indirectly.

INTERVIEWER

Does your husband read and comment on your works before they’re published?

MURDOCH

No, he doesn’t see them until they’re printed. I talk to him occasionally about things where he can help me, about how a revolver works or something like that.

INTERVIEWER

Do you show parts of the novel to your editor at Chatto & Windus before it’s completed? 

MURDOCH

No, I don’t show it to them until I’ve finished it. I don’t ask for advice.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think children limit the freedom needed as a writer? 

MURDOCH

Oh, no. There are innumerable examples of their compatibility. Women have obvious problems about family life and doing jobs. But, in a way, being a writer is one of the easier choices because you can do it at home. I don’t think there is an awful problem there. 

INTERVIEWER

Which contemporary writers do you respect?

MURDOCH

I don’t really read contemporary writers very much. For instance, I enjoyed reading Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Ishiguro’s A Pale View of Hills, and A. S. Byatt’s wonderful novel Possession.

INTERVIEWER

Do you read the works of writers you know?

MURDOCH

Yes, sometimes. But I don’t read much contemporary fiction. I particularly admire John Cowper Powys. I particularly like Wolf Solent, A Glastonbury Romance, and Weymouth Sands. They are very long novels, full of details that novels should have. I think he is very good on sex. Sex is a complicated, subtle, omnipresent, mysterious, multifarious business; sex is everywhere. I think Hardy is a far more erotic writer than Lawrence. John Cowper Powys is really interested in sex, just as keen on it as Lawrence, but he understands and portrays it far better. He sees so many different aspects of it. He treats it with reverence and respect. He finds it very strange, and funny, and mysterious.

INTERVIEWER

What effect would you like your books to have?

MURDOCH

I’d like people to enjoy reading them. A readable novel is a gift to humanity. It provides an innocent occupation. Any novel takes people away from their troubles and the television set; it may even stir them to reflect about human life, characters, morals. So I would like people to be able to read the stuff. I’d like it to be understood too; though some of the novels are not all that easy, I’d like them to be understood, and not grossly misunderstood. But literature is to be enjoyed, to be grasped by enjoyment. 

INTERVIEWER

How would you describe your ideal reader?

MURDOCH

Those who like a jolly good yarn are welcome and worthy readers. I suppose the ideal reader is someone who likes a jolly good yarn and enjoys thinking about the book as well, thinking about the moral issues.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think a good yarn is essential to the novel?

MURDOCH

It is one of the main charms of the art form and its prime mode of exposition. A novel without a story must work very hard in other ways to be worth reading, and indeed to be read. Some of today’s antistory novels are too deliberately arcane. I think story is essential to the survival of the novel. A novel may be “difficult” but its story can carry and retain the reader who may understand in his own way, even remember and return. Stories are a fundamental human form of thought.