The other day we shared recordings of Garrison Keillor, William Styron, and Iris Murdoch as part of an ongoing collaboration with 92Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center. Since 1985, the Poetry Center and The Paris Review have copresented an occasional series of onstage conversations—many of which have ended up as part of our published Writers-at-Work interviews—and we’ll be sharing more of these recordings in the months to come. Meanwhile, here is James Atlas on what it was like to interview Iris Murdoch on February 22, 1990. This essay is also part of 75 at 75, a special project for the Poetry Center’s seventy-fifth anniversary that invites contemporary authors to listen to a recording from the Poetry Center’s archive and write a personal response.
I have known three charismatic writers in my life: Philip Roth, Robert Lowell, and Iris Murdoch. (A fourth, Saul Bellow, was what might be called anticharismatic, by his own choice; he didn’t mind attention, but he liked to keep his self to himself.) And there is one venue that I would describe as charismatic if an auditorium can be defined that way: the 92nd Street Y. Every major writer in the English-speaking (or I should say -writing) world has spoken there. I myself have seen—and, more importantly, heard—Joseph Brodsky, Joyce Carol Oates, John Irving, Gore Vidal, Bellow (on several occasions), and many others I can’t remember. So when I was invited to interview Dame Iris on the occasion of a visit in the winter of 1990, it wasn’t exactly a hard sell. In fact, it would turn out to be one of the great literary experiences of my own life.
I use her title with great reluctance because I did know Iris Murdoch, having spent time with her in Oxford a few years earlier for a Vanity Fair profile. This was no doubt the reason why the Y had thought of me in the first place for a live Writers-at-Work interview cosponsored by The Paris Review. As famous as she was, Murdoch did not have a large following in America, and there may have been a limited pool of interlocutors capable of introducing her before the kind of sophisticated New York audience that tended to show up at the Y.
She was a gentle soul, soft-spoken, and almost willfully self-effacing. When I first met her at Oxford, at a friend’s Sunday brunch, she had grilled me about my own life—my family, my children, my education, books written, books not written, before she had even figured out that I was the man from America who had come all that way to interview her. I was nervous about the very public forum of the Y anyway; how was I supposed to sit there on stage in front of nine hundred people and ask—for instance—about her forbidding work of philosophy, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals? I hit upon a rather craven solution: “I’m just going to ask you one question, Iris, and then you speak for an hour.”
As I listen to this recording now, I discover with relief that she was anything but forbidding. She was modest. When I asked her what she thought she had achieved—remember, she was over seventy at this point and had long been considered one of the most important writers in England—she answered, with complete sincerity, “I haven’t achieved anything yet.” She was profound without sounding that way, or, I suspect, even knowing that she was: “Live in the present. It’s what you think you can do next that matters.” And she was funny: “The thing about the theater is, why do people stay there? Why don’t they just get up and go?” But the most valuable thing I learned from Dame Iris Murdoch that evening was about the relationship between art and humility. “One is always discontented with what one has done,” she said. “One always hopes to do better.” To be satisfied with one’s work was to misunderstand the very nature of creativity.
Toward the end of our hour, she gave the audience—or was it just me this was intended for?—a piece of advice: “It’s a good idea to know about something.” “I’ll keep that I mind,” I quipped. There was laughter in the auditorium, and I realize now that knowing about Iris Murdoch—even the little I knew—had been a good idea.
James Atlas is the founding editor of the Lipper/Viking Penguin Lives Series. A longtime contributor to The New Yorker, he was an editor at The New York Times Magazine for many years. His work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books, Vanity Fair, and many other journals. He is the author of Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet, which was nominated for the National Book Award.