In Granta 111: Going Back we publish six letters from the novelist Iris Murdoch to her mentor, the French surrealist Raymond Queneau – and earlier today we published two more online, including one sent from a UN camp in Austria where Murdoch volunteered shortly after World War II. Anne Rowe, director of the Centre for Iris Murdoch Studies at Kingston University, spoke to Ollie Brock about what these letters add to our assessment of Murdoch’s life and works.
OB: What can we learn about an author, about whom we already know so much, with the finding of new letters? Should it affect our reading of her books in any way?
AR: From her letters we learn about the woman as opposed to the writer. Iris Murdoch’s philosophy and fiction reveal her rational public face; in her letters she speaks from the heart. Her instincts and her first thoughts about herself and others emerge to create a very different picture from the strong, contained, eminent Dame of the British Empire that we know from her public writings and interviews. Some interesting contradictions emerge. For example in her philosophy and fiction she suggests a rigorous attempt at ‘unselfing’ as a route to goodness and morality. The role of psychoanalysis in this picture is at best ambivalent, at worst derided. In the novels it is usually satirised as miring the self further within the self. The Queneau letters reveal that she had been in such distress after the death of her lover, Franz Steiner, that she admitted to Queneau that her state of mind might be one serious enough to call for psychoanalysis. She was more prone to depression than one would think – in January 1947 she wrote ‘As for ‘happiness’, mon dieu, I have dropped that word from my vocabulary’.
The letters certainly illuminate ways in which Murdoch’s novels are more autobiographical than has been previously thought. In her theory on art Murdoch said that a writer’s life should be divorced from her art – but the letters suggest many instances of a sometimes deliberate pillaging of her life, and the lives of others, for her fiction. The detailed journal of her life that is emerging from her letters illustrates not only how, but also why, she worked certain life experiences into her plots. They reveal details of plots, characters and intention from her unpublished early novels (now almost completely lost).We are beginning to see how the life and the fiction interact, how the novels are constructed out of the fusion of reality and the imagination, giving a unique insight into the creative process.
And yes, they should affect our reading of her work – because they invite new kinds of attention to hitherto obscure facets of the novels. Peripheral detail shifts to more central significance in the light of these letters. For example, Professor Conradi, Murdoch’s biographer, suggests that the figure of Jake Donaghue, translating the French writer, Breteuil in Murdoch’s first novel, Under the Net, can now be seen as a self portrait of Murdoch translating Queneau’s Pierrot. The character of Jake can be read more broadly as Murdoch herself searching for a model for the kind of writer she wants to become. It’s possible with this new information to get a clearer picture of the kinds of philosophical positions she is exploring, the personal issues she is trying to clarify and the experiments she is making with form. As well, of course, as trying to say something important and true about the complexity of the inner life and the necessity of knowing and engaging with others and the world we live in.
Murdoch shows a divulgent, adoring side of herself to Queneau in the letters. What was their face-to-face relationship like? Do the letters reflect it accurately?
The letters allow for a more well-informed understanding of what her relationship with Queneau was like, though of course what we get are only partial glimpses. Murdoch and Queneau were never lovers – though not by her choice. The letters reveal something of her emotional promiscuity, her desire to win him as a mentor at any cost and her willingness to use her considerable sexual allure to do so: ‘I can’t live without giving & receiving affection, oh lots of it I suppose – & the cool dignity of not expressing it also is far from me’ she wrote. She makes it clear at the outset that emotional (probably sexual) as well as intellectual nourishment is on the agenda. She deliberately makes herself vulnerable, revealing her own disappointments in love and how hurt she has been: ‘You said that love between a man and a woman made always some sort of basis for life. Yes. Yet how rarely it occurs without hurt to one or both parties – or rather both, for if one is hurt both are hurt.’ Such intimate revelations seem to have frightened him off. A letter of July 14 1946 suggests that she has been given something of a brush-off, and she writes in a more formal way. ‘I am truly very sorry to have been, even for a moment, a further problem & embarrassment for you. Thank you however for writing frankly.’ A slightly tragic footnote, at the end of this rather intimate letter, points out that he has been spelling her name wrong – Murdoch, she writes, is spelt ‘with an H, not a K’. These detailed fluctuations in the tenor of their friendship which seemed to have had effects on her self-esteem invite a new and complex picture of her personality.
Murdoch’s writing clearly owed a lot to French literature. What does it owe to Queneau in particular?
I am hoping that the publicity about these letters to Queneau will stimulate new research into how more experimental Murdoch’s writing is than has traditionally been thought. The letters open the novels up to new kinds of literary analysis, especially her early ones. She was famously, and to a great extent mistakenly, linked to the ‘Angry Young Men’ when her first novel Under the Net was published in 1954, despite the fact that the book was dedicated to Queneau. This position was entrenched throughout the years by her repeated claim in interviews that she wanted to perpetuate the great Realist tradition of Austen, Eliot and Dickens. But this was to do with keeping the function of literature linked to morality – in style she worked hard to find new ways of rendering the complexities of the inner life in her art. For example she borrowed from the French modern painters in her use of colour, using it to ‘inscribe a spiritual space’ in the way that Matisse did in his paintings. It’s possible to find links with the experimental art of Kandinsky and Kokoschka in those early novels. The Queneau letters will give scholars new clues about where else to look for this covert experimentalism. In April 1947 she is ecstatic at the arrival of Queneau’s Exercices de Style in which the same event is described in ninety-nine different ways. She is ‘filled with that joyous admiring unrest that all your writing produces in me. ‘Delight’ one wants to say, or invent some quite new word to describe this special joy & sense of imaginative release. (Most needed; yesterday was a day of embêtements of all kinds.) These games with language, with speech, with being-in-words – thrill me very much.’ So the invitation is here in these letters to re-examine the novels from a new persepctive.
‘Oh damn it I wish I could talk with you now and then. Are space and time really necessary?’ (2 January 1948). What did their correspondence contribute to her philosophical and spiritual development?
Murdoch’s engagement with individual philosophers and their influences, her philosophical affinities and dislikes are revealed in the letters. She describes her attempts to understand Sartre, and how she has found a different Kierkegaard, having read Sartre, and begun to find a different Sartre having breathed the atmosphere of English philosophy. The catalogue of philosophers discussed includes Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard, Simone de Beauvoir, Plato, Hume, Kant, and Nietzsche, amongst others. The letters also shed some detailed light on her year in Cambridge in 1946-47, which will enable philosophers to establish fresh rationales for her subsequent philosophical positions and identify new influences. She reveals her intense dislike for Cambridge philosophers, Pritchard, Ross and Cook Wilson, and comments extensively on the very different philosophical atmosphere there, feeling herself to be a ‘dreadful obscurantist’ amongst ‘bright young men, (. . .) who are busy being very lucid and smart’. The writing of these letters clearly helped her to clarify her own positions. It would be fascinating to know how far Queneau’s responses informed her own ideas – but she destroyed all her letters from him. Nonetheless, with the philosophical texts that exist and now these letters to complement them, new research should be able to refine the nature of a variety of peripheral influences.
The many moving discussions about her spiritual life flesh out the ambivalences that surround the tension in her writing being the denial of a personal God and an enduring desire to believe in one. The letters suggest what generates the ‘neo-theology’ that Murdoch began to consider as a replacement for conventional religious worship in the early 1950s, and which she goes on to integrate into her novels from the late 1950s on. Here she reveals her transformation from ‘a political animal thinking my soul didn’t matter’ to ‘a religious animal, thinking it matters vitally’.