Between 1946 and 1975, Iris Murdoch corresponded with the French poet and novelist Raymond Queneau, a successful author sixteen years her senior. Published for the first time, the letters here are part of a collection recently acquired by the Centre for Iris Murdoch Studies at Kingston University, London.
It is likely that Murdoch destroyed all of Queneau’s letters to her.
14 July 1946
4 Eastbourne Road
Well now (your letter of 10 July) – I am truly very sorry to have been, even for a moment, a further problem & embarrassment for you. Thank you however for writing frankly. Please don’t think that I ‘expect’ anything of you – beyond, I hope, your continued friendship. We have expressed to each other our sincere ‘sympathie’ – that remains, I think? For the rest, our ways lie pretty far apart and I see no reason why our relationship should be a problem for either. Please, please don’t distress yourself about it. I well realize that your moral and emotional situation must be most unhappy – I sympathise very profoundly. I will not be a complicating factor. You know that I care about all this; I have become very attached to you & shall certainly remain so, but I don’t think there is any cause for agitation in that.
I am trying to work, but London is more nerve rending than ever. I have finished ‘Etre et le Néant’, thank God, with much admiration & some flutters of criticism. It stops just where I want to begin; I suppose I shall now have to do some thinking for myself. (Or shall I just wait till Sartre publishes his Ethics?) MacKinnon at Oxford seems to be going through some sort of spiritual crisis & can’t see me. A bunch of goddamn neurotics I have for friends. I have continued a little with Pierrot & find this the one soothing occupation in a somewhat ragged world.
Thank you very much for ‘Les Ziaux’, which I have not yet had time to read. Work well at Avignon & don’t worry yourself to death. I wish you most heartily the strength to solve your problems.
Now & always I remain your calm tender devoted reader & friend.
PS My surname ends with an H not a K. Pax tecum –
24 April 1947
4 Eastbourne Road
[. . .]
I was most glad to have your news, or rather lack of news, abstention from news. How bloody of Dial Press to have second thoughts now – still, I imagine it means only delay? I hope Lehmann hurries up with his project for our island. I feel most impatient to see you in English. I hope your play is going down well? But most of all I long for Gueule de Pierre III. (If the devil were bargaining with me for my soul, I think what could tempt me most would be the ability to write as well as you. Tho’ when I reflect, in my past encounters with that character he has not lacked other good bargaining points –).
For the rest – I am glad that you have reasons for being happier, even if you don’t yet fully profit by them. Confidences – yes, I know, I too would like to ‘talk’ – but perhaps I’d better not, for the moment anyway. Also there are some things which it is almost impossible to explain, to expose, however violently one wishes to. (Another language problem.) Spoken of they seem . . . melodrama, or an attempt to trip the other into complicity. Yet for all that I’d like to talk with you frankly one day (about my own histories, I mean). You are important to me in all sorts of ways. As a symbol, yes – one distant undiscovered magnetic pole of my own uncertain mind. But as yourself too – a voice in my life, and more, yourself, with your curious laugh and nervous ways. Perhaps I behaved foolishly in Paris (forgive me) but my affection for you was then and is now most most sincere and tender.
After much indecision about jobs, I’ve decided to apply for two next month – one a year-long studentship at Cambridge, & the other a lecturership in philosophy at Liverpool university. I don’t know what my chances are for either. The Cambridge thing is to be applied for by June 1st – rather late in the year, so that hanging on for that means letting go various jobs which I might chase after now. But I yearn for Cambridge. (Oxford is intolerable to me now – I can’t help tho’ wanting to ‘start again’ in another city which is exactly like Oxford but all different.) – This thing is competitive however, & I daresay I shan’t get it. So – Liverpool, or else Bradford Technical Institute – or God knows what yet more frightful hack task in some red brick town in some marsh in the midlands. On verra.
[. . .] I’d like to talk with you – this afternoon, say – enormously at leisure, sitting outside some café in the Boulevard something-or-other, with the sparrows hopping on the table, & the people passing. And discuss Universal History and Human Destiny and our history & our destiny, and politics and language – I need so much to talk & talk – but the chances so rarely come.
I hope that, truly, life goes better with you. I wish you very well. Pardon me if I say things amiss. I am deeply concerned that you should be happy & solve your problems. Write if you’ve time, but never mind if you haven’t. More news from me later. Fiat pax in virtute tua.
21 Sep 1947
4 Eastbourne Road
My dear, I am back in London, God help me. There is the usual collection of nerve rending letters waiting, inter alia, a ms of mine (a novel written in ’44) politely rejected by a publisher – & a request from a learned body that I should lecture on existentialism in London in the autumn. [. . .] I feel alarm at this – sometimes I think my playing the philosopher is a great hoax & one day someone will denounce me. You see already I’m fretting about these trifles. But not all trifles – some distressing letters too from sad friends.
You said that love between a man & 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. Yet I don’t know – I can’t tell for other people really, only for myself.
I meant all I said last night – but don’t be distressed – very simply & loyally. I hope & pray we won’t ever harm each other. I’m very tired at the moment – sort of drunk with tiredness & nothing to eat, you know the way one can be. My parents are out playing cards. It’s late. I can’t help wishing for simple things, simple solutions. I wish I could see you often & get to know you. Maybe I will get to know you better in time.
I’ll write again in a few days when I’m feeling less feverish. Thank you, for very many things. I’m happy that I know you and happy that I love you.
I’m so glad you like Prince Myshkin.
I hope all goes very well with all your projects.
I am yours
24 August 1952
I’m sorry about the scene on the bridge – or rather, I’m sorry in the sense that I ought either to have said nothing or to have said something sooner. I was in extreme pain when I came to see you chez Gallimard on Friday – but what with English habitual reticence, and your cool way of keeping me at a distance I could say nothing altho’ I wanted desperately to take you in my arms.
On the other hand, if I had started to talk sooner I might have spent the rest of the time (such as it was) in tears, & that was to be avoided. I’m glad I said at least one word to you however. I can’t tell you what extravagance I have uttered in my heart & you have been spared. I write this now partly (for once) to relieve my feelings – and partly because you were (or affected to be?) surprised at what I said.
Listen – I love you in the most absolute sense possible. I would do anything for you, be anything you wished me, come to you at any time or place if you wished it even for a moment. I should like to state this categorically since the moment for repeating it may not recur soon. If I thought I stood the faintest chance, vis à vis de toi, I would fight and struggle savagely. As it is – there are not only the barriers between us of marriage, language, la Manche and doubtless others – there is also the fact that you don’t need me in the way in which I need you – which is proved by the amount of time you are prepared to devote to me while I am in Paris. As far as I am concerned this is, d’ailleurs, an old story – when you said to me once, recommençons un peu plus haut, it was already too late for me to do anything of the kind.
(I wrote thus far in a somewhat proletarian joint in the Rue du Four, when a drunken female put her arm round me et me demandait si j’ecrivais à maman. J’ai dit que non. Alors elle m’a demandé à qui? and I didn’t know how to reply.)
I don’t want to trouble you with this – or rather, not often! I know how painful it is to receive this sort of letter, how one says to oneself oh my God! And turns over the page. I can certainly live without you – it’s necessary, and what is necessary is possible, which is just as well. But what I write now expresses no momentary Parisian mood but simply where I stand. You know yourself what it is for one person to represent for another an absolute – and so you do for me. I don’t think about you all the time. But I know that there is nothing I wouldn’t give up for you if you wanted me. I’m glad to say this (remember it) in case you should ever feel in need of an absolute devotion. (Tho’ I know, again, from my own experience, how in a moment of need one is just as likely to rely on someone one met yesterday.)
Don’t be distressed. To say these things takes a weight from my heart. The tone dictated to me by your letters depuis des années me convient peu. I don’t know you quite well enough to know if this is voulu or not. Just as I wasn’t sure about your ‘surprise’ on the bridge.
To see you in this impersonal way in Paris, sitting in cafés & knowing you will be gone in an hour, is a supplice. But I well understand & am (I suppose) prepared to digest it, that there is no alternative. If I thought that you would be pleased to see me in Sienna I should come. But (especially after writing to you like this) there is very little possibility of my being able to discover whether you would be pleased or not.
[. . .]
It’s happened to me once, twice, perhaps three times in my life to feel an unconditional devotion to someone. The other recipients have gone on their way. You remain. There is no substitute for this sort of sentiment & no mistaking it when it occurs. If it does nothing else, it shows up the inferior imitations.
I wish I could give you something. If anything comes of this novel (or its successor), it’s all yours – as is everything else I have if you would. I love you, I love you absolutely and unconditionally – thank God for being able to say this with the whole heart.
I feel reluctant to close this letter because I know that I shan’t feel so frank later on. Not that my feelings will have altered, ça ne change pas, but I shall feel more acutely the futility at these sort of exclamations. At this moment I am, même malgré toi, in communication with you in a way which may not be repeated. If your letters to me could be slightly less impersonal I should be glad. Mais ça ne se choisit pas. I have become used to writing impersonally too, & this was a mistake. My dear. It happens to me so rarely to be able to write a letter so wholeheartedly – almost the last but one was a letter I wrote to you in 1946. I love you as much as then. More, because of the passage of time.
Forgive what in this letter is purely ‘tiresome’. Accept what you can. If there is anything here which can give you pleasure or could in any bad moment give you comfort I should be very happy. I love you so deeply that I can’t help feeling that it must ‘touch’ you somehow, even without your knowing it. Again, don’t be distressed. There is so much I should like to have said to you, & may one day. I don’t want to stop writing – I feel I’m leaving you again. My very very dear Queneau –
Well, I am back in this delightful sober country again, where politicians are fairly honest & there is no inflation & people behave in a quiet & sensible manner. I am not very pleased, but I shall be happy when I have done some work, which will be about next Friday. I am going to Oxford on Wednesday, as working in London is impossible, and I want to get settled down.
I’m sorry about the state I was in in Paris. I could offer several explanations, but what the hell. You are such an old friend now & such a dear one that I shall expect you to put up with such things from time to time & take it as all in the day’s work. I’m sorry though. I felt such despair suddenly at the way one brushes past people in life & never really knows them. That maybe one will pass one’s whole life without ever having . . . known this person properly, done that thing, been to that place, written the novel one wanted to write . . . very mortal I felt all of a sudden in Paris. (The quartier St Germain is hard on the nerves anyway, don’t you think? I found that chance encounters with people would upset me there in a way I can’t remember being upset in since Oxford days.)
I’ll probably be in Paris in the spring with my mother, who is Romantic, & has never been to France. I want to show her Paris some day. I shall be very sensible then tho’. Some fever has been stilled or at least transformed. Since I have been to Rome & have wept on your shoulder nothing will ever be the same again. Have you been to Rome? [. . .]
I must start work, then all will be well. Write to me soon, please, & tell me how you liked Italy. Very much love to you, Raymond –
14 Jan 1954
St Anne’s College
Thank you very much for your New Year card . . . such a piercing reminder of Paris, oh dear! I was glad to hear from you.
Listen. I’ve been meaning to ask you this for some time. Chatto and Windus will be publishing a novel of mine later this year – and in accordance with my vow and promise of long ago I should like to dedicate it to you. I had thought of keeping quiet about this & just surprising you with the dedication & the novel together – but then I decided that it’s better to warn you, in case, for any strange reason, you might feel embarrassed or made in any way uneasy by this offering. I very much hope you won’t be – and that you’ll accept it. This would please me very much. It would bind up many things from my past life which are important to me. You are connected with nearly all my early aspirations as a writer – and this book has certain affinities with Pierrot. And apart from all this, I just want very much to give it to you.
(Whether you’ll like it, heaven only knows!)
I’d meant to write at greater length now . . . but it’s beginning of term and I’m in a frenzy of philosophy. I hope your work goes well, and that you are well . . .
So, my dear Raymond, so . . .
as ever, most affectionately