Many readers are apt to think of Anthony Burgess and Iris Murdoch as novelists now in mid-career. It comes almost as a shock to realize that in 1987 Burgess reaches his seventieth birthday and Murdoch her sixty-eighth. Burgess now has some twenty-nine novels behind him; Murdoch, twenty-two. Despite the fact that both are strong literary presences, they are still quite far, it would seem, from being "placed." Critical opinion is divided on bom. Detractors remark on certain facile qualities in both that spring from a too-great prolificacy. Devotees point readily and enthusiastically to characteristic excellences in each. Whether firm, rigorous, critical studies of the next few years can more adequately define the nature, range, and depth of the accomplishment of each poses an interesting question.
Iris Murdoch: The Saint and the Artist, by Peter J. Conradi, is the second major contribution to Murdoch studies in the last several years, the other being Elizabeth Dipple's 1982 book, Iris Murdoch: Work for the Spirit. Prior to this A. S. Byatt's pioneering study, Degrees of Freedom: The Novels of Iris Murdoch, was in most ways still the best despite useful and quite respectable later contributions from Peter Wolfe and Frank Baldanza. Conradi, in fact, wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on Murdoch at London University under the supervision of A. S. Byatt although, he notes in his acknowledgments, the book under review has a different focus from the dissertation. In ways that are all to the good, the Conradi book (unlike the other two books also reviewed here) does not have the appearance of, or read like, the overwhelming majority of dissertations. Conradi's critical study, in fact, clearly supersedes all others save Dipple's.
Conradi skillfully weaves a rich and intricate interpretive tapestry of theory, counter-theory, precise formal observation, quotation and allusion (Homer and Plato to John Bayley and Derrida, most of this done relatively unpretentiously and not too self-consciously), and sensible judgment that constantly establishes broad perspectives. Murdoch detractors might well find this book both more convincing and readable than they anticipated, even though they will probably not be instantly converted. One reason for this is that Conradi soon proves himself a deft strategist: whenever he intuits that his reader is about to be lost in a sea of particular details, he provides something to cling to—a solid comparison, an apposite and thought-provoking quotation, or a few planks of theory. By intelligent design Conradi discusses each novel separately and reasonably fully but only in one place; the discussion is made to center around some thematic or technical principle that the author wishes to develop. For example, The Bell is treated in a chapter titled "The Sublime in The Bell and The Unicorn," the first chapter of Part Two, "Open and Closed"; thus the discussion is informed by a consideration of open as opposed to closed forms, and also ideas about the sublime and the good. A certain amount of arbitrariness is naturally involved in the [End Page 360] categorical assignments, but it is well compensated for by cohesiveness and import.
Readers not particularly enamored of Murdoch's fiction will be pleased to find that Conradi has taken heed of adverse criticism; he announces early on that he does "not seek to whisk her into academic irreproachability. " Negative reviewers and ordinary readers have long remarked that despite all the emphasis on "free characters" in Murdoch's theory, she frequently provides only puppets; that for all the emphasis on the importance of contingency, her plots are sometimes excessively formal, mechanically calibrated to fit the requisites of myth, romance, or abstract schema. In his Preface, Conradi quickly notes that there is "some disjunction between theory and practice"; at...