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Murdoch, Iris

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(Irish, 1919–99)

Few post-war novelists have divided critics as sharply as has Iris Murdoch. Admirers point to the imaginative generosity, the playfulness allied to fundamental seriousness, and the seductive readability in her work. Detractors accuse her of whimsy, artificiality, and affected melodrama. She was one of the few modern writers to have constantly measured herself—even though she was aware of coming up short—against the great novelists of the past. Her occasional lapses may be seen as the price of such ambition.

Murdoch was born in Dublin and educated in England. After the war, when she had done relief work for the United Nations, she studied philosophy, going on to teach it at Oxford. Her first novel, Under the Net (1954), showed the influence of Jean-Paul Sartre in following the picaresque adventures of an existential hero and his friends in London, and had a high-spirited humorousness. The comedy became more ethereal, and sometimes darker, in Murdoch's middle period. In The Nice and the Good (1968), a civil servant, John Ducane, fits the description ‘nice’, but when severely tested is revealed to lack the faculty for goodness. His moral compromises and their destructive consequences are grippingly portrayed. Murdoch's long, intricate later novels explore, often with the help of mystical and mythological elements, the theme of good and evil. There is usually at the centre of them a charismatic, quasi-shamanic figure, such as Professor Rozanov in The Philosopher's Pupil (1983), whose reappearance in an English spa town sets off a complex series of intrigues, jealousies, and betrayals.

A. S. Byatt, Angela Carter, John Fowles    NC

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