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by Peter Conradi and by A N Wilson
The prof who 'never set much store by the truth'.
The Evening Standard (London, England); 19/3/2001; Wilson, A.N.
LORD Beaverbrook used to ask his journalists to remember, when they were writing stories, a mythical reader whom he named "the wee woman of Wigan". If a newspaper item would not ring any kind of bell with this imagined northern diminutive, then Beaver-brook thought it wasn't worth printing. Some of the wee women of Wigan must have had some difficulties yesterday with the front page of The Sunday Times.
John Bayley, they were told, had not, in his first year of widowerhood, been to bed either with a graduate student called Mella or with a more matronly proposition called Margot - with abundant hair and a penchant for making casseroles. These creatures were, said Professor Bayley, a figment of his imagination.
But who is Professor Bayley, and why should The Sunday Times readers have been expected to be interested? He is one of the most interesting literary critics of his generation, now aged 75, and he taught generations of students at Oxford including Denis Potter, DM Thomas, Peter Conradi, and - as it happens - myself. For more than 40 years he was married to the novelist Iris Murdoch. When she sadly developed Alzheimer's disease, he nursed her devotedly in a household which, chaotic at the best of times, descended into conditions of heroic squalor.
He then moved from being well known in a small literary and academic circle to being famous on a much wider stage. His book Iris told the story of what it was like to care for an Alzheimer patient and it became an instant best-seller. The film rights were bought up. It is now in production, with Jim Broadbent playing the role of Bayley and Dame Judi Dench the role of Dame Iris.
Clearly, after a lifetime of giving tutorials on Chaucer and Henry James, it was a heady release for this retiring man to write autobiography. He found himself writing a sequel - Iris and the Friends - and then, when she died, a third book, about his first year as a widower. (He has since married an old friend.) In the third book, which was serialised by The Daily Telegraph, Bayley claims that two women - to use an old-fashioned phrase - "made a set at him". Obviously, from the Telegraph's point of view, these were the juiciest bits of the memoir and they serialised them on the understanding that the incidents described actually took place.
WHEN The Sunday Times rang him up, however, John Bayley was flustered and said that he had in fact invented the women. Presumably he was anxious that these newshounds might try to track down the women concerned and get their side of the story. He had not reckoned on the effect this would have on the Telegraph, who now looked as if they had bought a pup. So in this morning's Daily Telegraph, you find the Professor standing by his story. "The affairs in my book were real."
Listeners to Desert Island Discs will recall that John Bayley made the immortal confession to Sue Lawley: "I've never set much store by the truth."
The sentence was rendered all the more charming by a severe stammer on the final word. He is in all senses ambivalent. A story will illustrate what I mean.
In 1956, when almost all academics were horrified by the British invasion of Suez, Lord David Cecil got together a round-robin of Conservative-minded dons to write to The Times. They stated that Nasser was a tyrant who must be stopped in his tracks and that the action of the British, French and Israeli governments was entirely legitimate. Signed David Cecil, Isaiah Berlin and John Bayley. Lord David was a little disconcerted to find that on the same morning in the Manchester Guardian there was a letter, got up by the Master of Balliol, saying that all civilised opinion deplored the belligerence of the Eden administration, which disgraced Britain in the eyes of the world.
Signed - Christopher Hill, many others and ...
"But John - how could you have signed both letters?" asked Lord David. (He was John Bayley's old tutor and his closest friend so he knew what the answer would be before he asked the question.) "Bb-but David," said John disarmingly, "I believed both!"
John is a true eccentric - utterly unclassifiable or definable. It says rather a lot for both of them, perhaps, that when he met James Wood, The Guardian's ultra-serious book reviewer on some prize panel, neither could believe that the other had been at Eton. Shambolic, dressed always from the Oxfam shop, bald from his thirties, stammering, always giggling, John Bayley is not everyone's idea of an Old Etonian.
Born in India, John Bayley comes from an old army family. One brother is a brigadier, the other had a distinguished career in the Royal Engineers. I remember saying to his old mother, a formidable lady, that when John became professor it was the equivalent of becoming a colonel. She seemed temporarily mollified, but made it clear that she did not think becoming a professor or a writer was really a serious occupation for a real man.
AS his second volume of autobiography shows, John must have been a strange little child, always wanting maternal affection. Shortly after they got married, John and Iris (considerably older) went to stay with one of his oldest school friends. The friend's wife took them in some morning tea, and found Iris sitting upright in bed reading a German grammar while John lolled on the pillows reading Woman's Realm. Yet if you were to quiz him about Pushkin or Goethe, you'd find he knew them by heart. He is an extraordinary combination of frivolity and intellectual weight, overburdened - perhaps by some fairy at his christening - by the fatal English gift of charm. But what the wee woman of Wigan makes of it all - or how Jim Broadbent intends to depict him on film - God alone knows.
Tell the truth about Iris, but not the gory details (News)
Daily Telegraph (London, England); 10/9/2001; ,
"ON February 8, 1999, clutching a teddy bear named Jimbo, the philosopher and sage who had been Britain's greatest female novelist of the 20th century died in a nursing home in Oxford, the university city whose intellectual life she had presided over for so long."
This was one of the opening sentences in an extract, published in last week's Daily Mail, of a forthcoming biography of Iris Murdoch by Peter J Conradi. There will be those who agree with Mr Murdoch's very high assessment of Murdoch, which places her above Virginia Woolf, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Agatha Christie or Barbara Pym.
They will be among the Daily Mail readers who were most surprised by what followed over the next three days. For here, as might have been expected, was no analysis of Iris Murdoch's metaphysical writings, no mention of her engagement with her philosophical contemporaries, and no more than a phrase or two of quotation from her novels.
Instead, the reader could read page after page of "revelations" about the novelist's amorous adventures. "He preferred making love in an armchair and was forceful and brutal. . ." Or: "Iris had found true love at last - but was she about to throw it all away because of her lust for another woman."
Perhaps this approach to literary criticism sells more newspapers than the analysis of Iris Murdoch's books which, we can be sure, will be found in Peter J Conradi's book when it is published in its fuller form. Meanwhile, one is left with the slightly disconcerting sense that a writer is to be remembered chiefly for the number of unbuttonings, fumblings and tear-stained sexual mistakes in their diaries.
By this token, the writers with the greatest number of conquests will emerge as the most worthy of our attention. Georges Simenon, who by his own confession had sexual experiences with thousands of women, most of them paid, would obviously rank as a writer of greater importance than Jane Austen.
There is no doubt that some of this thinking has actually percolated from the world of popular journalism into the academic mind. One American critic, anxious that the spinster of Chawton should be taken seriously by the sisterhood, meditated upon the fact that Jane shared a bed with her sister.
The fact that most people in the history of beds have shared them, usually with people who were not their lovers, is not one which would necessarily be known in an American campus where sleeping accommodation is ample. So, we had Jane Austen the lesbian - the incestuous lesbian at that.
Whether it helped anyone to enjoy Pride and Prejudice is a different matter. I used to subscribe to the view that creative energy was mysteriously linked to the sexual impulse, if not a differing manifestation of the same phenomenon. Even mild Turgenev used to say that he could only write novels when he was mildly in love.
It is at least arguable that Iris Murdoch's ovels are all about people who helplessly and repeatedly fall in and out of love with one another. A biography which made no mention of her own propensity to do this would perhaps be as inadequate as a biography of Conrad that omitted mention of his time as a merchant seaman - the memories of which provided his fictive imagination with so rich a seam to mine.
We have already read three books about Iris Murdoch the Alzheimer's patient by her husband John Bayley. "I should rather," said one of her friends this week after the Mail extracts were published, "read about Iris alive and in love, than Iris in all the humiliation of her old age and illness."
The Daily Mail extracts make me wonder, however, whether I shall ever get round to reading Conradi's book. We live in an age when it is assumed that to know all, either about a writer or a friend, is to know details.
This is untrue. Consulting-room details or depictions of what someone does with a lover do not always translate to a general audience, because they are not meant for a general audience. Rupert Hart-Davis wrote a very full biography of Hugh Walpole. It is one of the best literary biographies I have read, and leaves you in no doubt what Walpole was like. But it omits overt mention of the fact that he was homosexual.
Nowadays this would be thought less than frank. But frankness does not always reveal the truth. I hope that Iris Murdoch enjoyed absolutely every lover she ever had, but that is a matter for her and her lovers. Her wider circle of friends, and her enormous circle of readers, love her for other reasons.
With friends like this... Indiscretion and malice enliven a new biography of the novelist.
The Evening Standard (London, England); 9/1/2003; Conradi, Peter J.
PETER J CONRADI
IRIS MURDOCH AS I KNEW HER
by AN Wilson (Hutchinson
MANY around 1990 expressed dismay that Iris Murdoch (or "IM" as AN Wilson calls her here, to invoke distance) had selected Wilson as her biographer.
Had she taken leave of her senses? Wilson is a highly prolific and prize-winning author who has the qualities of one kind of journalist: immensely readable, knowing, and of sometimes doubtful discretion or accuracy.
Indiscretion, it has been often pointed out, is the better part of biography. But Wilson suffers indiscretion and inaccuracy attacks the way some unfortunates have Tourette syndrome.
Editors like him. Friends claim that his malice is "quite impersonal" or that he resembles a figure out of Dostoevsky's The Devils, a minor imp and gadfly of the age.
So far as inaccuracy goes: he falsely claims that IM was born in a "rooming-house" (the census shows otherwise), left more than [pounds sterling] 2 million in her will (less, and most constituted the values of the Oxford house and London flat), that Elias Canetti met his wife in Paris (it was Vienna), that Fraenkel came to England in 1935 (1934), that IM met Franz Steiner in 1948 (1941), that a 1988 piece of journalism that claimed IM and Steiner lived together for three years is a "superb piece of research". They never lived together, and were lovers for less than a year.
Why did IM - always headstrong and sometimes astonishingly naive - select him in the first place? Was it to freeze out an American biographer who was on the trail? What did IM understand about Wilson around 1992 that made her "see the light" and swiftly freeze him out? And why has he proceeded now regardless?
Goethe claimed that "posthumous productivity" is a sign of great stature in a writer. Once great artists die, everyone wants to record their friendship with them, to have their say.
By such standards IM was great indeed. In the four years since she died, John Bayley has published three memoirs, there has been a film with Judi Dench and Kate Winslet, I published Iris Murdoch: A Life, and now we have Wilson's memoir. Others will decide how much Wilson has taken from my biography (unacknowledged).
Much gets dished up again wholesale, including my mistypings of the first names of Arnaldo Momigliano and Jenifer Hart.
This is really three books-in-one, and two of them are good. He ekes out his slender material with a revealing account of himself, his world and friends.
Fiercely ambitious, Wilson noted early that he had the gift of inspiring instant hatred in others.
His vignettes of other writers - J B Priestley (who loathed Wilson), Elizabeth Bowen, Philip Larkin, among others - are superb.
He has also given us a valuable record of his friendship with the Bayleys.
He includes relevant passages from his own past diaries.
They give the authenticity of cinema verite even if some are embellished or invented.
John Bayley taught him at Oxford. They lunched together and went on walks.
He wanted to be a vicar, which is how IM saw him - perhaps even a bishop. He has a pious mode, but also problems with reverence. Reverence for God and reverence towards his own life-heroes. The Bayleys were his friends, heroes and role models.
Wilson admired Bayley's sensitivity, insight and freedom from cant. He emulated these and also Bayley's "slapdash brilliance" and absence of rigour in his own writing.
As he puts it, he became the Bayleys' "toy-child". The Bayleys were keenly interested in his becoming a clergyman, saddened when he lost his faith, and oversaw his first marriage to the eminent Shakespearian scholar Katherine Duncan-Jones.
In pious mode, he claims that IM's reputation will in future rise, that her books are (in part) brilliant and speak to their age.
She was a mage and a guru. She was observant, a spiritual power.
He is excellent on the quality of life-enhancing joy she gave out.
Perhaps this is why so many loved her company.
Wilson also identified with the spoiled priests of her novels. And, under a veneer of politeness, he wishes to cut IM down to size.
So he tells us that she smelt even when young, that her books are partly "tosh", that IM played "malicious tricks", implies that she is, philosophically speaking, "old hat". There are motiveless sideswipes, and much venom towards Bayley. He claims that IM habitually told social lies.
Who would not be cagey around Wilson? Her caginess helped kill off his biography.
BUT it is not his vindictiveness as much as his myriad inaccuracies that are finally troubling. One last, but not untypical, example. "JB's memoirs omit to mention that for the last couple of years of IM's life Audi and John would walk about clasping one another like lovers while a bedraggled old IM tagged behind."
This is piffle. No doubt it will come to be believed. But I spent much time with both Bayleys and Audi Villers in Spain, Oxford, London and Wales. Their romance blossomed in the spring of 1999, after IM's death, and they married from my house in Wales in 2000. Such cruel and gratuitous inventions cast doubt on much that Wilson writes.
The mystery is not why IM froze him out, but why she gave him serious consideration in the first place.
Power of the widow's grief.(Column)
The Evening Standard (London, England); 9/1/2003; Wilson, A.N.
The Iris I was lucky to know
MY latest book, Iris Murdoch as I Knew Her, is a humorous, affectionate attempt to recall what the great novelist was like - as opposed to the strange version of her in the film based on her husband's dotty and disloyal memoirs. Naturally, I've been denounced as a Judas for doing so, and in today's Evening Standard (Books, page 37), Peter Conradi, who once wrote a tedious book about Iris Murdoch, has a go at me.
In his mistake-ridden book, he admits that he "raised the issue" of becoming her biographer in 1996, two years after the poor woman had been diagnosed as having Alzheimer's disease. In his review in this newspaper of my accurate reflections on a lifetime's friendship with this great writer, he accuses me of basing my book on his own work. I hardly needed to, since I had kept records of conversations with Iris over 30 years.
The fact that Conradi came along when she was demented and persuaded her husband to let him write a book hardly entitles him to say that she "froze me out", whatever that may mean. I saw her regularly until her death and she remembered me in her will.
Her husband, John Bayley, has now started to say that Iris sacked me as her biographer but this is not true. She made me her official biographer. Until shortly before Iris died, Bayley was writing letters urging me to continue with my book and expressing candidly demeaning views about the pedestrian quality of Conradi's mind. Of course I was too kind to put these things in my book, which was, unlike Conradi's, based on knowing Iris Murdoch well; not when she was demented, but for the many happy years when she was sane.