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Obituary: Iris Murdoch (Newsday)

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Dame Iris Murdoch, 79, Celebrated Novelist

By Emily Gordon

Dame Iris Murdoch, a novelist whose mastery of the English language was equaled by her confidence in the world of ideas, died Monday in Oxford, England, at the age of 79.

In his recently published book, “Elegy for Iris,” critic John Bayley, her husband of more than four decades, confirmed that she had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for the past five years.

Murdoch, who wrote more than 30 books - including the novels “The Sea, the Sea,” which won the 1978 Booker Prize, and “The Green Knight” (1994) - had lost contact with her intellectual faculties, though she and Bayley continued to be, as he wrote, “fused together.”

Murdoch was born in Ireland on July 15, 1919, the only child of Anglo-Irish parents, and grew up in the suburbs of London. She had a sparkling career as a scholar; educated at both Oxford and Cambridge, she studied for a year with disciples of the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein before going on to a lifetime of teaching philosophy at Oxford University. She also produced a legion of highly charged, intricate, sometimes comic novels, as well as poetry and plays. In 1987, Murdoch was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, the equivalent of a knighthood for women.

Murdoch’s novels stand apart from anything written during her lifetime, in part because her style developed without sway to literary trends. Her earliest work is informed by existentialism; while working for the UN after World War II, she met Jean-Paul Sartre and the French writer Raymond Queneau, whom she considered an inspiration.

In her books, intensely thoughtful people are wracked with intellectual and moral struggle, which often requires the searchlight of an even greater mind for the relief of some understanding. Her themes are love, freedom, metaphysics and even enchanted mysticism. This often lends her scenarios and her characters a radiant quality that is both recognizable and utterly strange. Yet they cohere, because, as she told the Times of London, “We live in a fantasy world, a world of illusion. The great task in life is to find reality.”

As Bayley lovingly describes her, Murdoch was a contented eccentric, unconcerned with conventional standards of female allure or housekeeping; their home in north Oxford was a sea of books, papers and a collection of stones. She refused most editing, even of punctuation, and wrote every book - which she conceived in full before penning a line - in longhand, eschewing even manual typewriters. She and Bayley had no children. She once said, “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one’s luck.”

Yet it seems, in both Murdoch’s published interviews and through Bayley’s searing portrait of her both before and after the fog of Alzheimer’s surrounded her, that she had found that fortune in her own life as a writer, scholar and companion. She wrote: “Happiness is a matter of one’s most ordinary everyday mode of consciousness being busy and lively and unconcerned with self.”

—Published in Newsday, February 9, 1999

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