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The Absurd, Irreducible Uniqueness of People . . .

MANY YEARS AGO I came upon this statement in an article by Iris Murdoch (pictured). She was discussing the novels of Jean Paul Sartre. Although she admired his work, something fundamental was lacking. In this phrase she stated exactly what it was. Have you heard of Iris Murdoch? Perhaps just the name, Iris, will stir your memory. Did you see a beautiful film, just a few years ago, which contrasted the early life of a brilliant young woman with the final stages of that life, her mind struggling with dementia?

I first began to study Iris Murdoch’s life and work about 1970. As part of my job at the Chichester College I was asked to teach a class of foreign students whose exam text was her novel, ‘The Sandcastle’. Among the students there were three female chemistry graduates from Denmark. They were not impressed. Their chief criticism was aimed at her use of symbols, beginning with the sandcastle itself. At the time I agreed with the Danes, but quite soon I began an argument with myself about the quality of Murdoch’s work. Previously I had read ‘Under the Net’ and ‘A Severed Head’, which had become a successful play. So I decided to go back and read Murdoch’s novels in sequence, as they had been published. I was still not convinced, but I did get a lot of pleasure and intellectual stimulation for my reading. Iris Murdoch lectured in Philosophy at Oxford and Jean Paul Sartre was one of her major interests. As a university student I was very influenced by Sartre. Now, in my 80s, that influence remains with me, so I had another reason for studying Murdoch.

The demands of teaching many other novels with adult classes often interrupted my reading of Murdoch, but about five years ago I resumed my reading in sequence with ‘The Time of the Angels’. This summer I discovered that there is an Iris Murdoch Society. What is more, it is based in Chichester, where my involvement began. The University of Chichester is now the Centre for World Studies in the work of Iris Murdoch.

So, why have I led you through this account of my involvement with so many novels? The debate about her place in our literature is only just beginning. I want to persuade you to take part, even if you only manage to read one novel. The academics at Chichester might suggest you start with her Booker Prize winner, ‘The Sea, The Sea’. But why not start at the beginning, like me, with ‘Under the Net’ or with the novel that became such a successful play, ‘A Severed Head’?

Wherever you begin you will find characters that fulfil my title. One of the characters in ‘The Time of the Angels’ tells us, “Human beings are roughly constructed entities, full of indeterminacies and vaguenesses, and empty spaces. Driven along by their own private needs, they latch blindly on to each other, then pull away, then clutch again”. Enjoy your reading.

Peter Batten

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