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Iris Murdoch’s centenary

On the centenary of her birth, a number of special events are being planned to celebrate the life and work of Iris Murdoch, not least the re-issue of six of her classic novels.

- with Donal O’Donoghue Donal O’Donoghue reports

Iris Murdoch was a Dubliner. You tend to forget that amid the many claims made of her as a British novelist and philosophe­r (in 2008 The Times newspaper ranked her 12th on a list of ‘The 50 greatest British writers since 1945’). Yet you could argue that Dublin was the making of her. “...a wide, sad, dirty street, with its own quiet air of derelictio­n, a street leading nowhere, always full of idling dogs and open doorways” she wrote years later of her birthplace, Blessingto­n Street in the north inner city. Irish references appear in her work: a dog called Liffey appears phantom-like in The Sandcastle (1957), while her birthplace is directly addressed in two other novels, The Unicorn (1963) and The Red and The Green (1965). Born one hundred years ago on July 15, 1919 Murdoch left her native city at a young age for London and was educated at Badminton School in Bristol before going on to study classics at Somerville College, Oxford. There are a number of events planned to mark the centenary, including the issuing of a commemorat­ive stamp by An Post on her birthday and an accompanyi­ng Philosophy by Postcard initiative will allow members of the public to “ask Iris Murdoch” questions. Much of the celebratio­n hs been spearheade­d by academics Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman, who have researched Murdoch’s work for a forthcomin­g book on the place of women in philosophy.

Also on July 15, Vintage Classics

is republishi­ng six of Murdoch’s greatest novels including her 1954 debut, The Net, the Booker Prizewinni­ng, The Sea, The Sea (1978), the James Tait Black Memorial winner, The Black Prince (1973) and the Whitbread Prize winner, The Sacred and Profane Love Machine (1974). The six books are handsomely produced and feature new introducti­ons by a number of celebrated writers. In her introducti­on to The Black Prince, poet and novelist Sophie Hannah writes that her favourite Murdoch book emboldened her to the infinite possibilit­ies of fiction. “You don’t have to write well-behaved books that take no risks,” figured the aspiring writer after The Black Prince.

In her introducti­on to The Bell (1958), Sarah Perry writes: “All literature is subject to fashion, and for a time Iris Murdoch seemed to occupy a vanished trend.” Fashions come and go, but Murdoch endures. “The Bell has, in the sixty years since its publicatio­n, lost none of its power to disrupt,” writes Perry. Vintage is championin­g Murdoch with these re-issues, as one of the great writers of the 20th Century.

“People have a sense of Iris Murdoch as a person, a philosophe­r and an intellectu­al powerhouse, but too few read her novels these days,” says Vintage editor Charlotte Knight ahead of publicatio­n. “We want to change that. Her novels are funny, complex and powerful, filled with family dramas, love stories, humour, anguish and strong women. And all written with pure verve and energy. The fact she has been out of fashion is a crime against literature – she is a writer to read now.’”

In an interview with The Paris Review from 1990, Murdoch offered some insight into her art, saying she forensical­ly planned each novel before committing the first line to paper. “Some people think one should write, ‘George woke up and knew that something terrible had happened yesterday’, and then see what happens. I plan the whole thing in detail before I begin.” And yet her first lines when they emerge from the pupal stage are humdingers. Consider the opening lines of The Bell. “Dora Greenfield left her husband because she was afraid of him. She decided six months later to return to him for the same reason.” In that beginning is the whole novel and you are hooked.

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