Iris Murdoch published 26 novels during her life. In my late teens, based on a notice in a Britannica yearbook, I read Bruno’s Dream. I was very impressed, and went on to read book after book of hers, including several of her works of philosophy. I would have been more impressed with her work had her politics leaned less left, but her novels were great nevertheless. She became my favorite comic novelist/novelist of ideas, though she denied writing the latter — despite her status as a moral philosopher in the Weil/Anscombe tradition. Her goal was to provide “something for everyone” in her literary efforts. She certainly provided a lot for me.

I have read 19 of her novels, and a few — such as A Word Child, Time of the Angels, and A Severed Head — I’ve read multiple times.

Her mature work, from Bruno’s Dream (1969) onward, falls into two categories: first-person novels with unreliable — or merely overwhelmed — narrators, and vast third-person novels featuring multiple characters.

The early works of hers that I recommend most are Under the Net (1954), The Bell (1958), A Severed Head (1961), and, most of all, the breezy The Nice and the Good (1968).

Of the third-person monsters, I most urgently advise reading An Accidental Man (1971) and The Green Knight (1987).

The first-person novels are the most challenging, and perhaps most rewarding.

The Black Prince (1973) is her refraction of Vladimir Nabokov’s brilliant and controversial Lolita (1955). Her narrator is a pretentious loser, but his actions are so extreme that one must follow him. At least he falls in love not with a prepubescent girl (as did Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert) but an older teenager. His inamorata is not a happenstance stranger, either; instead, she is the daughter of his best friend, who is also his literary rival whom he envies deeply. A great and vexing novel.

If one determines love of a book by how many times one reads it, then A Word Child (1975) is my favorite Murdoch book: I may have read it four times, once per decade. The narrator cannot make good decisions. His compulsion to repeat his biggest personal tragedy is riveting and quite funny. It is time for a fifth and more careful reading.

The Sea, The Sea (a prizewinner from 1978) may be her best work. It tells the tale of an old actor who retires to live by the sea only to discover that his great lost love lives in a nearby village. So of course he kidnaps her! Comedy and tragedy ensue. And a sea monster. This one packs a wallop.

I am not even aware of Iris Murdoch writing any short stories — I have not read any. Her philosophical work is a mixed bag. I read and enjoyed her The Fire and the Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artists (1977) soon after it first came out, and I have also read a number of her most important essays. But I do not fall into her camp of theorizing about ethics — I am closer to Spencer and Santayana. Nevertheless, her philosophical work is both historically and dialectically important. Like Anscombe and Weill, she opposed the meta-ethical turn of British moral philosophy, and her criticisms of that tradition are mostly on point, except to the extent that she misses the point. The meta-ethicians of the emotivist-prescriptivist school were trying to confront the reality of the origins of ethics in utility; their grave errors were in not drawing all the vital connections from this relativistic foundation to a full and substantive ethical understanding.

Alas, she may be most well-known for suffering from Alzheimer’s at the end of her life. There was a movie. It’s good, but nothing like her novels, really.

If I live long enough, I will read the seven novels of hers I have so far neglected. I will probably start with The Message to the Planet (1989), which I may have avoided because I suspected it could not possibly live up to its science-fictional title.

I believe that Murdoch is the writer who took George Meredith’s method and made it high art. Her books are better than Meredith’s, for the most part, mainly by controlling her need to “riff” off of the action and characters. She let her characters have independence from her control and her personal perspectives. She did not “editorialize.”

One of the main themes in her work is the problem of predatory and domineering egoism. (Meredith explains his take on egoism in his famous and worthwhile 1877 An Essay on Comedy and the Uses of the Comic Spirit and in the preface to his 1879 novel The Egoist.) This antagonism to egoism puts her in fascinating contrast to Ayn Rand, a novelist more popular with my friends. Rand infamously celebrated a kind of “a new concept of egoism.” Years ago, after reading Barbara Branden’s The Passion of Ayn Rand (1987) and while reading the opening pages of Nathaniel Branden’s Judgment Day: My Years with Ayn Rand (1989), it became clear to me that Rand herself was a figure out of a Murdoch comedy — an enchanter figure — as was the much-younger Nathaniel, whom she made her lover. Indeed, I do not think the whole “egoism” thing of Rand’s “Objectivism” can be fully understood until one recasts the whole silly drama as if from the mind of Iris Murdoch.

I have known enchanter-egoists. But then I have known enchanter altruists, too. The worst sort of people on the planet are enchanter-egoists who pretend to be savior-altruists, but that is not, alas, a theme that Murdoch explored seriously. Rand could have, had she not been broken in spirit by Nathaniel Branden.

But I read Rand too late in my life — after reading Murdoch, actually — so I had been immunized against the kind of traps set by the worst sorts of enchanters.

I mention all this not merely to round out my reading notes, but also to indicate, if clumsily, that one can indeed learn important truths from literature. Moral lessons. You just cannot stop thinking. You have to read between the lines and think between the books. And figure out that both egoism and altruism can be poisonous to the virtuous life . . . to what Murdoch expressed no hesitancy in calling The Good.


The pristine date-of-publication order that I try to establish in my library here obviously failed.