Friday, April 03, 2015

Reading Project: Iris Murdoch

Several years ago, I set out to read all of Iris Murdoch's novels, and this week, I am finishing Jackson's Dilemma, her last novel.  It's bittersweet, coming to the end of such an absorbing project.  I was dreading Jackson's Dilemma, because it is believed she was beginning to succumb to Alzheimer's disease while writing it.  Indeed, researchers have studied her books from the first to the last in order to gain more understanding of how this disease progresses.  They found that her vocabulary was the richest at the midpoint of her writing career, with a marked decline in her last novel, which was published a year before she was officially diagnosed with Alzheimer's.

Iris Murdoch around the time of the peak of career

To an uneducated person such as myself, Jackson's Dilemma seems simpler than her other novels, but still, perfectly good fiction.  I am enjoying Jackson's Dilemma and find myself engrossed in the story, but apparently, at the time of its publication, Murdoch's regular readers were disappointed.  The New York Times review says that the story is good, but the writing is "a mess" and lists all the places where Murdoch used redundant or trite phrases.  My perception isn't as nuanced as that of a professional book reviewer, but there were some passages in which I thought, "Oh dear..."

Anyway, this post isn't about Jackson's Dilemma, but about the project to read all of Murdoch's novels. I never found reading Murdoch to be a chore, but her novels will stretch your intellectual ability.  You are rewarded with her humor, her engrossing, sometimes suspenseful plots, and the glorious descriptions of her characters and their surroundings, particularly their houses.  And the dogs!  The best dogs in literature live in Iris Murdoch novels.  If you are a dog person, you must read Iris Murdoch.

Of Iris Murdoch's novels, my favorites were:

  • The Bell 
  • Under the Net
  • A Severed Head
  • The Unicorn
  • The Red and the Green
  • The Nice and the Good
  • An Accidental Man
  • The Black Prince
  • A Word Child
  • The Book and the Brotherhood
  • The Green Knight
I read some of these so long ago, I can't quite remember why I loved them the most, but my life has been immeasurably enriched by this project.

I have a couple of other "projects" going on.  I'm reading all of Elizabeth Jane Howard's novels, all of Angela Thirkell's, and there's the fifty classics project.  (I'm supposed to read fifty classic novels within five years.  I'm now just over three years into it, and I've completed only twenty-four, but that includes some heavy hitters like The Brothers KaramazovCrime & Punishment, War & Peace, and a whole lot of Faulkner.  There are lighter things further down the list, so I may make my goal.)  What about you?  Do you ever create reading projects for yourself?


  1. No. Not since my friend handed me "Infinite Jest" by David Foster Wallace and dared me to finish it, because he didn't know anyone else that had and I was on a postmodern lit kick. 1000 pages, plus over 300 pages of footnotes - it was a beast. It took me a year to finish, but I did finish it and in the end, I enjoyed it. Although I made mental notes on how it could be edited down at least a few hundred pages....

  2. I actually started a classics challenge this month, and finding your fifty classics challenge was a big part of why I decided to go ahead and make a list. Since then, it keeps growing and I am still on the first book (The Count of Monte Cristo).

    1. Thanks! I was inspired to start the fifty classics project from someone else's blog, so the project keeps growing!

  3. I like to read all the books of an author as a project! I read all of Iris Murdoch about ten years ago and enjoyed being immersed in her very distinctive world. (My favorites were “The Black Prince” and “The Sea, The Sea”). I find her a hard author to recommend to others, though – I’m never sure which is the right book to read first, or which to read if you aren’t a big reader in general…. She’s peculiar, on the whole.