Iris Murdoch asked AN Wilson – a friend – to write her biography. He declined, but instead now offers a personal memoir of his relations with her. It is a fluent and largely anecdotal account, which captures the woman and her work most vividly. There exists a solid biography by Peter Conradi (Harper Collins, 2001), but Wilson prefers to examine how "an individual becomes a writer, and what of their life goes into fashioning their books".

AN Wilson
276 pp

He is unhappy with the way that Richard Eyre's film and John Bayley's books have left Murdoch defined by her Alzheimers rather than her novels and philosophy. Indeed, he seems a little cool towards John Bayley, her husband, and Wilson's former tutor. There is something rather ghoulish about the delineation of the collapse of a brilliant person's mind . Wilson concentrates on the sunny, eccentric person who possessed "a sort–of–greatness".

The mage of Oxford has to be balanced with the wine and whisky swigging, promiscuous and much loved woman. She did not always tell the truth about herself, but could be capable of acts of great kindness. (Her novels had made her wealthy and she apparently left £2 million on her death.) As a student and briefly a lecturer she made Oxford her home, though she kept a flat in London and was surprisingly knowledgeable about London pubs and public transport. She was willingly seduced by bullying intellectual men as a young woman, but her later lesbian affairs may have been more important to her.

When I first read her novels, as a teenager, I thought what an amazing imagination she must have had to invent the sexual merry–go–round that her characters dance. In fact, it was fully lived in her life. And if her characters are, well, a little odd, so was she and so did she see her friends. Wilson is good at re–creating the charismatic and at times foolish woman and the spellbinding but also clumsy and careless novelist. Although she thought she had not abandoned her left–leaning youth, she could sound quite Thatcherite on matters such as comprehensive schools or striking miners.

The novels are there, all 26 of them, outliving her but not widely read today. Wilson has got it right when he pronounces that they contain some great writing and some tosh. Her aim was to create a reality so real you could touch it; but in fact, her failed priests and homosexual writers, and despairing nuns and retired actors all failed to see each other with the clarity that was the touchstone of her belief in the moral perception of others. She aspired to be a Tolstoy or Dostoevsky but had neither the necessary sense of history nor the intimation of the demonic.

It must be said that her compelling oeuvre has been widely enjoyed. The early novels are sharp, pointed and funny, the later ones became capacious, baggy jaunts for her philosophical ideas attached to a cast that was more real in her imagination than on the page. She believed deeply that our ego, our solipsism created a veil which prevented us from seeing each other clearly: "Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real."

As a philosopher she reacted to existentialism and logical positivism with a deep belief that philosophy should be about freedom and morality and love and God. She wrote about Sartre and, later, Kant and Heidegger – but it was Plato who influenced her most. She was often described as an atheist with a deeply religious temperament. To her the contemplative life was as important as the active one – even though there was nothing divine to contemplate. Wilson considers that she was rare among English novelists in considering the loss of faith that was "a dominant fact in the personal lives of millions in the last century". If Iris Murdoch's ideas seem somewhat of a muddle, she believed the world was a muddle, a mess, which it was our duty to live through.

Wilson sees Murdoch and her work clearly, judiciously. Her novels are littered with memorable sentences, such as "Oh! The tormenting strangeness of our ignorance of other minds, the privileged comfort of the secrecy of our own." (The Black Prince) Wilson has made us a little less ignorant of the strangeness of Iris Murdoch's mind.

Iris Murdoch is available from Amazon (UK)