Literary daybook, July 15

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors
Published July 15, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

Today in fiction

On July 15, 1592, Robert Carey is rude to Lord Maxwell.
-- "A Surfeit of Guns" (1996)
by P.F. Chisholm

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1919, the novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch was born in Dublin, Ireland. Many of Murdoch's 26 novels present the horrors of modern egomania. So, even if she had been given the chance, she might not have enjoyed all the attention that her life has received since her death in 1999: her husband, John Bayley's, "Elegy for Iris" and "Iris and her Friends"; Peter Conradi's authorized biography, "Iris Murdoch"; and the Oscar-nominated movie, "Iris." The movie was based on the "Elegy" memoirs, and Conradi was a friend of Murdoch and her husband, so we can expect common ground in all three works; interestingly, one common ground is water. In his review of the film, Martin Amis notes the prevalence of water imagery, and that one of Murdoch's more famous philosophical essays was "Against Dryness"; as well, one of her most famous books, the 1978 Booker Prize-winner, is "The Sea, The Sea." Amis' review also forewarns of other water, as we witness how the abundant mind is inexorably reduced by Alzheimer's disease: "Hold yourself in readiness, too, for the floods of your tears."

In her journal, Murdoch says that her earliest memory, from the age of 3 or 4, is of swimming with her father. Conradi cites this, saying that "Swimming was the secret family religion." Bayley's "Elegy" begins win a skinny-dip memory from 45 years earlier, a hot summer's day early on in their courting life:

"Crouching in the shelter of the reeds, we tore our clothes off and slipped in like water rats. A kingfisher flashed past our noses as we lay soundlessly in the dark, sluggish current. A moment after we had crawled out and were drying ourselves on Iris's half-slip, a big pleasure boat chugged past within a few feet of the bank ...

"I still have the half-slip, I rediscovered it the other day, bunched up at the back of a drawer, stiff with powdery traces of dry mud. It is faded to a yellowish colour, with a wrinkled ribbon, once blue, decorating the hem ... "

As bookend to that, Bayley also recalls their last swim, Murdoch now very ill:

"In her shabby old one-piece swimsuit ... she was an awkward and anxious figure, her socks trailing round her ankles. She was obstinate about not taking these off, and I gave up the struggle. A pleasure barge chugged slowly past, an elegant girl in a bikini sunning herself on the deck, a young man in white shorts at the steering wheel ... We must have presented a comic spectacle -- an elderly man struggling to remove the garments from an old lady ..."

In her last years, Murdoch could startle: "Who am I?" and "How did this anguish start?" and a series of unfinished letters always beginning with "My dear, I am now going away for some time. I hope you will be well." Whether because anchor for or escape from memory, swimming seems to bring relief: "Indescribable. Holiness." is how she writes of one last dip.

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

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