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A writer at war: letters and diaries of Iris Murdoch (review)

26 February 2012

Iris Murdoch: A Writer at War: Letters and Diaries, 1939-1945Iris Murdoch: A Writer at War: Letters and Diaries, 1939-1945 by Iris Murdoch

This book has three parts: a diary Iris Murdoch wrote as part of a student theatre company touring in the vicinity of Oxford just before the Second World War broke out, and correspondence with two friends during and immediately after the war — Frank Thompson, who was perhaps in love with her, and David Hicks, to whom she was briefly engaged, until he broke it off and married someone else.

The diary is quite a lively description of a travelling theatre company and those involved in it. Though war was imminent, it doesn’t seem to have had much effect on Iris, then a communist, and rather opposed to war because of the Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact.

The correspondence with Frank Thompson is more interesting, however. Iris Murdoch had then left university, and begun to work in the Treasury in London, while Frank Thompson, a Captain in the British Army, was serving in “the Middle East” — a rather vague term, reflecting wartime censorship.

For the most part we see both sides of the correspondence, though some letters are missing, and what stands out is that Frank Thompson’s letters are far more interesting than Iris Murdoch’s. Though the sub-title is “A writer at war”, the war seems to impinge very little on her life. Her life seems undisturbed by air raid warnings, rationing, or any of the other characteristics of life in war-time London that one reads about in other books. It hardly seems to touch her at all, and her letters are quite uninformative.

Frank Thompson’s, on the other hand, and very informative and interesting.

At one point he describes listening to Radio Moscow (perhaps from Tehran), in October 1942:

…From 10:30 to 12:30 at night I can pick up Radio Moscow on the wireless. From 11 onwards it send the news at slow dictation speed, and I find I can understand nearly every word. The reason for this slowness is that this programme is providing front-page copy for local newspapers all over the Union, whose editors tune in and take it down word for word. It is amusing to feel oneself at one, crouching over a small wireless at midnight, with the editors, fat and bearded, spectacled and cadaverous, small and electric, of the ‘Kuznetsk Kommunist’, the ‘Bokhara Bolshevik’, and ‘Tomsk Truth’.

It’s a marvellously evocative picture of one small scene during the war, but Iris provides nothing even remotely similar.

He tells entertaining stories retailed to him by an Armenian refugee who taught him Russian. On another occasion he writes:

I have spent all this Sunday afternoon sitting at a cafe with a Pole, meditating on the basic sadness of life. He let me read a letter from Tosia, his fiancee, who is still in German-occupied Poland. The dry ink itself seemed to ache with restrained longing and a courage that was only maintained by the most rigid self-control. Cut out all sententiousness about strength through suffering. Think of the millions of people to whom this war has brought nothing but utter irredeemable loss. Piotr and his Tosia are both close on forty. If the war leaves them botth alive and sane, they will still find little peace in an embittered and factious post-war Europe. For us, who are young, and have the faith that we can recast the world, the struggle that comes after will be bearable. But I feel deeply for the countless peaceable people, who can never because of age, or upbringing and environement which is as fortuitous as anything else in this world, be wholly with us and will never know peace in the one short life allotted to them.

Now that’s a writer at war!

Iris Murdoch, on the other hand, just writes demanding more news, complaining that she hasn’t had enough, and occasionally writes about her inner states, but rarely gives any news herself, other than that at one point she lost her virginity, and that a couple of friends got married.

Frank Thompson eventually went to the Balkans to assist the partisans on the Yugoslav-Bulgarian border, and was captured by Bulgarian fascists and shot.

From the few glimpses one sees in his letters, one wonders what sort of writer he might have been had he survived the war. I suspect that he might well have outshone Iris Murdoch.

The correspondence with David Hicks, towards the end of the war, is less satisfactory. We see only one side of it for the most part. Presumably David Hick’s letters have been lost, except for the last, explaining why he has broken off their engagement to marry someone else.

Iris Murdoch had by this time left the Treasury, and gone to work with UNRRA, trying to sort out the lives of millions of displaced people (DPs) whose lives had been disrupted by the war. She was based first in Brussels, then in a monastery in the Netherlands, then at Salzburg, and finally at Innsbruck in Austria, where UNRRA had commandeered a hotel for its workers, halfway up a mountain, a funicular ride from the town, and a cable-car ride from the top of the mountain.

It’s at this point that Iris begins to become a writer. In her letters to David, apart from her declarations of love and longing, she describes the characters in her novel and how they are developing. She complains that he doesn’t write, and is unsure whether he was in Prague or Bratislava. It turns out that he was at the latter, working for the British Council. She wants to know what life is like there — whether the trams are running, whether it is possible to buy books, and so on. But that just highlights the fact that she says nothing about whether the trams are running in Innsbruck, and she tells very little about life there. She feels sorry for a Yugoslav boy who ran away after crashing an UNRRA truck, but doesn’t describe him nearly as sympathetically as Frank Thompson does the Polish refugee.

The letters become more and more impassioned with longing, while all the time one knows that David Hicks is going to jilt her. But her longing for him doesn’t stop her from having an affair with a French fellow worker, which she hopes David won’t mind. He probably didn’t, because by the time he got the letter telling him this, he’d already written his letter breaking off their engagement.

As a kind of footnote, I was interested to see that in the diary section Iris Murdoch mentions that Norrie McCurry came to see one of the performances of the Magpies, their travelling theatre group. She says nothing more about him by obviously knew him at Oxford, and perhaps in Belfast. Twenty-five years later, when I was at St Chad’s College, Durham, and nearing the end of my time there, a fellow student, Alan Cox, was also ending his time and, about to be ordained in the Church of  England, was looking for a parish to “serve his title”, as they used to say.

The principal of St Chad’s, John Fenton, recommended that he call on Norrie McCurry in Leeds, to see if he could serve his title there. I don’t know whether he ever did get to meet Norrie McCurry, and in the end he served his title at Redditch, near Oldham in Lancashire. But it appears that Norrie McCurry was one of those parish priests who was a legend in his lifetime, and for years after he had died as well. Someone mentioned him recently in a comment in one of my other blog posts.

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