Murdoch’s youthful exuberance and the now much publicised early affairs are given a tangible presence through the early books, many of which were given as gifts by her lovers. These early books are the gateway into the collection. They show earnest intellectual enthusiasms inextricably intertwined with her audacious love life. The notes become progressively more illegible as the books become more recent. No doubt in future doctorate dissertations there will be furious discussion of the interpretation of some of the squiggles that mark the pages.
Pretty much all of the major philosophical texts here, such as Plato’s Dialogues, Descartes, Hume and Kant, are all copiously annotated. Here is a rich source indeed for the scholar of Iris Murdoch, but also a fascinating insight into the way an academic superstar learns. These books represent the best part of 50 years of learning and her struggles with the books of others are visible. Her annotations show a mind of alarming intellectual agility that engages as comfortably with Freud and Wittgenstein as with Walter Gropius and Richard Rorty. The notations capture her passion for the subjects; the texts are punctuated with outbursts such as: ‘Yes!’, ‘Messy!’, ‘Mucky!’ and after a particularly obtuse passage of French philosophy: ‘Oh God!!’
Her observations on the books are often subtly brilliant – in one of Freud’s minor essays she has a note ‘What Confidence!’ cheekily suggesting Freud to be more mountebank than scientist. It is also clear where her ideas have come from, specific passages seeming to sum up years of future thought. In Soren Kiekergard’s Fear and Trembling she has violently underlined ‘to express perfectly the sublime in terms of the pedestrian’, a motif which she revisits over and over again in her novels. It is ordinary things that are the source of the magic in her books, and, she tells us, ordinary things that are the source of our happiness.
Her library seems like intellectual amber, capturing for posterity the development of a vivacious mind into one of the great philosophers and novelists of our time. But as well as capturing Iris at the peak of her powers it charts the progress of her Alzheimer’s during the mid 1990s. There is a proof copy of a work on Heidegger that she had begun marking up, but over the pages the underlinings fall away, a visual proof
of progressively diminishing engagement. One of the latest books, a copy of Jorge Luis Borges’ Labyrinths carries the most heart-breaking of the late annotations. The book is empty of inscription apart from within the story Averroes’ Search. In a faltering hand, she has underlined the words ‘amorous doves’, ‘fountain’, ‘Cordova’, ‘eternal’, ‘tragedy and comedy’, ‘muezzin’ and ‘sin (China)’. There is the palpable sense of a mind struggling to make connections.
On the bookmark she has written in childish handwriting: ‘Poor little birdies… Hester… ed… Despair.’ The annotations show the frustrations and horror of a mind losing its coherence.
All personal libraries tell the story of a life, but few tell it as eloquently as Murdoch’s. Bayley is quoted as describing the collection as ‘ordinary’. And indeed it is. This is the prosaic and intimate working of an academic struggling with the weight of the world’s learning. But it is also exceptional, both as a resource for academics and as a tale of books and love. It is magical because it is ordinary, in just the way Murdoch herself cherished – because all the pedestrian details add up to something sublime. One can imagine a library, not dissimilar to this one, forming the central device of one of her novels.
A collection of books that on the surface is rather tatty, but as we look closer, brings a wonderful universe into focus.