A couple of years ago, Kingston University bought hundreds of Iris Murdoch’s letters. When I heard about this, I emailed The Centre for Iris Murdoch Studies (oh yes), arranged a time to go down there, underwent a rigorous examination of my motives that included waterboarding and being forced to listen to Level 42’s entire back catalogue, put on special Kev-proof gloves made from swan’s feathers, swore I’d be really, really, really, really careful and then sat there for hours, quickly immersed in Iris’ thoughts and dreams and anxieties, all the time being glared at by the scarily-bespectacled Keeper Of The Letters.
All the letters were from Iris – she apparently destroyed every single one she ever received. And, while The Guardian had been full of the ‘sensational’ discovery of her long-term gay relationship with Philippa Foot, the fascination for me lay in those to Raymond Queneau, the French writer who wrote one of my favourite books, ‘Exercises in Style’. I sat there trying to piece together what he must have said to her: her responses were loving, tantalising, exquisite and sad.
The whole process felt poignant, incredibly intimate and a huge, oddly guilty privilege. I wrote down some of the words that particularly struck me – and the next day lost the bits of paper I’d scrounged off a reluctant KOTL…
I found my scribbles again last night, which felt so nice, and decided I’d try and write something based on those shared, tight, stolen moments. But I soon realised that I don’t have the skill or energy or inclination to come up with a poem or a short-story or anything too imaginative: so this is a sort of brief, ‘found’ letter that – hopefully – offers a glimpse into Iris Murdoch’s correspondence with Raymond Queneau. Every word is hers:
4 Eastbourne Road,
Sweet, gentle Queneau
Will you be in Paris? Are Simone de Beauvoir and Merleen Ponty likely to be there? That would be a lovely unbirthday present for me.
I am not writing. My novel has an airy, witty, flashy perfection in my head which I should undoubtedly spoil by putting pen to paper. Sometimes I suspect I haven’t enough imagination to be a good writer nor enough hard logic to be a good philosopher.
Yet there is so much life here- quite mysterious still, like fishes in a dark aquarium, but very moving. Van Eyckish light on white wimples and jewelled crosses, the beautiful unwearying plain-song, speaking through a grille…
Life is very strange, isn’t it? The self, sitting behind a locked door, watches itself, passes its time in not willing to be itself and yet is self enough to love itself. And I can’t live without giving and receiving affection, my sweet man. I’m sorry about the scene on the bridge, or rather I’m sorry in the sense that I ought to have said nothing or to have said something sooner.
Yes. Yes. I love you in the most absolute sense possible. I would do anything for you, be anything you wished me, come to you at any time or place if you wished it, even for a moment.
PS My surname ends with an H not a K.