Gillian Reynolds: Iris Murdoch is wittier on the radio than on the page

Novelist Iris Murdoch is the subject of a special season on Radio 4
Novelist Iris Murdoch is the subject of a special season on Radio 4

Radio 4 has gone Iris Murdoch mad this week. Whether her novels really are on a par with Dickens and Dostoevsky is a claim I have yet to hear substantiated but radio certainly makes her work more entertaining to hear than to read. Jeremy Irons is brilliant in The Sea, the Sea (Radio 4, Sunday), breathing life into its sublimely self-centred narrator, Charles Arrowby, an actor-manager whose delusions start haunting him. Julian Rhind-Tutt perfectly plays Martin Lynch-Gibbons, her equally egotistic narrator of A Severed Head, Radio 4’s daily serial all this week.

What a busy year for Robin Brooks. Last week he did the adaptation of the new Harper Lee novel, Go Set a Watchman, for Book at Bedtime. This week, he wrote the Saturday Play, Iris Murdoch: Dream Girl. On Sunday, the dramatisation of Murdoch’s Booker Prize-winning 1978 novel The Sea, the Sea was his. He didn’t serialise A Severed Head (1961). That was Stephen Wakelam.

There’s an omnibus edition of A Severed Head available on Radio 4 Extra on Saturday morning. The second part of The Sea, the Sea goes out this Sunday, but there’s a repeat of this week’s episode on Saturday night. There’s also a repeat of an Archive on 4 devoted to Murdoch, An Unofficial Iris, on 4 Extra on Saturday afternoon, presented by writer, broadcaster and ardent Murdoch advocate, Bidisha, including conversations with people (AS Byatt, AN Wilson) who knew Iris. Bidisha also appeared on Monday’s Woman’s Hour in a feature discussing this Radio 4 mini-season and why Murdoch deserves it. It’s because of her philosophical fascination with good and evil was one conclusion, but mainly how she shows the disconnection between head and heart when it comes to love.

Novelist Iris Murdoch

And the sex, although they didn’t say much about that. Murdoch wrote many novels and always wrote lots about sex, women falling for men, women for women, men for men, men for women. She did it with irony often and anger too, sometimes a tear or two, even the occasional abortion. On the page it’s mostly brusque, brutal and flat. Given voice, on the air, its wry side comes to life graphically as in the Robin Brooks bio-drama last Saturday afternoon, with many a rustle of garments and even more copulative groans and ecstatic sighs as Iris (beautifully played by Helen McCrory) is wakened from a midsummer night’s dream.

Guiding spirits, first of a young Dickens, then of an ominous Dostoevsky and finally a balding, hesitant Henry James (all three voiced by Jonathan Cullen), each lead her through an aspect of her life, described as Love Received, Love Given and Love Lost. Allusions to A Christmas Carol, Alice in Wonderland and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe pelted down all the way. In case the listener got lost in the accompanying thickets of pastiche, vivid sex scenes with all those men and the occasional woman finally guided us to her marriage bed, where her real-life husband, John Bayley (he’d scuttered along as the White Rabbit from Alice in her dream), gently snored.

That Iris Murdoch loved and coupled with so many people was not generally known in the mid-Fifties when her first novel, Under the Net, came out or spoken about as she rose to eclipse her hard-loving male contemporaries Kingsley Amis, John Wain and John Braine. It was only after Bayley published his account of their 43-year marriage and her dementia in its later years that other aspects of her private life became public. Not that it was much of a shock, given her contemporary female Fellows at Oxford even in the Fifties included one famously predatory lesbian and quite a few spies.

Novelist Iris Murdoch Credit: Richard Watt

Gender identity, however, seems much on Radio 4’s mind at the moment. Listening to FutureProofing last Wednesday night where Leo Johnson sought permission to depart from “an inherited biological role” was part of a serious documentary but his wish to enter “a world of gender oblivion” uttered in Murdoch week made it seem he had just dripped from her pen.

On Friday night, by accident, I caught John Gray talking about Eric Ambler on A Point of View (Radio 4, repeated Sunday morning). Gray made me wonder why I have never read him (probably because I am a snob and don’t read thrillers). Gray gave me reasons to rethink. Next day I bought Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios and am now at the stage where I nightly ration my pages to live a bit longer in his world, something Murdoch in print never managed but on the air has, to much unexpected pleasure.