A special project for the Unterberg Poetry Center’s 75th anniversary, 75 at 75 invites authors to listen to a recording from our archive and write a personal response. Here, James Atlas writes about talking with Iris Murdoch as part of a live Writers-at-Work interview co-presented by The Paris Review. It was recorded at 92Y on February 22, 1990, and also forms part of a new collaboration with The Paris Review.

Posted on Dec 13, 2013

I have known three charismatic writers in my life: Philip Roth, Robert Lowell and Iris Murdoch. (A fourth, Saul Bellow, was what might be called anti-charismatic, by his own choice; he didn’t mind attention, but he liked to keep his self to himself.) And there is one venue that I would describe as charismatic if an auditorium can be defined that way: the 92nd Street Y. Every major writer in the English-speaking (or I should say -writing) world has spoken there. I myself have seen—and heard—Joseph Brodsky, Joyce Carol Oates, John Irving, Gore Vidal, Bellow (on several occasions) and many others I can’t remember. So when I was invited to interview Dame Iris on the occasion of a visit in the winter of 1990, it wasn’t exactly a hard sell. In fact, it would turn out to be one of the great literary experiences of my own life.

I use her title with great reluctance because I did know Iris Murdoch, having spent time with her in Oxford a few years earlier for a Vanity Fair profile. This was no doubt the reason why the Y had thought of me in the first place for a live Writers-at-Work interview co-sponsored by The Paris Review. As famous as she was, Murdoch did not have a large following in America, and there may have been a limited pool of interlocutors capable of introducing her before the kind of sophisticated New York audience that tended to show up at the Y.

She was a gentle soul, soft-spoken and almost willfully self-effacing. When I first met her at Oxford, at a friend’s Sunday brunch, she had grilled me about my own life—my family, my children, my education, books written, books not written—before she had even figured out that I was the man from America who had come all that way to interview her. I was nervous about the very public forum of the Y anyway; how was I supposed to sit there on stage in front of 900 people and ask—for instance—about her forbidding work of philosophy, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals? I hit upon a rather craven solution and told her so: “I’m just going to ask you one question, Iris, and then you speak for an hour.”

As I listen to this recording now, I discover with relief that she was anything but forbidding. She was modest. When I asked her what she thought she had achieved—remember, she was over 70 at this point and had long been considered one of the most important writers in England—she answered, with complete sincerity, “I haven’t achieved anything yet.” She was profound, without sounding that way or, I suspect, even knowing that she was: “Live in the present. It’s what you think you can do next that matters.” And she was funny: “The thing about the theatre is why do people stay there? Why don’t they just get up and go?” But the most valuable thing I learned from Dame Iris Murdoch that evening was about the relationship between art and humility. “One is always discontented with what one has done,” she said. “One always hopes to do better.” To be satisfied with one’s work was to misunderstand the very nature of creativity.

Toward the end of our hour, she gave the audience—or was it just me this was intended for?—a piece of advice: “It’s a good idea to know about something.” “I’ll keep that in mind,” I quipped. There was laughter in the auditorium, and I realize now that knowing about Iris Murdoch—even the little I knew—had been a good idea.

James Atlas has written biographies of Saul Bellow and Delmore Schwartz. He is editor of Amazon’s ICON series of biographies.