Books: Best of 2016

Terry Castle


My favorite read of 2016 was Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch 1934–1995, edited by Avril Horner and Anne Rowe (Princeton). Yes, you know: that Iris Murdoch! Moral philosopher (1919–1999), Oxford don (St. Anne’s), author of twenty-six famously cerebro-sexual novels. Granted, in photos: a bit odd-looking. Severe but Cuddly in Her Own Dykey Way. Strange fourteenth-century male haircut. Favored burlap sackdresses. Married in 1950s to fluffy-haired embalmed sprite and fellow Oxonian John Bayley. Daily nude swims in weedy English ponds. Notorious sloven. Nonetheless: Brainy Lady-Libertine for the Ages! Sapphic tickles out of the gate with future philosopher Philippa Foot (née Bosanquet). Later seduces future Philippa-husband M. R. D. Foot. Further jim-jam with economist (female) Peter Ady, Italian historiographer Arnaldo Momigliano, acerbic Brigid Brophy, St. Anne’s classicist Margaret Hubbard, British Council envoy David Hicks, plus ever-freshening stream of serious yet comely Oxford youths of all sexes. For years—believe it or not—also under sadomasochistic spell of hideously horn-rimmed Elias Canetti (“great lion . . . mask of Agamemnon”!). Two’s not a crowd, it turns out.

But what about those weird novels? A Severed Head? The Bell? Bruno’s Dream? The Nice and the Good? The Sea, the Sea? And so-the-so-on? Addictive, hilarious: pure intellectual crystal meth. If, like me, you’ve read them all, you’ll hoover these letters up at once. Wittgenstein. Communism. Sartre. Buddhism. The Good. The Not So Good. More nude swimming. A. J. Ayer. Simone Weil. Dr. Alois Alzheimer (alas). La Winslet. La Dench. More lovable elf John Bayley. Dame Iris? (That’s Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire to you, pea wit!) Met her once at Stanford. Silent shy-girl staring contest as far as it got. She Lived on Paper—it’s true—but lots of other places, too.

Terry Castle is the Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University. Among her many books is The Professor (Harper, 2010), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

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