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Gillian Dooley

Iris Murdoch’s first book of philosophy, Sartre: Romantic Rationalist, was published in 1953 when she was thirty-four years old. A year later, Under the Net appeared, her first published novel. If not for the war and its aftermath – Murdoch worked for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration for two years – her first published works may have appeared earlier. And yet the years 1944 to 1953 provided fertile ground for the novelist. It was the period of her deep attachments with the great writers and philosophers (Raymond Queneau, Elias Canetti and Franz Steiner) who would seed many of the fictional characters in her future work. She wrote several novels before Under the Net – four or six, she was never quite clear. And for more than forty years she wrote prodigiously: twenty-six novels, five works of philosophy, several plays and a collection of poetry.

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Halfway through Matthew Flinders’ Cat, the protagonist admits that, when writing, he finds it ‘almost impossible to leave out what others might think of as superfluous detail. It was, he knew, self-indulgence.’ Is this a moment of self-directed irony on Bryce Courtenay’s part, or a case of the pot calling the kettle black? This novel brims with ‘superfluous detail’, and there is little attempt to curb the flow of information.

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