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Family Business: A Memoir

Peter J Conradi
ISBN-13: 
9781781725016
Format: 
Hardback
Publication Date: 
Monday, June 3, 2019
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Peter J. Conradi’s memoir Family Business includes a cast of characters ranging from his European Jewish forebears who came to Britain in the Victorian era to influential novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch, whose biography Conradi himself wrote. The arc of Conradi’s story travels, unusually, from the relative integration of his ancestors to his rebellion against this and his long association with Murdoch, another outsider in English society. 

Against the upwardly mobile successes of his immigrant ancestors – with their exotic, multifarious stories – and his relationship with his beloved grandmother came the more immediate dysfunction of his parents’ marriage. Young, clever, bisexual Peter became a ‘knight errant’ protecting his mother, and set a precedent repeated later in his friendship with Murdoch. In between Conradi relates his public school education, becoming a kibbutznik, taking part in the early years of gay rights and becoming a writer.

In the final chapters Conradi explores his long and close relationship with Iris Murdoch and her husband John Bayley. Conradi was both Murdoch’s biographer and, on several occasions, her carer, and has much to say on the nature of biography, and on the world of Murdoch and Bayley, including previously unpublished material on them both.

Family Business is an enthralling book – a biographer’s autobiography – with numerous strands sensitively and thoughtfully explored, and including almost fifty previously unseen photographs.

 

“I am at a loss for sufficient words: I love this book. The portrait of his parents and his relationship with them is a masterpiece. I don’t think this portrait of the nineteenth century Jewish diaspora in England will ever be bettered.” – Carmen Callil

“A mingling of charm, comedy, confessional and inevitable tragedy: all beautifully orchestrated. I can only congratulate you on a brilliant series of stories” – Michael Holroyd

“Will help scholars understand not only Murdoch herself but also the moral psychology that drives her characters” – Anne Rowe

“Wonderfully bound together by his fluent, elegant style” – Mark Amory

REVIEWS

Review by Lara Feigel, The Daily Telegraph

Saturday, July 13, 2019

In an irreligious age, Peter Conradi tells us near the beginning of his quixotic, insightful new book, we turn to biographers to give life meaning. “Biographers alone,” he writes, “now measure the weight of an individual life, and may feel that every human soul has a story worth safeguarding.” Since childhood, Conradi has pitied the lost and speechless generations fading silently into nothingness with no one to mourn or celebrate them. He hopes to do something to alleviate this.

In particular, Conradi is devoted to celebrating and mourning Iris Murdoch, his mentor, surrogate parent and biographical subject. He made his name with his brilliant, landmark 2001 biography of Murdoch. But he wasn’t an ordinary biographer in search of a subject. By that point, he was already not merely a close friend of Murdoch’s but one of her main carers. He and his partner, Jim O’Neill, lived with Murdoch and her husband John Bayley, bathing and changing her. When Bayley asked Conradi to be her biographer as well, he offered full access to her mind and spirit in addition to her body.

And it was the right decision. Conradi’s biography isn’t primly loyal. It’s, frankly, fascinatingly curious about Murdoch’s faults. Was she generous or merely vampish in loving so many people at one time? Think of Hannah, in The Unicorn, described by Murdoch as a “pale vampire … a death-dealing enchantress”. Since then, Conradi has continued to write and to think of Murdoch with obsessive interest, publishing an edition of her wartime letters and a biography of one of her lovers. None of his books about other subjects has taken off with quite the same fire. Now, in Family Business, he returns to Murdoch one last time, addressing questions that were too sensitive to raise in 2001, and trying to analyse why Murdoch should have preoccupied him to such an extent.

Discipleship is, of course, also a major theme in Murdoch’s novels. The background to Conradi’s own discipleship lies in his family history. As the child of an unhappy, volatile marriage, Conradi spent his first 35 years protecting his mother from his father. Perhaps he muses, it therefore came naturally for him to spend the next 35 years protecting Murdoch from the world.

The evidence certainly favours this interpretation. Among the more shocking of the childhood tales told here is one where his father threw the beloved dog down the staircase. His mother was subjected to infidelity, violence and manipulative cruelty, and all of her four children continued to have panic attacks into adulthood.

Conradi’s response, as is the case so often with children who find themselves parenting their parents, was to take full responsibility for the suffering of others. He did this with friends and lovers, and he did it with more abstract groups of sufferers, volunteering for the Six-Day War to protect Jews in 1967, and moving to Poland after the Berlin War fell to protect the Poles from their own history.

We can see how Murdoch – successful yet unworldly and innocent, charismatic yet vulnerable – might qualify for his attention. He wrote a study of her fiction, he entertained her in his home, he accepted Bayley’s request to live with them and care for her, and then he wrote her biography, finding yet one more way of “safeguarding” her from the world.

In analysing his family, Conradi goes back beyond the relatives he knew, the historian in him curious to understand his roots. His rich, unpredictable parents were the children of German and American Jews. So there are chapters here on the history of 19th-century Judaism (we find Conradi relatives in Dresden inventing the Leibniz biscuit and publishing a newspaper called Zauberspiegel) and on his enticing grandmother, Florence, a spoiled, charming American heiress who was, in his childhood, his closest friend. We hear about Conradis fighting on both the German and the English sides of the First World War, cousin pitched against cousin. And we hear about the four generations of engineers on his father’s side, bemused suddenly to find an intellectual in their midst.

It’s a ragbag of a book. When Conradi zooms in on his close relatives, the results are fascinating, but when he ranges around into the wider ancestry, it can feel aimlessly diffuse. He doesn’t settle into a larger argument about the Jews as a whole. Where he does fascinate as much as ever is in the final third of the book, which he devotes to Iris Murdoch.

There are some minor revelations here. We learn that Bayley and Murdoch’s sex life was disappointing, that she shared Conradi’s own predilection for anal sex, that he and other friends found Bayley’s willingness to parade Murdoch around parties at the end of her life distastefully cruel. What’s strongest, though, is his analysis of Murdoch’s character in relation to the inner life she explored in her novels and philosophy. There are some dazzling interpretations of Murdoch’s innocence and goodness. Conradi is especially receptive to the way that her generosity could transmute into a kind of ravenous cannibalism and back again. It’s interesting how many people use the words “good” and “evil” about both Murdoch and her characters, partly because she set the terms of this debate herself. Conradi dwells easily in a world held between these Manichean extremes and shows how goodness for her became a psychological possibility as well as a platonic ideal, enabled by what she once described as “degenerate innocence”, no less real for being the result of experience.

Where is Conradi himself in this? Everywhere and nowhere. It’s a fascinating study of a man who can be fully himself only when in the shadow of someone else. He’s both aware of this and reluctant to delve too deeply into his own psychology, respecting his own privacy more than he respects Murdoch’s. We learn some intimate details about him – the sexual preferences already mentioned for example – but for a book entitled a “memoir”, it’s curiously incurious about the character of “I”.

Conradi tells us about the tradition of service he inherited from his Jewish ancestors. He was surprised to find that Murdoch gave less to charity than he does, and he’s certainly done his share of good works. From that same tradition, he may have inherited a sense that it’s self-indulgent to dwell within your own mind for too long. This has served him well as biographer and as a friend. It serves him less well as a memoirist, but Family Business is none the less worth reading, in the same way as Murdoch’s books are, even when they’re not at their strongest: because it’s pleasurable and educational to spend hours in the company of a writer so thoughtful, so questioning, so open to human life in all its peculiarities.

Review by Frances Wilson, Times Literary Supplement

Friday, July 12, 2019

There is a smack of King Lear to the legacy of Iris Murdoch, due less to her famous mental decline than the pivotal role of the three men who, following her death in 1999, heaved their hearts into their mouths. But which is the honest Cordelia: her husband, John Bayley, her friend, A. N. Wilson, or her good apprentice Peter J. Conradi? Bayley’s trilogy of self-serving memoirs revealed what Wilson called “his outright hatred of his wife”, and caused, said Conradi, “tears and heated rows” between himself and the widower; Wilson’s mischievous Iris: As I knew her was seen by the other two as filial ingratitude, and Conradi’s loving biography Iris Murdoch: A Life (2001) was, he concedes in Family Business, part of his thirty-five year “enslavement” to his mistress.

The story of Conradi’s “mystical veneration” of Murdoch is told in the third part of his memoir; the first and second part describe nineteenth-century Jewish forebears, his glamorous American grandmother, his parents’ stormy marriage, his post-war childhood, public school education, and involvement in the gay rights movement of the 1970s. These tangled memories and reflections are linked by Conradi’s sense of himself as a custodian of history. Both the family archivist and Iris Murdoch’s literary executor, Conradi is “loyal to the past”, and that loyalty has formed his sense of the moral purpose of biography. Now that “God had gone”, he suggests in a striking statement, taking with him the “data-bases” that chronicle “each human existence”, it falls to “biographers alone to measure the weight of an individual life”. This is a heavy load, but Conradi was born to a life of duty and responsibility. Today he talks to the dead, but “since I was a child”, he writes, “I’ve felt an abstract pity for the lost and speechless generations fading silently into nothingness with no one to mourn of celebrate them”. His own legacy, he fears in his memento mori, may be one of discipleship; and Family Business is a response to this particular nothingness.

While Conradi’s description of the Jewish dispora from which he has evolved is rich and valuable, it is Murdoch who provides the book’s beating heart. The reason he keeps turning from his own world to the world created by Murdoch’s novels is that they have become for him the same. Each of us belongs inside a novel, Conradi explains, and the novel he belongs inside “was written by Iris”. Murdoch’s novels understood what it was like to be Conradi: young, bisexual, Jewish and spiritually hungry. They understood his family’s Oedipal dramas and sibling rivalries, and in exchange for their understanding Conradi offered the author his knightly protection. This offer extended to Bayley himself, who married his second wife from Conradi’s house and whose ashes are now scattered in Conradi’s garden. Endorsement for his role as “knight errant” can itself be found, Conradi writes, in Murdoch’s own “fiction and philosophy”, and when he steps outside the pages of her novels, it is to enter her biography. “I now see how my life-story distantly reflects hers: both bisexual outsiders hunting for father figures.”

Murdoch was herself the epigone of Elias Canetti, a monster ego who, when asked to write a review for the New Statesman, enquired first about the other names who would be in the same issue. Canetti’s mage-like power over Murdoch included the insistence that she and Bayley sleep in separate beds until they married, a pointless bit of control-freakery that Iris obeyed. Now that Conradi’s devotion to Murdoch is, as he puts it, “less fantasy-ridden and a little more grown-up”, he reflects on his own obedience. But he is still in thrall; it was Murdoch’s suggestion in the first place, Conradi reveals, that he write what he calls this “eccentric autobiography”; “You come from a particular world”, Murdoch told him in 1985, “why don’t you write about and celebrate it?”

It is a challenge to write the life of a novelist if you already see yourself as a figure in their fiction, and Conradi is caught between finding in Murdoch’s novels a solution to his own identity and finding in Murdoch herself an unsolvable puzzle. It is equally hard to write a biography if you consider your task to be one of “safeguarding” the “human-soul”. Stepping back from this quasi-religious position, Conradi now revisits Iris Murdoch: A Life and tells the stories he “held back” from telling twenty years ago. These include reflections on Murdoch’s “goodness” (she did not, he realised as he read through her bank statements, donate much to charities), and her view on death and suffering which belonged “on an unhelpful plane of abstraction”. His complaints tell us more about Conradi than about Murdoch herself, which is what we would expect in a biographer’s autobiography.

Many questions are raised in these pages. How can Murdoch’s promiscuity be interpreted? Was she really an innocent, or was her innocence itself – as Conradi suggests – a kind of crime? Was Bayley a long-suffering or destructive husband? And who exactly is Peter J. Conradi? This question, Conradi explains, has been “comically complicated” by the existence of a second Peter Conradi who writes for the Sunday Times, and whose mother apparently phoned Peter J. Conradi in order to tell him, as the less famous of the two, to change his name. It is strange that Conradi doesn’t also mention Peter Conrad, the sometime Christ Church don and protégé of Bayley who, in his Observer review of Conradi’s biography of Murdoch, recalled the time “she gave me a kiss, and the darting, adder-like sorties (am I being caddish?) of her tongue between my lips”. Nor does Conradi question the continued value or otherwise of the novels themselves, which are falling out of fashion. But of all the questions raised for the reader, the one that clamours to be answered is what Murdoch’s legacy would look like had Wilson instead been her authorised biographer, as was initially suggested. Wilson was her daemon and Conradi her disciple; Murdoch’s first choice of biographer was an ironist and an iconoclast who skewers his subjects, while her second was the philosopher’s pupil.

“I’m so glad it’s you”, the philosopher Philippa Foot “confided” to Conradi when his appointment was announced. Wilson, she apparently added, “would have made us all feel dirty”. But didn’t they all feel dirty anyway, given the rat’s nest of intrigue that was Iris Murdoch’s particular world? And is the job of the biographer to give us all a good wash? Speak, Cordelia.

Review by James Fergusson, The Tablet

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Peter J. Conradi – not, he insists, to be confused with Peter Conradi, co-author of The King’s Speech – is the biographer of Iris Murdoch. Peter J.’s Conradis were Jews from Dresden, the other Peter’s Dutch Protestants. Family Business combines “a biographer’s autobiography” with intricate Jewish family history retailed with due pride.

“Who was I?” Conradi asks. In the absence of God, he asserts, “Biographers alone now measure the weight of an individual life.” Weighing up his own, he is reflective, exploratory, tentative. He is the spectator of his own, not entirely happy, drama. A sensitive boy who takes up the cudgels for his mother, a “knight errant” in a bitter, ongoing war with his father, he had a complicated childhood. His mother described his father as “psychologically disturbed” – meaning, Conradi suggests, that he was sexually uneasy and unfaithful. Conradi, slow to come out as gay, is sexually uneasy until he finds his long-term partner through the small ads of Time Out.

Conradi was 25 when his father told his mother, “You have to choose between Peter and me.” The autobiographer’s attitude to this awful threat is hard to judge. Was the boy pleased by his power over his parents? Is the man gratified in remembering it?

Other people’s family histories are often bewildering. Conradi’s, richly documented and with multiple dramatis personae, is bafflingly impressive. His father’s family arrived in Britain in the nineteenth century, his mother’s, the Cohens, in the eighteenth. The marriage of Gordon Conradi and Dulcie Cohen in 1940 was a conjunction of two business dynasties – George Cohen, Sons & Co., established in 1834 and huge in scrap metal (they broke up the Earl’s Court Exhibition’s Great Wheel in 1906, a nice detail, and the Festival of Britain’s Skylon in 1952), and the British Central Electrical Co., still active today, founded by Peter J.’s grandfather and great-uncle in 1908. 

Peter J., Gordon’s second son, was never going to follow him into the family firm. “I would … have to learn to be my own father,” he writes, and he looked to alternative role models – first his father’s clever, sporty younger brother Eric; later, at the University of East Anglia, Malcolm Bradbury, his doctoral supervisor but an “ineffective surrogate”. It was at UEA that Conradi, already a fan, first saw Iris Murdoch plain, giving a talk in 1965. “If each of us belongs inside a novel,” he writes, “then the novel I belonged inside was written by Iris.” They first met formally in 1981, and became friends; latterly, when Conradi was writing his biography (published in 2001, two years after Murdoch’s death), he and his partner were for long periods her carers.

If his dashing American paternal grandmother, born Florence Josephi, had been his preferred mother substitute (she hand-painted lampshades for the gentry and had a thing about Queen Mary), Murdoch, whom he equivalently revered, made a natural successor – another target for knight-errantry. The best and most conventional chapters in this strange but sympathetic memoir revisit his famous biographical subject. Murdoch had a habit, like Virginia Woolf, of quizzing her friends. After one such inquisition of Conradi, she urged him, “You come from a particular world: why don’t you write about and celebrate it?”

Review by Ysenda Maxtone Graham, The Spectator

Saturday, June 22, 2019

If you know your Peter Conradi from your Peter J. Conradi, you’ll also know that the former is foreign editor at the Sunday Times, while the latter is a professor emeritus at the University of Kingston and the authorised biographer of the late Iris Murdoch, of whom he was a devoted friend and disciple.

It’s Peter J. who has written this crisp memoir, and he gets the doppelgänger confusion over with early on: ‘We two Peter Conradis have never met,’ he writes, ‘but we share an optician, who once offered me his new spectacles instead of my own, so the world was out of focus.’

Family Business is partly about Conradi’s strained childhood and his Jewish antecedents, and partly about his relationship with Murdoch and her husband John Bayley, who came to stay with him and his partner Jim O’Neill in Wales for a total of eight months in 1995, just as Iris’s dementia was setting in.

Even if you don’t think you want to know about Conradi’s forebears, and aren’t particularly keen on raking over various niggling confusions and clarifications to do with his 2001 biography of Murdoch, I recommend this book, because he writes thoughtfully and well. Born on VE Day, he has clearly been thinking too hard, and worrying too much, since the age of about two. Growing up as the son of warring parents, he writes:‘I acquired a lifelong tendency to hyper-vigilance: looking for danger.’ He quotes Henry James: ‘I have the imagination of disaster.’

His father sounds dismally small-minded. Waugh-like, Conradi sums up the littleness of his father’s horizons in a few withering examples. He used to carbon-copy his letters to all his four children at boarding school, informing them of some new acquisition, such as an electric carving knife, that ‘has revolutionised our lives’. And he was prone to say ‘I fail to understand why she thinks that’, or ‘I simply cannot believe she behaves like that’. Conradi writes

Failure to understand and inability to believe were presented as badges of authenticity or tokens of good faith: it was the world’s fault rarely to render itself comprehensible, never our responsibility to widen our grasp of the possible.

His mother, meanwhile, to whom he was close, had such a Blitz spirit and was so long-suffering and uncomplaining that when she was on her deathbed, about to sink into her final coma, she said: ‘It could be a lot worse.’

It can’t have been easy growing up gay in such a stifling household, although Conradi doesn’t say much about his parents’ reaction to his homosexuality. But he adored his American paternal grandmother, and when he tentatively mentioned to her that he might be gay, her instant response was: ‘What they do is disgusting. But they all have perfect manners.’

Two inventions are mentioned. An ancestor created the Leibniz biscuit (for which we thank him). But Conradi’s grandfather, an electric wholesaler in London, failed to recognise another great innovation. He received a visit from a Scottish engineer, asking for substantial investment in his new device, a ‘seeing wireless’. Emil Conradi dismissed this as ‘a bad idea with no possible future’. ‘So, none the better for his visit, James Logie Baird departed into the afternoon with his pioneer television set undemonstrated.’

Conradi clearly felt like a rare aesthete in a business family — his other grandfather founded a successful scrap-metal company, Cohen & Co — and he quotes Thomas Mann’s depiction of business families throwing up writer-aesthetes as a kind of final and unhealthy biological ‘sport’. It pained him that the books in his Cohen grandparents’ Edwardian villa, 3 Frognal Lane, Hampstead, were all behind glass-fronted cabinets — ‘that surefire badge of philistinism’. The whole house, he writes, ‘was given more to smoking than to reading’.

‘My family might be reconciled to “the long littleness of life”: I was not, and hungered for more.’ A devourer of Iris Murdoch’s novels from a young age, Conradi was ripe for Murdoch discipleship — or ‘voluntary enslavement’, as he puts it. ‘I fitted the profile of a number of her friends: gay seeker, spiritually hungry and confused.’

They met at a lunch party in Norwich in 1981, when Conradi was 36 and writing a PhD on Platonism in her work. Iris, collecting an honorary doctorate from UEA, arrived asking for string to tie up her suitcase that had burst open on the journey, ‘spilling a miscellany of items onto the floor, an image of order and privacy foregone’. (That’s the first of two string-related anecdotes; the second is that when Iris and John came to stay in Wales, they all swam in the pond, and John ‘stripped down to an astonishing vest that had so many loops, strands and holes you could no longer tell which were the arm openings’.)

‘Her gaze and her questions invigorated like cold water,’ Conradi writes of that first meeting. They became firm friends, although it was ‘an asymmetrical friendship’, she ‘catechising’ him about his life, he too respectful to reciprocate. He paints a touching portrait of the growing friendship between the two couples, as Iris became increasingly confused, and they helped to bathe her and wash her hair. ‘What is a friend?’, Conradi asked John Bayley. ‘Someone you don’t have to bother about at all,’ he replied.

All very well — but fondness made things tricky when it came to writing an unbiased biography. ‘I took it as an axiom that a biographer may not knowingly cause hurt to the living.’ The final section of Family Business gets a bit mired in justifying various innocuous bits of his biography. For example, Philippa Foot asked him to damp down Donald MacKinnon’s quote that Iris was ‘an evil woman’ to ‘there was real evil there’, and he did. There are a few digs at A. N. Wilson, too, such as that, according to Bayley, Iris ‘dropped him’ as her biographer because he was gossiping too much, and according to Philippa Foot, ‘he would have made us all feel dirty’ if he’d been the official biographer.

I liked the John Bayley stories best. After Iris’s death, he had a happy 15-year-long marriage to Audi Villiers. On their tenth wedding anniversary, she asked him: ‘Why is this day special?’ ‘Let me think,’ said John. Then, after a minute or so: ‘The murder of Richard III on Bosworth Field.’

Review by Madeleine Kingsley, The Jewish Chronicle

Sunday, May 19, 2019

First, to a matter of identity: the memoirist of Family Business is the Jewish-born Buddhist and biographer of Iris Murdoch, late great British novelist and philosopher. He is not the Sunday Times foreign editor (with whom he shares a name and an optician whose mother rang to suggest that Peter J change his name). The two men have never met but, if the foreign editor is curious about his alter ego, a few cerebral hours with Peter J’s autobiography will leave him au courant.

Family Business, out in June, is less chronological narrative, more a pot pourri of past and present, a very personal, cultivated and richly documented story — or perhaps quest  — through seven decades that shook social convention like a wet dog. The boy who thought it daring (but also shameful) to attend a Paris Ritz wedding in desert boots, now lives contentedly in the Welsh countryside with Jim, his long-term psychotherapist partner.

Expelled from Oundle for refusing a beating, Conradi was never going to buckle under accepted norms. He’d set himself up early as knight errant to his mother, made miserable by an angry and adulterous husband. But outsiderness does not come easy: struggle and soul-searching mark Conradi’s adventurous arc through medical student, kibbutznik, straight lover, gay-club novice, spiritual explorer, university professor of English, researcher and writer. The book’s sub-text seems to be a search for authenticity and a singular moral goodness.

Buddhism, Conradi writes “seemed to promise a path towards absolution from the crime of existing, and towards living less blindly.” That path led a long way from Frinton, land of tennis clubs and plastic rain hoods where his parents met in 1938. 

Conradi sets out “to stay loyal to the past”, which embraced, on his father’s side, the cultural Conradis from Germany and, on his mother’s side, a long-established scrap-iron business that provided an elegant house in Bow complete with carriage horses and one of Nelson’s cannons in the garden.

The detail in Family Business is filigree fine, clearly researched (with photos) from a copious family archive.  The work is book-ended by two formative grandes dames: at the start Conradi’s American patrician granma (sic) Florence, related by marriage to the proprietors of the New York Times. Family legend had it that Florence’s forebears had owned the site on which the Bank of England was built in 1694. Visiting London, Florence had a dalliance with a Guards officer, saw Isadora Duncan dance and learned to cut her own Brazilian Tango at the Alhambra, Leicester Square. The boy Conradi felt that he and granma were “in league… to worship beauty and this pact made us superior to everyone else.”

At the start of his friendship with iris Murdoch, Conradi was essentially her disciple. But his final chapters chart the shift to a caring “kinship” in which she, as dementia took hold, and her husband John Bayley virtually move in to the house in Wales. “The situation,” Conradi writes “was — in a strange way — beautiful.” He washed her hair and Jim, his partner, bought her clothes.

In the biography of Murdoch he published two years after her death, Conradi exercised protective caution; 18 years on, his aperçus on the novelist whose towering oeuvre spanned 20 years, are fascinatingly frank, offering glimpses of her open marriage, her many affairs with men and women, her view that one could love multiple people at once but that each should, as Bayley chronicled, be special and separate, as innocent as in the Garden of Eden. Murdoch denied that one lover, Elias Canetti, was the model for the Svengalis who enchant and seduce in the Murdoch canon. Conradi contends otherwise. He reminds us of Murdoch’s belief that “what connects us to truthful vision is love and humility.” Family Business polishes his truthful vision into a literary gem.

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