Book review: Family Business

Madeleine Kingsley recommends a family story that is much more than conventional memoir


Family Business By Peter J Conradi

Seren, £17.99

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. 

Madeleine Kingsley is a freelance writer

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