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Iris Murdoch, a prodigiously inventive and idiosyncratic British writer whose 26 novels offered lively plots, complex characters and intellectual speculation, died yesterday at a nursing home in Oxford, England. Her struggle with Alzheimer's was documented recently in ''Elegy for Iris,'' a memoir by her husband, the critic and novelist John Bayley, who was at her bedside when she died.Miss Murdoch's first novel was published in 1954 and in a career that lasted for more than four decades, her fiction received many honors, including the Booker Prize for ''The Sea, the Sea,'' the Whitbread Literary Award for Fiction for ''The Sacred and Profane Love Machine'' and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for ''The Black Prince.'' Although she was made a Dame of the British Empire, she rarely garnered the attention given to gaudier contemporaries.
She spent much of her career quietly teaching and writing, away from lecture tours, prize committees and television appearances.
Along with novels, she produced a half a dozen works on philosophy, several plays, critical writing on literature and modern ideas and poetry.
While it was balanced, it was not uncritical: Miss Murdoch felt that existentialism encouraged an almost hermetic focus on the self, ignoring the corrosive implications of such a perspective on society.
Her study paid special attention to Sartre's fiction.
Her great pleasure in reading, and her early attempts to write stories led to the conviction, which she formed as a child, that she would become a writer.
She attended boarding school in Bristol, and in 1938 entered Somerville College, a women's college at Oxford, where she studied the classics, ancient history and philosophy.
Miss Murdoch published, on average, a novel every two years for the next four decades.
Her work, while varied in setting and tone, rarely moved far from several central preoccupations and themes.
In Books, Happiness And Moral Lessons Far from viewing fiction as another and lesser way of dealing with philosophical questions, Miss Murdoch argued that literature was meant ''to be grasped by enjoyment,'' and that the art of the tale was ''a fundamental form of thought'' in its own right.
The ideal reader, she told one interviewer, was ''someone who likes a jolly good yarn and enjoys thinking about the book as well, about the moral issues.'' In another interview she went further, asserting that good art offers ''uncontaminated'' happiness that also teaches ''how to look at the world and to understand it; it makes everything far more interesting.'' Her belief in literature had its inception in her happy and book-filled childhood.