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by John Bayley
St. Martin's Press, 1999
Review by Heather C. Liston on Jun 5th 2002

Elegy for Iris

Elegy for Iris—the memoir of the novelist and literary critic John Bayley about his love affair with his wife Iris Murdoch, and the progression of their relationship as she develops Alzheimer’s—is one of the most beautiful books to appear in a long time. For all those who have doubted the power of love, or the possibility of strong and stable marriage, this gentle, intelligent work is a necessity.

            Iris Murdoch (1919-1999) was a prolific novelist, lecturer, and philosopher; winner of the Booker Prize (for The Sea, The Sea, in 1978); Dame Commander, Order of the British Empire; and, to hear her husband tell it, a person of unselfconscious brilliance, humor, and even—he uses this word several times—“goodness.”  After hearing the spouse of another Alzheimer’s victim lament her husband’s complaining, Bayley says “Iris seems not to know how to complain.  She never has.  Alzheimer’s, which can accentuate personality traits to the point of demonic parody, has only been able to exaggerate a natural goodness in her.”

Of course, as he describes her virtues, he reveals his own:  Bayley is entirely free of envy, of any negative effects of ego, and of the curse of restlessness.  His wife is the more famous of the two, and although he does apparently satisfying and respected work as a teacher at Oxford, a reviewer of books, and a writer of extended works of criticism, his only serious ambition seems to have been to be a good husband to Iris.  His patience, devotion, sense of humor, and extraordinary insightfulness shine quietly in these pages.

Although he did not meet her until he was twenty-eight (and Iris was thirty-four) Bayley tells us this was the first time he was in love.  He describes his first vision of her, from the window of his room, when he “indulged the momentary fantasy that nothing had ever happened to her: that she was simply bicycling about, waiting for me to arrive.”   How she felt about things, of course, we never know for sure.  It does seem, however, as though his life up to that point was simply about waiting for the vision of the “bicycle lady,” as he calls her.  Because of her tendency to be surrounded by others who admire her and claim her attention, it takes several chance meetings at parties before Bayley is able to make himself known to Iris; and then it is several more years before he can convince her to marry him.  If his memory is correct, however, he never wanted anything else.  In fact, he is so sure she was made for him that he says, “It was my naïve and now inexplicable assumption that she could appeal only to me, and to no one else, that stopped me seeing how fearfully, how almost diabolically attractive everyone else found her.”

            Although Iris is not eager to marry, the commitment, once made, seems to have been absolute for both of them.  Bayley describes a relationship of such comfortable love and complete trust that demons like possessiveness, loneliness, and jealousy have no toehold in it.  “So married life began.  And the joys of solitude.  No contradiction was involved. . . .To feel oneself held and cherished and accompanied, and yet to be alone.  To be closely and physically entwined, and yet feel solitude’s friendly presence, as warm and undesolating as contiguity itself.”

            It is not until 1994, when the “insidious fog” of Alzheimer’s begins to encroach upon Iris, that this independent pair becomes physically inseparable.  As he adapts to the new responsibilities of caring for his wife in this condition, Bayley offers some insight into how Alzheimer’s treats its victims.  As Iris becomes more and more childlike (“You are almost four years old!” he tells the eminent scholar with pride in her third year of the disease), Bayley acknowledges that he is, in another sense, a sufferer in his own right.  He describes an utterly exhausting train trip with the afflicted Iris, when he must manage her and her incessant questions and newfound fears even as he keeps track of itineraries, baggage, and tickets for both of them.  “On the train I keep counting the tickets.  The elderly couple opposite look sympathetically at Iris.  I am clearly the one who’s become a problem.  Utterly exhausted and drenched in sweat.  Vague heart sensations, too.  And the whole thing so trivial.  Alzheimer’s obviously has me in its grip . . .”

Bayley admits to occasional bouts of anger and despair, as Iris interrupts his work over and over and over again with anxious, pointless questions.  “It’s worse for me.  It’s much worse!” he wants to shout at her sometimes.  And yet he clearly adores the dependent, childlike Iris, just as he cherished the self-sufficient, intellectual Iris.  He learns to look forward to watching the Teletubbies with her now, taking pleasure in her enjoyment of the surreal characters in this children’s program.

Bayley also finds pleasure in the need to be physically close as Iris becomes dependent upon him, just as he thoroughly enjoyed their ability to be apart during the earlier stage of their marriage.  “We kiss and embrace now much more than we used to,” he records in 1997.  “Life is no longer bringing the pair of us “closer and closer apart,” in the poet’s tenderly ambiguous words.  Every day we move closer and closer together.  We could not do otherwise.  There is a certain comic irony—happily, not darkly comic—that after more than forty years of taking marriage for granted, marriage has decided it is tired of this, and is taking a hand in the game.”

By now, most readers probably know that this book has been adapted into a movie, called simply Iris.  Although the film is beautifully acted, and reasonably faithful to the book, it is not a substitute for reading Bayley’s words.  This small memoir is one of the great love stories of our time and, as such, is an example of mental health in its highest form.

 

© 2002 Heather C. Liston

Heather C. Liston studied Religion at Princeton University and earned a Masters degree from the NYU Graduate School of Business Administration. She is the Director of Development for The Santa Fe Children's Museum, and writes extensively on a variety of topics. Her book reviews and other work have appeared in Self, Women Outside, The Princeton Alumni Weekly, Appalachia, Your Health and elsewhere.