“We can only learn to love by loving.” —Iris Murdoch
I’ve just read John Bayley’s Elegy for Iris, his moving memoir of his wife, renowned British novelist Iris Murdoch—26 novels in addition to nonfiction—who succumbed to Alzheimer’s in 1999 at 79.
How does something like this happen? We’re told that we may ward off Alzheimer’s scourge by exercising our brains via mental pursuits like puzzles, word games, picking-up a language, trolling in math, yet here’s this woman of scintillating brilliance, winner of the Booker Prize, working omnivorously at her craft, yet ultimately pummeled by this dread disease. The truth is that the cards were virtually stacked against her, given her mother’s earlier Alzheimer’s.
Lasting forty-three years, their marriage was unconventional. Iris was bi-sexual and had liaisons throughout their marriage. Age or gender didn’t matter. She was attracted to robust intellectuals, not least, her distinguished husband highly regarded for his literary criticism and as an academic at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford.
But does it matter anyway? That eccentricity often goes hand-in-glove with artistry is a given. Besides, an author’s sexual life ranks in the lower tier when it comes to our reading choices. Think Dickens, George Eliot, Sartre, and others.
For some of us, however, we retain curiosity about the life behind the work when it comes to those who seemingly “hook” us with their artistry. In this, we’re probably no different from those devotees of Hollywood celebs, rampaging People magazine and the like in fervent quest for intimacy. We even have our dedicated websites.
My own practice when I come upon an established writer that I really like is one of saturation. Generally, I’ll read maybe three novels and two biographies. This helps me see writers in context and provides a ground-base for properly appreciating their work. I had just read Murdoch’s Booker Award novel, The Sea, O the Sea (1984).
Bayley received sharp criticism in some quarters for publishing his memoir in 1998. Iris was still alive, yet Bayley proved unsparing in disclosing Murdoch’s private life without her consent or ability for rebuttal. Muriel Spark described the elegy as “sordid.”
On the contrary, Bayley felt that the Elegy honored Iris and the vast majority of readers seem to agree. We learn something about marriage, in this case, an anomaly that worked for Iris and John as opposed to the traditional axiom of not taking your partner for granted. For John and Iris, taking each other for granted took on a quotidian staple, emerging as a refrain in the Elegy.
By this, the couple meant not clinging to one’s partner or controlling, but allowing them independence to embrace the effulgence of their identity: “Apartness in marriage is a state of love and not a function of difference or preference or practicality,” Bayley writes.
As columnist Graeme Archer perceptively observes in the Telegraph (2015), “Only when you know without question that you are wanted, no matter how you behave, no matter what you say; that you’ll be together till death, etc – this is when you know it’s love.”
The Elegy tells of their early romance, their shared living habits, common interests, and writing practices. What sets the book apart is its honest wrestlings in living with someone you love, in this instance, a woman of cerebral brilliance now unable to remember her friends, achievements, and their life experiences as a couple, reduced to minimal articulation, daily angst, and ubiquitous dependence by chronic illness. Bayley fed, clothed, and “hosed her down.”
A forthright narrator, Bayley castigates himself for his sometimes loss of patience and scolding, the Elegy emerging as a testimony of love’s transcendence over the vagaries that time with its contingencies imposes on us mortal creatures, fallible in our humanity, yet graced with the capacity to not merely endure, but to overcome and love steadfastly.
An international best seller, it would provide along with Bayley’s subsequent book, Iris and her friends, the basis for the 2001 film, Iris, garnering three academy award nominations.
Writing in the Providence Sunday Observer, critic Tom D’Evelyn wrote, “Elegy for Iris has already become a classic memoir and a remedy for modern love. Read it and, if you dare, give, it to someone you love.”