Elegy for Iris: A Review

“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.”


My Best Reads for 2015

John-Williams-StonerMy thirst for good reads continued in 2015, and among them, two stand out for special praise in providing me with pleasure, insight, and continuing reflection. (I’ve reviewed both more fully elsewhere in Brimmings.)

Fiction:   John Williams. Stoner (New York Review of Books Classics)

My choice is probably subliminal and inevitable, as not since David Copperfield have I identified with a fictional character so fully as with Stoner, having like him, been a professor of English for several decades, thus  familiar with academic intrigue and its pettiness; even more, having, like Stoner, endured a previous incompatible marriage that served neither of us well. But aside from the personal, Stoner has also been the favorite novel of professors across the years, according to a recent article. And why not, since it excels not only for its verisimilitude, but its superlative craft of nuanced, rhythmic sentences replete with stylistic discipline made potent through understatement; in short, easily one of the best written novels I’ve come upon.

Sample Passage:

In his forty-third year William Stoner learned what others, much younger, had learned before him: that is the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another.

SacksNon-Fiction: Oliver Sacks: On the Move: A Life

Sacks, renowned as both a neurologist on the cutting edge and cogent observer of the eccentric manifestations of the brain’s malfunctionings in his many books, wrote this memoir in the final months of his terminal illness from cancer. As such, it startles with its wisdom and bravery; even more, in its honesty about himself in measuring the successes and shortcomings of his life journey, delivered with verbal beauty uncommonly found among scientists.

Sample Passage:

This gave me a feeling of what seemed wrong with American medicine, that it consisted more and more of specialists. There were fewer and fewer primary care physicians, the base of the pyramid. My father and my two older brothers were all general practitioners, and I found myself feeling not like a super-specialist in migraine but like the general practitioner these patients should have seen to begin with.


Same Sun Here

Neela Vaswani
Neela Vaswani

Dear River,
I cannot tell from your name if you are a boy or girl so I will write to you like you are a human being.

The above comes from a book I’ve been reading for middle grade children, called Same Sun Here, by Silas House and Neela Vaswani.

My wife, a middle school teacher, brought the book home several weeks ago for me to read. She said, “It’s really good and you’ll like it.”

Well, I got hooked. It’s too good to put down. Teeming with prose often approaching poetry and vivid scenarios that can move hearts, it resonates those values that define the better portions of ourselves. I venture it’s one of those books you start missing no sooner you’re done.

Briefly, it’s told through a series of letters exchanged between two 12 year olds: Meena, formerly from India, now living in NYC, and River, who lives in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky.

[Mamaw] says that the everyone used to write letters all the time and it’s a lost art form.

Turns out, these two have a lot in common, despite their differences in background and locale:

Both are close to their grandmothers.

Have fathers with out-of-town jobs.

Share an affection for dogs.

Are fond of mountains. (Mountains were part of Meena’s Indian childhood. River lives in the mountains.)

In New York, the buildings are in someways like mountains, but they are only alive because of the people living in them.

Are sensitive to the beauty and wonder of nature.

I usually walk through the woods instead of taking the driveway because it’s a different world there.

Are outliers. (People make fun of their strong accents and origin.)

Like to read.

I like that library books have secret lives. All those hands that have held them. All those eyes that have read them.

Silas House
Silas House

The Same Sun Here is primarily about the faulty way we perceive others. River had been told that people who looked like Meena were terrorists. Mina, that people in Kentucky were hillbillies.

Mamaw says that people don’t really care about people here because they think we’re a bunch of stupid hillbillies who are looking for handouts.

Hey, if this old guy likes the book, typically self-conscious young adults will like it even more

Having said this, I think some readers won’t like the book for its seeming political preachments. It’s big on environment (mountain top removal) and waxes enthusiastic over Obama’s election victory. (The story is set in 2008.). A book of several strands, it features the powerless and, thus, exploited and how they may still find a voice.

Climate change challenges us as well, menacing not only our quality of life, but our survival. I cringe with every forest leveled, diminishing resources, declining species, sulfur fumes, unrestrained growth, etc.

I like people who lay their cards face up on the table.

I like a book that advocates awareness of a wider humanity and the folly of stereotyping that walls out our fellows.

Too often, bound by cultural mores, we’ve only a corner perspective.

We need a wider view to forestall our prejudices. Achieving empathy, we’ll discover a surprising commonality–that we’re more alike than we thought.

Sometimes you write things in your letters that I thought nobody had ever thought before except me, but then there it is in your letter.

Or as the title nuances, the same sun here.








Why some writers succeed and others don’t

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you do, but people will never forget how you made them feel (Maya Angelou).


I like to read and I read omnivorously, whether fiction or non-fiction. I marvel at the talent and effort that lies behind all good writing, the courage of writers to pursue their craft, given the minuscule few who get published, or receive pecuniary recompense, or the public’s accolades.

I marvel at their discipline in fending off that great tempter, procrastination, for writing well doesn’t come easily and what’s tedious we most always avoid.

And then there is the ephemerality of all success that mocks their efforts, that no matter how well crafted, compelling, or discerning, that best part of a writer’s self, succumbs, inevitably, to a world busy with its own pursuits, forgotten, no longer in print, to be given away, or tossed out.

I was reminded of this when I downloaded a Gutenberg ebook freebie from more than fifty years ago with its reading recommendations of many authors I’d never heard of, though I have graduate degrees in English and taught for forty years at the college level. The list of recommended classics in our schools today is, likewise, considerably different from those I pursued, studied and taught across the years. Taste changes, fame fades, and life moves on.

Writers, nonetheless, pursue their craft against all odds and sucking sweets elsewhere for varied reasons, foremost to find acceptance and, in that best of all possible worlds, the convergence, like two mighty streams, of avocation and vocation.

Whatever, successful fiction writers must be good at seduction, alluring us with suspense, well-crafted plot embedded with conflict, intriguing characters, good dialog, an accessible style; nonfiction writers must also prove themselves good at seduction, appealing to reader interests, their quest for information and know-how, their need to feel smart. Writing is all about closing the deal. Giving readers what they want.

As readers, we like cosying up. We like being wooed.

Successful writers know this!






Peter Matthiessen: Homegoing


We lost a great writer, Peter Matthiessen, this past weekend. A co-founder of the renowned Paris Review and author of thirty-three books, both fiction and non-fiction, his supreme subject was Nature and, sadly, Man’s pervasive impact upon it:

Species appear, and left behind by a changing earth, they disappear forever, and there is a certain solace in the inexorable. But until man, the highest predator, evolved, the process of extinction was a slow one. No species but man, so far as is known, unaided by circumstance or climactic change, has ever extinguished another. (Wilderness in America [1959]).

Along with other environmentalists, I mourn his loss since his death silences a powerful voice of advocacy for what remains.

I think of the great writers of Nature who have borne sensitive witness to the fragile cocoon of Nature that includes ourselves that I have read across the years, works both of poetry and prose that have refined my sensitivity, shaped my priorities, and taught me awareness of the transience of all living things. All of them have been my teachers.

In poetry, I think of Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Hopkins, Dickinson, Frost, Jeffers, for example; as for prose–Thoreau, followed by Muir, Carson, Wilson, Dillard, McKibben and, of course, the most prodigious–Matthiessen.

Of all the books Matthiessen wrote, two stand out to me in particular as robust reads: Shadow Country, a novel featuring a desperado gunned down by his own neighbors in the lawless Everglades wilderness of the nineteenth century; the other, Snow Leopard, a non-fictional account of Matthiessen’s search for the elusive snow leopard in the Himalayas. More than a travel adventure, it depicts the author’s spiritual journey. As stimulating as it is beautiful, lucid in its prose and stunning in its imagery, it may just be one of the finest books to treat both Nature and the Soul ever written and deserves many re-readings.

Both Shadow Country and Snow Leopard won National Book Awards, our country’s most prestigious literary prize. (Matthiessen is the only writer to receive multiple National Book Awards.)

Matthiessen was not your ordinary person. A former CIA spy, son of a well-to-do family, initially conservative in his politics, he ultimately moved to the Left, championing American Indians, Cesar Chavez and exploited migrants, opposed the Vietnam War (bravely refusing to pay taxes) and, of course, became a committed environmentalist.

A deeply spiritual man, he embraced Buddhism following the death of his second wife in 1972, ultimately becoming a Buddhist priest. Snow Leopard reflects a Zen ambience throughout and its acceptance of the Now as the only true consolation we have in a transitory cosmos.

Though he fought ardently for conserving nature, he was troubled by the exponential excesses wrought by anthropocentric interests. As he would lament, “I can hardly point to a victory that we ever won as conservationists that hasn’t been overturned.”

Not all was lost, however:

 …we won some, too — there were long-lasting victories. And if nothing else, we stalled — stalled them off, the developers and exploiters.

All of us Greens will miss him, and yet there remains the fervent advocacy of his many books championing justice; respect for other species and their habitat; the simple life lived mindfully, free from material desire; the valuing of each other.

There couldn’t have been a finer man.






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