IRIS AND HER FRIENDS

A Memoir of Memory and Desire

By John Bayley

Norton. 275 pp. $22.95

Reviewed by Diana McLellan

Englishmen of a certain age and class, trained from babyhood to bury embarrassing emotions, probably shouldn't be encouraged to root them up and wave them around their heads late in life.

Look at 74-year-old John Bayley. His last book, the moving, idiosyncratic Elegy for Iris, tracked the decline of his wife, novelist-philosopher Iris Murdoch, from Alzheimer's disease, and his own slow surrender to the sacrifice of caretaking. Unselfconsciously, it seethed with truth, love and grace. But someone evidently urged Mr. B. to dig even deeper in that same teeming humus as his wife entered the disease's terminal stages. The result, Iris and Her Friends, unearths some squirming oddities probably better left underground.

For one thing, it reeks of "Hey, what about me?", a syndrome that frequently afflicts caretakers, biographers and less-famous spouses. That's unattractive but understandable. Bayley's own earlier books -- well-received scholarly works on Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Pushkin, Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen and Henry James, and his novel The Red Hat, published after his wife's decline -- got nothing like the attention his book about her received. For another -- and I say this as one so wild about Murdoch's peerless novels that I once even took a stab at her nonfiction Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals and missed -- all the way through Iris and Her Friends you keep thinking what fun she could have had with the figure presented by her hapless mate in his ill-fitting nurse's cap, back when all her cruelly glittering marbles were in play.

For Bayley dwells at length on the thoughts, emotions and memories that rose to fill his brief, hard-won and lonely leisure each night, after he'd settled Iris into bed. To the surface bubble glimpses of his childhood -- half-stifled in the class-claustrophobia of his British civil-servant father, out of colonial India -- and vague intimations of the strangled sexuality that preceded his two infinitely sad, mishandled pre-Iris romances.

Parts of the book can only be described as geezer porn. I don't really want to know, for example, that toward the end my idol performed her bathroom functions on the carpet, "laying the results, as if with care, on a neighboring chair or bookshelf," despite the cheering note that Bayley's clean-up operation "seems mildly to amuse her." Bayley's memories of losing his lower dentures -- twice! once in Lake Como and once in Lanzarote -- and of Iris, before her decline, repeatedly plunging into the depths to try to recover them for him, are sweet, but should anyone outside the AARP be allowed to share them? Should under-fifties be permitted even a glimpse of his lonely, recurring fantasy of an enormously tall, bland "Perfect Woman," with huge clean white hands and a kind, unfocused gaze behind thick glasses, met at an imagined genteel party in Gerrards Cross and desperately desired? Must he do it in the street and frighten the boomers?

He was certainly not this forthcoming during the couple's halcyon years.

"The happiest marriages are full of alternative lives, lived in the head, unknown to the partner," he observes, wisely. In fact, the fullness of Iris's hidden lives as she planned her novels "gave me as much daily pleasure as what we did together. In some way, I felt as if we were more at one . . . than if we had been sharing them . . ."

Of course, creative obliviousness didn't wash when his spouse reverted to infancy. That created a special hell for Bayley, who bears for children "more than dislike -- hatred" and confesses that babies "repel me." No wonder his gallant efforts to spoon-feed, protect, clean and amuse his wife, and to carry on as though nothing was wrong, were punctuated by occasional flares of fury.

"When I have been struggling for minutes at a time to get arms through sleeves or heels into shoes, she can feel that surge of ungentleness very close to surface. Once she put her hands over her head and whimpered, `Don't hit me.' She knew better than I did what might happen. At one level I felt horribly shocked; at another, I simply accepted the possibility of what she was saying. Parents do too, I'm sure. If I'd been a parent, would I have learnt more control? So useful later on if the wife, or the husband, becomes a child again. . . ."

At this point, you feel like pinning him to a wall and yelling, John, why in God's name didn't you hire someone to help out a few hours a week? After all, Iris made a ton of money. I suppose that Iris and Her Friends will make some, too, although it seems designed to revolt the young and terrify the old. I bet he'll wish he hadn't published it, later. With all due sympathy, I wish it now.

Diana McLellan's book about Hollywood will be published next year.