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Elegy for Iris
By John Bayley
St. Martin's. 275 pp. $22.95
Reviewed by Carolyn See. Her most recent novel, "The Handyman," is forthcoming.

Sunday, February 7, 1999

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"What is urgent is not urgent for ever but only ephemerally. All work and all love, the search for wealth and fame, the search for truth, life itself, are made up of moments which pass and become nothing. Yet through this shaft of nothings we drive onwards with that miraculous vitality that creates our precarious habitations in the past and the future." So wrote Iris Murdoch in 1954, in her wonderful first novel, "Under the Net." She was 34, a philosophy don at Oxford, and John Bayley, a young academic of 28, was about to fall in love with her.

Bayley remembers their first days as a series of enchantments: a stolen, muggy afternoon swimming in the Isis River, a shimmering lunch party with lobster and plenty of white wine, Iris in a flame-red dress falling downstairs rather comically at an Oxford dance, and time spent in each other's arms dazzled and besotted by love – whatever that strange, transforming emotion is or might be. Bayley remembers that first he thought of Iris as "a little bull," so determined was she when she walked, pushing her bike along. He thought she was sexually unattractive, as if, in thinking that, he could keep other men (or women) from wanting her. He deplored that red dress. In bed, he remembers that they spoke to each other as children, almost from the beginning, inventing a personal language made up of nonsense, catch phrases and silly jokes.

By 1994, 40 years after "Under the Net," after a long marriage and distinguished literary careers – she went on to write dozens of novels; he taught at Oxford and wrote books of criticism – Iris began, imperceptibly at first, to unravel.

At a writers' conference in the Negev, the answers to questions would not, could not, come out of her mouth. "All work, all love . . . pass and become nothing." Her great intelligence, her luminous imagination, were obliterated by Alzheimer's. But if the unspeakable had happened to her, John Bayley was left to deal with the consequences, using everything they had built in their life together – their work, affection, shared experiences, their marriage – as encouragements to himself, as weapons or tools or ghost keys to unlock the dreadful, encoded secrets that would be waiting for the both of them in the next horrible years.

"Elegy for Iris" is a memoir of both their past and present lives. It's a study of identities and relationships – a look at the life-continuum on which, more or less, we are all strung. We are aware of these identities dimly, most of the time, but what do they mean? When we dress up and go to a party, what part of ourselves do we show? As Bayley wrote this book, Iris could still go to parties, repeating, over and over, "What do you do?" to bemused guests, who obligingly answered, and then answered again. When we are with close friends, who are we? When Bayley thought of Iris as "a little bull," how far off the mark was he? When he thought of her as sober-sided (wishing, perhaps, for a shared future as distinguished as his wildest dreams), how far was he off the mark on that? Was Iris most "Iris" when she played childlike games with him or when she was alone, spinning her glorious novels?

Whatever she was, whatever became of her? An acquaintance of John Bayley's, also a caregiver for a spouse with Alzheimer's, remarks carelessly, maliciously, to him that it's like being chained to a corpse, a "much loved" corpse, of course. He hates what the woman has said, but it stays in his mind. He's bound to Iris by more than love; he's bound by marriage. For many years that connubial contract had been measured by distances and boundaries; each one guarded the other's freedom, the freedom to do their own work. "One of the truest pleasures of marriage," he writes, "is solitude." For years they were to grow "closer and closer apart." He's describing that blessed, mysterious time that comes after "the happy ending," after the prince and princess retire to their castle.

Iris and John lived for decades in an inconvenient, chilly, rat-infested country house. They wrote, and puttered, drove out the rats, and admired foxes in their garden. They had no domestic help and let clutter stack up around them. They snuggled and burrowed in a large antique bed. What they really did (outside of what he writes about it) has, again, to be a mystery. Who knows what a couple does together, when they are home alone, especially when they seem to be happy?

Since the beginning of Iris's Alzheimer's, their life would seem to have been a nightmare. Everything they had done together they could no longer do. Bayley tells us of their last swim together in the Isis, as well as the first. Now Iris is tormented by a nameless fear; she can barely speak and won't take off her socks. A pleasure craft sails by; young tanned people see them only as a grotesque and ludicrous couple. No one knows! No one can know that this crazy old lady is "really" Iris Murdoch.

It's an unspeakable situation, unbearably painful, and yet John Bayley bears the pain and speaks to us of it. One of the deficiencies of English literature turns out to have been that there's so little material in that vast canon about age, what it means to age, and how we are meant to live as we are aging. You can't go around being King Lear all the time trumpeting on a windswept heath. Kingsley Amis's "The Old Devils" was a brave attempt to describe the process, though strangely hermetic and alcohol-soaked. Christopher Isherwood and E.M. Forster both lived to great ages but disdained age as a subject. Reading "Elegy for Iris," I suppose you can see why. Here are Iris and John on a bus coming home from vacation: Iris clatters up the aisle, spooking the driver, parcels are spilled, he gives her arm a violent, surreptitious punch. Later, he yells at her for over-watering the house plants, and catches a glimpse of his face in the mirror, "a horrid face, plum color."

But he sticks, he stays, he reports their sufferings; it is an intellectual's brave defense. He remembers to say that Iris was humble, modest, above all, good. He says that they are growing "closer and closer," no solitude any more. They watch "Teletubbies" together.

"So we live," Iris Murdoch wrote in "Under the Net," "a spirit that broods and hovers over the continual death of time, the lost meaning, the unrecaptured moment, the unremembered face, until the final chop-chop that ends all our moments and plunges that spirit back into the void from which it came." That novel laughs in the face of old age, sorrow and death. Great art is immortal, but unfortunately humans are not. John Bayley acknowledges that very sorrow: "No point in getting away from it all, nowhere to get away to. Alzheimer's will meet you there, like death at Samara." Disease, suffering, loneliness, death; that's what's out there for all of us. Here's some true and serious information about the last pages in the books of all our lives. It's terrifying stuff. Maybe we're right to concentrate in literature on the adventures of childhood, the excitements of romance, the exhilaration of power, even the mayhem of war. But God bless John Bayley for telling us the truth about marriage and aging, and the chains that ensnare us, as long as we consent to be bound by affection.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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