Elegy for Iris by John Bayley
John Bayley’s love letter to his wife Iris Murdoch, the noted British writer, was written during her descent into Alzheimer’s. There is aching honesty here; a memoir of Iris and John’s meeting and marriage, and a life spent with books and each other. This is a reader’s book. John drops titles and allusions throughout, like small sprinklings of salt.
John was smitten when he first viewed Iris at Oxford. And he instantly created a narrative around her, that she was a pure experience that none had ever known or defiled. It is a direct analogy to English epic poetry, Una and her Redcrosse Knight:
‘I noted the lady on the bicycle (she seemed at once to me more of a lady than a girl) and wondered who she was and whether I would ever meet her. Perhaps I fell in love. Certainly it was in the innocence of love that I indulged the momentary fantasy that nothing had ever happened to her: that she was simply bicycling about, waiting for me to arrive. She was not a woman with a past or an unknown present.’
The feelings were mutual. John later found in Iris’s notes a few lines that mentioned their first date:
‘St. Antony’s Dance. Fell down the steps, and seem to have fallen in love with J. We didn’t dance much.’
They married, which was more of an enactment than a betrothal since the idea of marriage was repugnant to them both. John remembers Iris’s hilarious reaction upon hearing someone refer to her as Mrs. Bayley:
‘Iris said that this was the ghastliest moment of what was for her an extremely gruesome occasion. She was now lumped among a lot of Mrs. Bayleys.’
Iris developed Alzheimer’s in the last years of her life and John chronicled the impact it had on the both of them. The ravages of Alzheimer’s manifests differently in each person. Some are aware; some are simply encased in fog. John argues the point that those who subsist with the disease without indignation are those people who are not narcissistic by nature, as Iris was. Still, it is nothing to look forward to:
‘I used to try reading Agamemnon and other Greek plays to her in a translation, but it was not a success. Nor was any other attempt at reading aloud. It all seemed and felt unnatural. I read several chapters of the Lord of the Rings and The Tale of Genji, two of Iris’s old favourites, before I realised this. For someone who had been accustomed not so much to read books as to slip into their world as effortlessly as she slipped into a river or the sea, this laborious procession of words clumping into her consciousness must have seemed a tedious irrelevance … Tolkien and Lady Murasaki had been inhabitants of her mind, denizens as native to its world as were the events and people who so mysteriously came to her in her own process of creation. To meet them again in this way, and awkwardly to recognise them, was an embarrassment.’
The theme of memory runs like a river throughout the book. At times, it’s difficult for John to visualize the person that Iris was. She is ever present and never changing in his life in the 43 years they were married:
‘I know she must once have been different, but I have no true memory of a different person.’
Iris Murdoch died in 1999; John Bayley died in 2015.