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Tucson Weekly Legacy Of Letters

Though Husband John Bayley's Memoir Has Its Merits, Iris Murdoch Is Best Remembered By Her Own Words.

By Randall Holdridge

FEBRUARY 15, 1999: 

Elegy for Iris, by John Bayley (St. Martin's Press). Cloth, $22.95.

(Ed. note: British author Iris Murdoch died on Monday, February 8, presumably from complications of Alzheimer's.)

IRIS MURDOCH HAS Alzheimer's. A friend called long distance with the news, which was soon confirmed in the "Milestones" column of Time Magazine. So, after 26 novels, five plays, six books of academic philosophy, and one slender collection of poems celebrating birds--no more from one of the century's most intelligent and humane novelists.

In Elegy for Iris, her husband John Bayley, the piecework man of letters, tells us in a whinging voice how it is with her now, silenced but still alive at 79. I don't want to know; I have to know.

Murdoch's books fill five feet of my shelves with comedy, coincidence, contingency and compassion, based on an unfailing observation of the lives of educated, liberal professionals. Better than most, she understands how bizarre it is, how self-destructive--and how necessary--to be civilized in the milieu where words are reality, and all else is accident. Drawing on Shakespeare, Dickens and the Russians, Murdoch's grand theme is good versus evil. Yet as a sophisticated modernist, she realizes that the discovery of an authentic self (such as can be found in the generous and big-hearted dogs which populate her fictions), pitted against the "enchantments" of convention and the incapacity to diverge, is key to moral decision making.

The narrative world she created is filled with hilarious, always complex, sometimes shocking events which defy ordinary prediction. Her characters struggle through symbolic mazes--steam power plants to climb through; towers to scale; bells to dredge from lake bottoms; long, underwater culverts to swim; mysterious forests to navigate by nightfall; midnight assaults to solve. Yet the appurtenances of everyday life control the action: obsessive love, missent or stolen letters, psychoanalysis, religion, the momentary release and elevation of art, drinking parties concluded with odd couplings, old friendships not surrendered, domineering parents, illness, bad acid trips, estranged or dying relatives, nagging guilt over the poor or dispossessed. Murdoch's houses are filled with unwashed dishes, smelly rags, and dust bunnies.

She's been silenced at 76, though still living in good physical health at age 79. Bayley tells us that she waters the houseplants excessively, until they die. She, gracelessly unsinkable, who loved nothing more than swimming, now resists bathing. She lurks outside the door when he is working, and asks repeatedly, "When are we going?" He finds relief sitting her in front of the television to watch cartoons, which mildly distract her.

"When are we going?" Let us not make too much of it. In Nuns and Soldiers, the dying intellectual Guy repeats the phrase, "Think of striking a cube on its top," which his mourners interpret in complicated and various ways. He, in dying, is remembering a lesson about serving in tennis.

Bayley recounts his first sight of the older Iris, who first intimidated him, especially when he learned that she'd had other, more worldly lovers. He tells some charming stories of their travels together in France and Italy, one particularly when they are surprised skinny-dipping by an entire country village, whose gendarme proves gallant. Bayley is courageously candid about how he "snarls" now, becomes impatient, almost succumbs to the temptation of joining in commiseration with others he meets who are caring for spouses with Alzheimer's.

He is wise about the lifetime commitment he has made, however. He draws back, not so much into his own dignity, as into a choice made long ago which is, he knows after all, not only Iris Murdoch and not only his wife and his love, but a fellow human being with all the attending claims attached to that perilous state.

This is, of course, the time of the intimate memoir, when as an act of personal purging writers with nothing more to say, but an irresistible urge to say something, pour out their long suppressed tales of family abuse and disillusionment, of hurts newly remembered as fashionably marketable narratives. If there's a celebrity involved, so much the better. In England, this book was called Iris: A Memoir of Iris Murdoch, and presented in a serious format. I regret a whiff of exploitative sentimentality in the American version, Elegy to Iris (elegy, mind you, as if she were dead), with its schmaltzy title and valentine format. I prefer Leonard Woolf's chilly reserve and guardian's silence to Bayley's openness; but that's another subject.

What is certain is that in addition to her own prodigious body of work, Murdoch has her heirs in English fiction still in the field. P.D. James spins out the detective strain with her poet-cop, Dalgleish. A.S. Byatt is managing the artistic, literary side of things. Jospehine Hart works the darker patterns of accident and obsessive love crushing the stately house of conventional facade and language; and Tim Parks, on a slighter scale, preserves the whole package. "When are we going?" Like any giant leaving footprints, Dame Iris, rest assured you're here to stay.


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