by John Bayley
St. Martin's Press, 1999
Review by Heather C. Liston on Jun 5th 2002
for Iristhe memoir of the novelist and literary critic John Bayley about
his love affair with his wife Iris Murdoch, and the progression of their
relationship as she develops Alzheimersis one of the most beautiful books to appear
in a long time. For all those who have doubted the power of love, or the
possibility of strong and stable marriage, this gentle, intelligent work is a
Murdoch (1919-1999) was a prolific novelist, lecturer, and philosopher; winner
of the Booker Prize (for The Sea, The Sea,
in 1978); Dame Commander, Order of the British Empire; and, to hear her husband
tell it, a person of unselfconscious brilliance, humor, and evenhe uses this
word several timesgoodness. After
hearing the spouse of another Alzheimers victim lament her husbands
complaining, Bayley says Iris seems not to know how to complain. She never has. Alzheimers, which can accentuate personality traits to the point
of demonic parody, has only been able to exaggerate a natural goodness in her.
Of course, as he describes her
virtues, he reveals his own: Bayley is
entirely free of envy, of any negative effects of ego, and of the curse of
restlessness. His wife is the more
famous of the two, and although he does apparently satisfying and respected
work as a teacher at Oxford, a reviewer of books, and a writer of extended
works of criticism, his only serious ambition seems to have been to be a good
husband to Iris. His patience,
devotion, sense of humor, and extraordinary insightfulness shine quietly in
Although he did not meet her until
he was twenty-eight (and Iris was thirty-four) Bayley tells us this was the
first time he was in love. He describes
his first vision of her, from the window of his room, when he indulged the
momentary fantasy that nothing had ever happened to her: that she was simply
bicycling about, waiting for me to arrive.
How she felt about things, of
course, we never know for sure. It does
seem, however, as though his life up
to that point was simply about waiting for the vision of the bicycle lady, as
he calls her. Because of her tendency
to be surrounded by others who admire her and claim her attention, it takes
several chance meetings at parties before Bayley is able to make himself known
to Iris; and then it is several more years before he can convince her to marry
him. If his memory is correct, however,
he never wanted anything else. In fact,
he is so sure she was made for him that he says, It was my naïve and now
inexplicable assumption that she could appeal only to me, and to no one else,
that stopped me seeing how fearfully, how almost diabolically attractive everyone
else found her.
Iris is not eager to marry, the commitment, once made, seems to have been
absolute for both of them. Bayley
describes a relationship of such comfortable love and complete trust that
demons like possessiveness, loneliness, and jealousy have no toehold in
it. So married life began. And the joys of solitude. No contradiction was involved. . . .To feel
oneself held and cherished and accompanied, and yet to be alone. To be closely and physically entwined, and
yet feel solitudes friendly presence, as warm and undesolating as contiguity
It is not
until 1994, when the insidious fog of Alzheimers begins to encroach upon
Iris, that this independent pair becomes physically inseparable. As he adapts to the new responsibilities of
caring for his wife in this condition, Bayley offers some insight into how
Alzheimers treats its victims. As Iris
becomes more and more childlike (You are almost four years old! he tells the
eminent scholar with pride in her third year of the disease), Bayley
acknowledges that he is, in another sense, a sufferer in his own right. He describes an utterly exhausting train
trip with the afflicted Iris, when he must manage her and her incessant
questions and newfound fears even as he keeps track of itineraries, baggage,
and tickets for both of them. On the
train I keep counting the tickets. The
elderly couple opposite look sympathetically at Iris. I am clearly the one whos become a problem. Utterly exhausted and drenched in
sweat. Vague heart sensations,
too. And the whole thing so trivial. Alzheimers obviously has me in its grip . .
Bayley admits to occasional bouts
of anger and despair, as Iris interrupts his work over and over and over again
with anxious, pointless questions.
Its worse for me. Its much worse! he wants to shout at
her sometimes. And yet he clearly
adores the dependent, childlike Iris, just as he cherished the self-sufficient,
intellectual Iris. He learns to look
forward to watching the Teletubbies with her now, taking pleasure in her
enjoyment of the surreal characters in this childrens program.
Bayley also finds pleasure in the
need to be physically close as Iris becomes dependent upon him, just as he
thoroughly enjoyed their ability to be apart during the earlier stage of their
marriage. We kiss and embrace now much
more than we used to, he records in 1997.
Life is no longer bringing the pair of us closer and closer apart, in
the poets tenderly ambiguous words.
Every day we move closer and closer together. We could not do otherwise.
There is a certain comic ironyhappily, not darkly comicthat after more
than forty years of taking marriage for granted, marriage has decided it is
tired of this, and is taking a hand in the game.
By now, most readers probably know
that this book has been adapted into a movie, called simply Iris.
Although the film is beautifully acted, and reasonably faithful to
the book, it is not a substitute for reading Bayleys words. This small memoir is one of the great love
stories of our time and, as such, is an example of mental health in its highest
© 2002 Heather C. Liston
C. Liston studied Religion at Princeton University and earned a Masters
degree from the NYU Graduate School of Business Administration. She is the
Director of Development for The Santa Fe Children's Museum, and writes
extensively on a variety of topics. Her book reviews and other work have
appeared in Self, Women Outside, The Princeton Alumni Weekly,
Appalachia, Your Health and elsewhere.