November 2, 1999
by Kay Kimbrough
ELEGY FOR IRIS
St. Martin's Press, 1999.
John Bayley, husband of Iris Murdoch, has written a memoir of her that is based on their daily lives together--and apart--in a series of cluttered houses, surrounded by their "miscellaneous rubbish" and "the books and the armchairs grey in our service" and, finally, at the end, "impregnated with the dust of four decades." Bayley's attention to their homes is like his attention to their developing relationship and their shared experiences that find a permanent place in Murdoch's fiction. This book is a study in literary archeology.
Iris Murdoch was born in Dublin in 1919 of an Ulster father and a Dublin mother. She was an adored only child, given the best education possible by her self-sacrificing parents, to whom she remained close and devoted until their deaths. She studied philosophy at Oxford and Cambridge, and taught at St. Anne's College, Oxford, where she met Bayley in 1954. The two were married several years later and embarked on a honeymoon journey in Europe. Bayley's account of the honeymoon makes good travel reading and also reveals the fascinating way Murdoch gathered ideas for her novels. Swimming in a river in a secluded valley in France, Bayley found a vessel, which his bride insisted on keeping, for "Even at that date she wanted to keep everything she found." Her imagination stirred, she began to plan her next novel on the spot: "Suppose we found a great old bell." When Bayley objects that the location is too remote for this possibility, she began to plot. After all, he points out, "her imagination was equal to that one." Thus began the writing of THE BELL, her next novel. The new groom was aware of his bride's working at her fiction during the honeymoon, although the actual writing came later.
The personality and character of Murdoch emerge in her husband's observation, but the mystery that surrounds her is never fully dispelled. Bayley writes of an episode from before their marriage that involved two friends who abused her hospitality and left her room in shambles after an experiment in making herring soup. They did not clean up after the experiment, leaving the room reeking of herring and the neighbors and the landlady furious because of the smell and the noise the two made in Murdoch's absence. What disturbed Bayley most about the incident, which resulted in Murdoch moving from a room that suited her very well, was her tolerance and benevolent acceptance of what the two friends had done. "It seemed so unnatural. And it still does. If I am not careful, I can upset myself still more by wondering whether Iris behaved so angelically after all. Did something in her long to be violated in this way by the pair?" His own reaction was so different that this memory makes him "shiver a bit." He confesses that his uneasiness about this saintly behavior "has never seemed to matter much, even though the idea of having behaved in a way so unlike myself can give me the occasional shock of incredulity."
One of the surprising revelations about Murdoch is that, despite her solitary work and her incredible productivity, she liked people. She was never judgmental, no matter how others believed or behaved or thought. She also never minded being interrupted in her work by Bayley, even though he did not tolerate interruptions while he was working. She behaved like the traditional wife in her tolerance of his fits of anger, smiling and soothing patiently. She treated people, animals and objects with respect and tenderness.
Murdoch did have one strong streak of intolerance; she was on the side of England in the matter of the Irish question. She never changed her mind on this subject, perhaps out of strong loyalty to her father, who was not a churchgoer but who was from Belfast.
The book is of course also about the other people in their lives. Famous names appear: two other Anglo-Irish writers, Elizabeth Bowen and Honor Tracy, J. B. Priestly, Barbara Pym, Isaiah Berlin. One is never named but referred to as the DICHTER; he is easily identified by the name of his work, DIE BLENDUNG, and his Nobel Prize as Elias Canetti, a strong influence on Iris Murdoch and her work before she met Bayley. Jealousy certainly may have influenced his description of Canetti although his impressions match those of others who knew him far better. In 1962, Murdoch wrote an extremely enthusiastic review of Canetti's CROWDS AND POWER; earlier, she had written of his DIE BLENDUNG (AUTO-DA FE in English): "One of the few great novels of the century." Murdoch had had a sexual affair with Canetti, and had used her experience with him in her second novel, THE FLIGHT FROM THE ENCHANTER.
This memoir includes details of Murdoch's life after she had what appears to be an extremely sudden onset of Alzheimer's disease. She published JACKSON'S DILEMMA in 1995, the year her illness became evident.. These details offer a strong contrast to her life as a major intellect and artist. The contrast probably inspired Bayley to create this modest, generous, loving memoir that is also honest in its portrayal of both him and his wife, who died after the publication of ELEGY FOR IRIS.