Elegy for Iris

John Bayley, Author St. Martin's Press $22.95 (275p) ISBN 978-0-312-19864-0
It is seldom that someone at once so brilliant and so visible as novelist Iris Murdoch develops Alzheimer's disease in full public view; seldom, also, that a sufferer from this dreadful malady has so skilled and loving an interpreter by her side. Bayley, a noted literary critic (and, recently, novelist) in his own right, has been married to Murdoch for 40 years, and part of the charm of this enormously affecting memoir lies in the ways in which he shows the affections of old age as in no way slower than the passions of youth. Murdoch was already a dashing and rather mysterious figure when she and Bayley met in the Oxford of the 1950s; she was a philosophy don at a women's college who had just written a much-admired first novel; he was a bright, rather naive graduate student. Something mutually childlike clicked between them, however, and a naked swim in the River Isis (which later became a fond habit lasting even into Iris's illness) cemented their loving friendship. Writing with great tenderness and grace, Bayley evokes their long, warm, mutually trusting marriage, and introduces in the gentlest way the moments, four years ago, when he realized that his wife's sense of reality and of herself were slipping away. She is now anxious, repetitious and often nonsensical in her speech, but still suffused with the same quizzical sweetness and absolute trust he loved in her from the start. Few people afflicted with an Alzheimer's partner can be as self-effacing and endlessly patient as Bayley, but in a way almost as mysterious as the creation of a Murdoch novel, he evokes depths of understanding and warmth that seem scarcely ruffled by the breezes of the conscious mind. This beautiful book could hardly help being deeply consoling to anyone thus afflicted; it is also a compelling study of the overthrow of a remarkable spirit. First serial to the New Yorker. (Jan.)
Reviewed on: 01/04/1999
Release date: 01/01/1999
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 275 pages - 978-0-312-42111-3
Paperback - 275 pages - 978-0-312-25382-0
Hardcover - 283 pages - 978-0-7838-8564-3
Analog Audio Cassette - 978-0-7438-0015-0
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