WIDOWER'S HOUSE: A Study in Bereavement (or How Margot and Mella Forced Me to Flee My Home)

John Bayley, Author . Norton $23.95 (246p) ISBN 978-0-393-02561-3

Following the February 1999 death of his wife of 44 years, novelist Iris Murdoch (whose lapse into Alzheimer's he chronicled in his bestselling Elegy for Iris), Bayley just wanted to live undisturbed, as "a widower in myown house." Yet he can't seem to get any peace and quiet with all the widows coming around—an old friend of Iris's, a former student and hundreds of Murdoch fans—who admire his sensitive account of his wife's decline and consider him the widower of their dreams. Bayley goes along, playing a passive but willing victim of their "well-meaning persecution," which involves household chores and chat as well as intimate companionship. (Perhaps the gentleman doth protest too much?) All the while, he's musing on the lack of a job description for widowerhood—"being bereaved was not a career"—while coming to terms with its unpredictability. Behind this curtain, another more subtle drama is unfolding: Bayley is letting go of his life with Murdoch. At first, his writing is filled with anecdotes about life with Iris, but by the end of the book, he's realizing he can't even picture the pre-Alzheimer's Iris anymore and that, in fact, he'd never really wanted to marry her. As Iris recedes, Bayley takes hold of his life again—and remarries. Bayley's style is arch and self-critical, rather like that of one of Barbara Pym's skittish Oxford dons (no coincidence: Bayley, a literary critic, is a retired Oxford professor and Pym fan). Although precious at times, this memoir is engaging. (June)

Forecast: Though too dark to become a mainstream pick-me-up for widowers, this may well become a letlles lettres classic.

Reviewed on: 05/28/2001
Release date: 06/01/2001
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