In a detached house on a leafy suburban street in North Oxford lives a remarkable pair who between them have helped shape the literary landscape of contemporary England: John Bayley, former Oxford professor of English, for over 30 years a noted critic, and a recently fledged novelist; and his wife of 40 years, the eminent novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch. And they live, as Bayley says in his new and heartbreaking book about their life together, "like naughty children."
For Iris has suffered for over four years now from advancing Alzheimer's disease, and though Bayley cares for her devotedly, and alone (he determinedly refrains from seeking any kind of live-in help), the house and garden are in an advanced state of neglect. "We've never been much for housekeeping," Bayley says cheerfully, in what has to be the understatement of the year. On a street of well-kept homes smiling in the mellow fall sunshine, the Bayley establishment, with its unkempt front garden and dark, encroaching trees strikes a note of somber heedlessness.
Indoors, the PW visitor is ushered to a sagging chair that has to be hastily cleared of a tottering pile of books and magazines, one of three seats ranged before a dead TV set whose screen peers from among the clutter. A crowded window ledge offers a sort of snapshot of the chaos that overspreads the house: It contains a video of Fred Astaire's Shall We Dance?, some half-eaten slices of salami, a few broken crackers, a bowl half-full of crusted oatmeal, a couple of coffee cups with dried, milky sediment, a scattering of paper towels, a CD of a Wienawski violin concerto, and a small potted plant that looks to be in its last thr s. A row of similarly afflicted plants, victims of Iris's obsessive over-watering, lines a shelf.
The house's inhabitants are in not much better trim than the house. Bayley, an energetic wisp of a man of 74 whose eyes explode with eagerness behind his glasses, but whose razor seems to have missed several patches of stubble, is in ancient carpet slippers and a well-worn pullover; his 80-year-old wife, gray hair unruly over her wide brow, is in a grubby housedress. Their unkempt appearance, however, fades almost instantly from consciousness under the onslaught of Bayley's stammering rush of witty, sometimes bitchy, words, his utter openness -- and the solicitous affection with which he treats Iris. For that celebrated pug face (as he likes to describe it), with the firm chin, the thoughtful eyes and the hint of perpetual inner amusement, is now an anxious mask in which the eyes dart from side to side in search of reassurance, and sometimes close as if in momentary sleep or resignation.
It is chilling to associate this shadowy creature with the writer of more than 30 novels, beginning with 1954's Under the Net, which in their very personal blend of fantasy (Murdoch was a very early magic realist), myth, keen psychological insights, humorously inside knowledge of English bohemian life and lightly worn philosophical underpinnings, made her the woman writer for the first postwar English generation. Nearly all her books are still in print in Penguin editions, and came out in the U.S. as Viking hardcovers.
Bayley talks of his wife with enormous pride, still apparently as bedazzled by her achievements as he was when, as a young graduate student, he first sought to woo the already renowned philosophy professor. "For 30 years she wrote a book a year, regular as clockwork," he says. "Didn't you, darling?" Iris looks perplexed. "Let's come all the same," she says. Always he tries to draw her into the talk and seems not at all put out when her replies make sense only to her.
Sailing into Darkness
For as Bayley writes in his spellbinding Elegy for Iris, out shortly from St. Martin's (Forecasts, Oct. 19) as one of the last books Bob Weil edited there before he decamped for Norton in November, the important thing is not what she communicates, but that she still d s so at all; and occasionally she manages a flash of extraordinarily vivid insight, as when she described her current plight as "sailing into darkness." Bayley paints a picture of a long, mutually supportive marriage in which the essential closeness, rooted in a primordial level of childlike warmth and contentment, has scarcely been affected by the loss of Iris's amazing mind.
And it was an amazing one. Bayley recalls how she would say of a new novel, "Finished it!" before she had put a word on paper. "But it was all there already in her head, as a sort of metaphysical vision, and only had to be written out," he says. "You could do an essay on the metaphysics of the novel, using Iris as an example." Among the books she created over the years, however she managed it, were several prize-winning ones, like Flight of the Enchanter (1956), A Severed Head (1961), The Black Prince (1973), The Sacred and Profane Love Machine (1974), The Sea, The Sea (1978); she was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1986, an honor bestowed on but a handful of writers.
The idea that Bayley should do a book about Iris's plight, and their previous life together, came from Weil, who had long been a friend of Bayley's, and his publisher in the U.S. "It was just about a year ago he suggested it. It was a short book, and it came quite easily." Bayley's story first caught the attention of American readers in a lengthy excerpt that ran in the New Yorker last summer, and was, for many of them, the first intimation of Iris's situation. "Tina Brown wanted to run it before she left, so she rushed it out, and the Sunday Times, which had first serial rights here, was so cross it withdrew its original offer," says Bayley, without apparent regret, having seemingly rather enjoyed the scrap.
"What are you doing now?" says Iris, gazing fixedly at the visitor; she has an air at once distraught and faintly reminiscent, as if she is trying to recall something just beyond her grasp.
"Would you like a biscuit?" asks Bayley, turning to find some. "Two," says Iris firmly, a clear connection established at last. He brings her biscuits and an orange drink -- probably of the kind he describes in Elegy, in which some of Iris's beloved red wine is mixed in, both to please and to help calm her.
Bayley continues to talk, dazzlingly and amusingly, about the English literary scene, in which he still plays a very active role, though he retired as Wharton Professor of English at the university 10 years ago. He remains highly productive as a critic, appearing often in the New York Review of Books. "Bob Silvers suggests things, and I do them," is how he puts it, with that studied English diffidence that can seem at once charming and an attempt to hold serious conversation at bay. He hasn't begun work on another book, he says, though "Bob Weil has an idea I could do something on Leo Tolstoy." (Russian literature is an area of special expertise and interest.)
As for a memoir, Elegy is it. "I could only do it under Iris's wing. I couldn't make my own affairs sufficiently interesting." He picks up a copy of the English edition, which has already appeared, to admiring notices and a flurry of interview attention, and has achieved a degree of bestsellerdom. Turning to a picture of Iris as a younger woman, he shows it to her, and says, "You look just like your picture, darling." "How exciting," says Iris, without animation. Her eyes close and she seems to nod off.
As to how the book will be received in the States, Bayley is at once eager and skeptical. "We shall see what we shall see," he says. Weil has already received a personal call from Knopf's Sonny Mehta telling him how much he admired and was touched by the book. "Hmm," says Bayley. "Let's hope he'll say that in public."
An Oxford Courtship
Elegy describes with great skill and grace the odd mid-1950s courtship between the young graduate English instructor and the professor six years his senior who was already making a name for herself by her brilliance and her mysterious lifestyle, which involved distinguished lovers in London and a rather raffish Bohemian set. Child called to child in the pair, however, and a nude swim they took together in the river Isis confirmed their relationship. Bayley, with his own (if lesser) role assured as a pillar of the Oxford establishment, seems not to have felt threatened by his wife's much greater international fame.
He penned some notable books of criticism -- The Romantic Survival, The Characters of Love -- which, he says, "seem rather old-fashioned now." Then, after his retirement, he wrote a trilogy of novels revolving around an odd but alluring Australian heroine -- Alice, The Queer Captain and George's Lair, which were published by Duckworth in England, but have not appeared here. Last year at St. Martin's Weil brought out The Red Hat, a beautifully crafted mixture of suspense and fantasy based on an expedition by a group of English intellectuals to The Hague to see a Vermeer exhibition, in the course of which a young woman mysteriously disappears. But he is equivocal about whether he intends to write any more fiction. "Perhaps I might do something a bit autobiographical, about ways Oxford has changed yet stayed the same."
But the combination of his own continuing work and looking after Iris takes up a great deal of time. "It's hard to find things to do with her." She used to enjoy passively watching television -- the Teletubbies, when they began, were a favorite -- but that seems to have "worn out its welcome." They take shopping trips in their little car and are sometimes invited out, although social gatherings tend to make Iris anxious. A big centenary dinner being given at London's Dorchester hotel by Duckworth, Bayley's publisher, was looked forward to as a special treat: "They're being very kind and sending a car for us."
His conversation tends to revert to Iris whenever he feels, as he often d s, that he has said enough about himself. Now he recalls with pleasure the time Iris visited the U.S., to receive the Medal of Honor for Literature from New York's National Arts Club in 1990. Ed Victor, who had recently become her agent ("I think they'd tended to keep her royalties back a bit, and she did much better after Ed took over," says Bayley) showed Iris the neighborhood where his father had been a fish salesman. "Ed's father told him to leave the States, and make a better life for himself in England," Bayley exclaims, delighted at the way the story stands the common wisdom on its head.
Among Iris's disciples as writers, says Bayley, was A.S. Byatt, who "sat at her knee" (and who later wrote a book about her work) and A.N. Wilson. Iris herself had been a great reader of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. "You read and reread it, didn't you, darling?"
There is talk of the Booker Prize, then upcoming, which Iris had won (for The Sea, The Sea) and for which she had several times been a runner-up. "Yesterday," says Iris. "No, no, two weeks from now," says Bayley. "Do tell us," says Iris eagerly.
Bayley himself had been chair of the Booker judges several years earlier and recalls the occasion with great glee. "That nice man, Martyn Goff, who runs it, said he had never had such an incompetent chairman, and the whole thing was an utter disaster. That Scottish writer with all the bad words [James Kellman] won, and everyone was cross. Everything always seems to go wrong, but I suppose it's all good publicity." Bayley appears to take a perverse pleasure in his mistakes. The novelist and biographer D.M. Thomas had been a pupil of his, "and when he showed me The White Hotel I didn't like it at all, and urged him not to publish. Fortunately," he chortles, "he took no notice."
A biographer, Peter Conradi, is currently at work on a sort of official biography of Iris, and Bayley is helping as best he can to find old reviews and her diaries. Conradi is described in Elegy as being almost obsessively neat, and it is possible that on his occasional visits to the Oxford house he d s some tidying up; otherwise it is difficult to see how the old pair could keep their heads above the flood of old newspapers, discarded clothes and previous meals.
As Bayley escorts his visitor to the door, with Iris hesitantly following along, her eyes wondering who could be this visitor who has spent a couple of hours chatting with her husband, notebook in hand, an impulse strikes the intruder. "Do you think she'd mind if I kissed her good-bye?""I think she'd like it very much."
He brushed his lips against the soft cheek of the elderly author of books that had meant so much to him for so many years.
"Thank you very much," said Iris Murdoch doubtfully.