Who does John Bayley— that’s Mr. Iris Murdoch to you— think he is? Leo-nard Woolf, one would guess, the talented-if-not-quite-brilliant husband of a brilliant-if-not-quite-self-sufficient writer; perhaps he even thinks of himself as a Browning, an equal partner in a dual enterprise of literary creation. Whatever his self-
image, what Bayley comes across as is a writer who engages in precisely the same sorts of literary projects as his wife with about one-tenth of the skill. Feminism’s advances aside, it’s still not quite a respectable position to be a man and to be on the bottom, and perhaps the most revelatory aspect of Bayley’s Elegy for Iris, his account of their 40-year marriage, which culminates in the celebrated philosophical novelist’s descent into Alzheimer’s-
induced dementia, is the unintentional illumination of the jealousies and
inadequacies felt by a man forced to play second fiddle to his wife.
Ostensibly a genuflection, Elegy for Iris is actually composed of equal parts adoration and hubris, proof that if you spend too much time on your knees they’ll start to hurt, and eventually the ache will become more compelling than the object of worship to whom one bowed down in the first place. In Bayley’s case that shift in focus seems to have taken place long before this book was written. Bayley’s Elegy opens with a romanticized memory of the first time he saw Murdoch bicycling “slowly and rather laboriously” past his window at Oxford. She pedaled; he swooned (“Perhaps I fell in love,” he writes, with a person whose face he found “homely and kindly . . . a strong face in its own blunt-featured, snub-nosed way”). Obviously, he didn’t fall in love with her for her physical charms; nor does it seem he loved her for her mind. In fact, it’s hard to see from Elegy what drew Bayley to Murdoch, because his attention is almost exclusively focused on the role he played in, and the pleasure he took from, her success. Almost every reference he makes to Murdoch’s career is in the service of an anecdote that proves more revelatory of his own life than of Murdoch’s.
To some degree, this is deliberate. From the beginning Murdoch seems to have been a mystery to Bayley, not simply a “genius,” as he often refers to her, but a savant with a gift he feels duty-bound to chaperone. But the nature of that gift is only hinted at. After a 40-year relationship, the closest thing to insight into Murdoch’s creative process that Bayley can offer are those scenes in her novels and essays that were inspired, suggested, or even, on at least one occasion, written by Bayley (“The results are on page ten of the novel as first printed, in a longish paragraph. It reads a bit too much in the Jamesian style”). On another occasion, Bayley casually mentions that he reviewed a book under Murdoch’s name, but doesn’t mention if such a phenomenon occurred often or rarely, and if anyone was aware of the forgery. These lapses are a rather interesting reflection on Bayley, who seems not to realize that readers of Murdochiana will be interested primarily in insights about Murdoch, and only secondarily, if at all, in her husband.
In large part this isn’t much more than frustrating, but more than occasionally Bayley suggests that the reason for the vagueness about his subject is that Murdoch now— watching Teletubbies while wearing her underwear back to front— is not so different from Murdoch then, a vacant-eyed dreamer who would sit for hours above Scotland’s most famous loch, waiting for a sight of Nessie. “I am struck by the almost eerie resemblance between the amnesia of the present and the tranquil indifference of the past.” Like so much else in the book, the thinking here is antiquated, a romantic notion of the creative individual as a kind of corpus animus with a soul and its attendant visions borrowed from some other plane of existence, but the truth is that such a conception is more suitable to saints than novelists. As almost any writer can tell you— or, for that matter, any good biography of a writer— the profession of storytelling is a rather mundane one, composed of equal parts coffee, paper, and privacy, and it must be said that despite Bayley’s efforts to present himself as the steward of his wife’s career, if not her creativity itself, Murdoch still manages to come across as a particularly capable person and a virtual dray horse of a writer. None of this would be so disturbing if it weren’t for the fact that one feels a distinct sense of pleasure as Bayley realizes that this is the first time in her life when Murdoch has truly needed a husband.
But perhaps I’m being too harsh with Bayley— distracted by the word Iris in 72-point type on the cover of his book, when what I should be focusing on is the 24-point Elegy. For, in its own queer, old-fashioned way, Bayley’s book is an affecting love story. His picture of his wife, if infantilizing, is also endearing, and his picture of himself is of a doddering holdout from a kinder, gentler— read: Victorian— England. Bayley’s book abounds with anachronistic presentations of England’s green and pleasant land, foxes in the hedgerow, fox hunts on neighboring estates, computers eschewed for typewriters (and manual ones at that). Not the least of his outdated ideas concerns literature itself: hence his notion of the way his wife’s talent functions. Bayley seems to perceive his own book as less memoir than monograph, “in the Jamesian style,” as if he’s unaware of the self-lacerating confessionals clogging the shelves of bookstores, but despite this ignorance the only truly moving parts of the book are those that read most like a contemporary memoir. In the end, the one scene in the book that sticks out is not the image of Murdoch staring fixedly at either Loch Ness or Teletubbies, but of Bayley, dentures lost in the warm waters surrounding the Canary Islands, gumming two weeks’ worth of holiday fare.
Ironically, my dentist was himself on a Canary holiday when we got home, but on his return, he regaled me with warning stories. Watch out for your dog if you are a denture wearer, he told me: the Airedale belonging to one of his patients had once found and eaten his master’s set. He also tried to cheer me up by pointing out the timelessness of tooth acrylic: It is the last thing to go in the crematorium. My teeth, uncorrupted, would lie five fathom in the harbour ooze forevermore.
Elegy for Iris will probably not endure quite so long. Neither will Iris, or Bayley, or anyone who happens to read his book, though the particular customs and traditions that brought us all together will go on. That’s Bayley’s point. It’s a sentimental point, if not simply a conservative one— but then again Iris Murdoch wasn’t exactly a radical writer herself, so in this aspect Elegy for Iris serves its subject faithfully.