Of all the magic acts memorists perform, preserving memories of a lost loved one is the most universal in its appeal and significance. In “Elegy for Iris,” John Bayley’s first memoir about his wife, the novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch, Bayley recounts the story of their courtship, the felicity of their more than four decades together and the onset of the Alzheimer’s that would claim Murdoch’s mind. A meticulously composed book about two British writers coping with a hopeless disease, “Elegy” seemed an unlikely candidate for success, yet Bayley’s paean to his wife and the meaning of love became a bestseller.
In “Iris and Her Friends,” Bayley continues the story of their marriage and of how he and Murdoch coped with the disease that changed their lives. But this time he reveals more of himself. Literature has been the other great love of Bayley’s life, and reading and writing afforded some solace as Murdoch, a grande dame of letters, slipped off into a wordless world. The very act of writing about his wife’s illness and his improvisations as a caregiver grants Bayley strength and perspective. And this communion with the page has another salutary effect: As Murdoch loses her memory, Bayley’s is preternaturally enhanced. It’s as though nature has allotted the couple a pool of memories, so that as Murdoch’s recedes, her husband’s rises.
In the opening scene, Bayley awakens in the dead of night to the sound of Murdoch wandering around and talking incoherently to herself. He realizes that the disease has “entered another phase.” Murdoch does come back to bed, however, and after she falls asleep, Bayley makes himself a cup of tea. On the way back upstairs, he catches his old wool vest on a Windsor chair, and this minor skirmish with inanimate objects works like Marcel Proust’s madeleine and releases a rush of boyhood memories. Suddenly he finds himself “slinking furtively through the thick seaside grass” on the Kentish Coast. He has mind-traveled back to a boyhood haunt in the first of many spellbinding forays into the past.
And so the pattern is set. While Murdoch is up and about, Bayley struggles to invent activities to soothe her compulsiveness and anxiety. An earthy and adaptable man, he finds much to love in his now childlike, sometimes even animal-like spouse. A careful observer and fluent storyteller, he describes Murdoch’s confounding behavior with such compassion and drama that he redefines the experience of Alzheimer’s, both for those stricken and for those who care for them. When sleep claims Murdoch and temporarily liberates Bayley, he slips into reverie, and scenes from his past flow before him with cinematic specificity. But he brings much more to the telling of his story than even the most sensitively aimed camera can record.
Bayley writes about his young and “permanently childish” self with charm and amusement. Not nearly as rough-and-tumble as his older brothers, Bayley preferred the promptings of the imagination to such activities as golf and hunting and loved to roam about on his own. He was also inordinately fond of a toy sailboat and a gloomy Danish cook. Bayley cared little for school and assumed that the army would be worse but found to his amazement that “soldiers were not a bit like the schoolboys whom I had so much disliked.” His comrades-at-arms end up looking out for Bayley as he bumbles his way good-naturedly through training, then take full advantage of him once he becomes an officer.
A lucky naif in war, Bayley is hapless in love. He violates the non-fraternizing regulation and conducts a hilariously inappropriate affair with a calculating young German fraulein and, later, becomes involved in an initially romantic, soon to be morbid relationship with a much older woman, an ex-nun turned poet. The more he reveals about his sexually ignorant but intellectually lively “pre-Iris” self, the more his readers will understand just how remarkable a partnership his marriage was, from its first days to its last.
As Bayley switches from pondering the past to chronicling the present, his readers will be reluctant to leave the moonbeam spells of his recollections for the disturbing reality of Murdoch’s decline, a reluctance shared, no doubt, by Bayley himself. This tacit accord makes for a strong empathic bond between reader and writer. When Bayley muses on how crucial the “compensatory pleasures” his memories provide are to his ability to care for Murdoch, his readers will understand that being able to look back enables him to look forward.
Bayley cares for Murdoch at home as long as possible, experiencing some truly harrowing moments, and writes of her quiet death on Feb. 8, 1999, with characteristic gentleness and insight. Throughout his memoir of Murdoch’s last days, Bayley matches his loving observations of his wife with candid accounts of the workings of his own mind, calling on his literary mentors--Milton, Shakespeare, Hardy and James--to help illuminate the elusive nature of memory and consciousness. But when it comes to writing about love, the sort of unassailable love that transcends every hardship, Bayley needs no assistance. Love is his element, and love makes every beautifully formed sentence, every generously shared moment shimmer and sing.