Never further than Dinner or Tea

Alexander Nehamas

  • Iris: A Memoir of Iris Murdoch by John Bayley
    Duckworth, 189 pp, £16.95, September 1998, ISBN 0 7156 2848 8

The first thing Alzheimer’s disease took away from Iris Murdoch was her luminous powers. At a conference in Israel in 1994, she was unable to answer her audience’s questions. In 1995, she completed, with great difficulty, her 27th novel, Jackson’s Dilemma, in which readers found several errors and inconsistencies; it was to be her last. Her philosophical work had already stopped. To a friend’s question about her writing, she replied that she felt she was ‘sailing into the darkness’. Then the disease deprived her of the ordinary abilities to function on her own. John Bayley, who had been married to her for more than forty years, had to dress and undress her, feed her and bathe her, reassure her and watch over her constantly to make sure she came to no harm. In its advanced stages when he wrote this book, Alzheimer’s gradually eroded her most basic individual characteristics.

Bayley used what little time he can have had to himself to continue to write, often in bed in the early morning, while Murdoch was still asleep beside him. Iris, his gentle and remarkably good-humoured account, celebrates their life together without denying the pain and misery her disease caused them both. It is at times funny, at times unspeakably sad. It was also his effort to defy the obliterating force of Alzheimer’s. Bayley derived great comfort from the continuities he discerned in his wife’s personality and the texture of their marriage. In equal parts self-deprecating and self-assured, emotional but not sentimental, intimate but not indiscreet, his voice is so trustworthy that it is impossible not to believe him. That’s why the few moments when he admits that the fog might be closing in all around him are frightful.

It helped Bayley to know that he had never known Iris Murdoch completely. He paints a strong and vivid portrait of a character which remains elusive and muted: ‘Iris once told me that the question of identity had always puzzled her. She thought she herself hardly possessed such a thing, whatever it was.’ A weak sense of oneself may make Alzheimer’s more tolerable: ‘Conceivably it is the persons who hug their identity most closely to themselves for whom the condition of Alzheimer’s is most dreadful. Iris’s own lack of a sense of identity seemed to float her more gently into its world of preoccupied emptiness.’ More important, an evanescent sense of self gives the disease less to affect, change and destroy in its victim.

It helped, too, that Bayley had always felt that part of Iris Murdoch was beyond his comprehension, and that he never minded. ‘My inability to understand or enter into ... what was or might be going on in Iris’s mind,’ he writes affably, ‘must have developed early on ... The more I got to “know” Iris, in the normal sense, during the early days of our relationship, the less I understood her. Indeed I soon began not to want to understand her.’ Unable to understand her when she was lucid, Bayley was less tormented by his inability to understand her when her features were set in the murky impassiveness of Alzheimer’s. What tortured him was the possibility that there might be nothing there for him not to understand: ‘Has nothing replaced the play of her mind when she was writing, cogitating, living in her mind? I find myself devoutly hoping not.’ Although it is hard to believe that full mental life survives, unexpressed, the impervious apathy of Alzheimer’s, ‘the illusion of such an inner world still there – if it is an illusion – can’t help haunting me from time to time. There are moments when I almost welcome it.’ The dreadful suspicion that Iris Murdoch had gone for ever loomed closest when she appeared to him to be just as she seemed. Transparency terrified him, not opaqueness.

Bayley was untroubled by his inability to understand Iris Murdoch because, without resentment or rancour, he never thought of himself as her intellectual equal: ‘Our minds were so different – hers clear, mine muddled.’ His admiration for her novels and her philosophical works is spontaneous and absolutely unqualified: he compares her several times to Shakespeare, an error – if it is an error – characteristic of a generosity of spirit which inspires even greater trust in the rest of his judgments. Nietzsche could have been thinking of Bayley when he wrote that ‘there is an innocence in admiration; it is found in those to whom it has never yet occurred that they, too, might be admired some day.’

Bayley was also dazzled by the complexity of Murdoch’s social and emotional life. Soon after he fell in love with her he realised that she had many friends, and lovers, whom she kept separate both from him and from each other. Here, too, there was more to her than he could grasp, and he preferred it that way. Sometime before they were married, Murdoch, in her serious and matter-of-fact way, told Bayley of the people in her past. There were even more than he had imagined: ‘Unknown figures arose before me like the procession of kings in Macbeth, seeming to regard me with grave curiosity as they passed by’ – how could this shy and awkward don capture the brilliant woman with whom everyone in Oxford (in Bayley’s eyes, and perhaps in reality too) seemed to be in love? Although he was sometimes jealous, Bayley was perfectly happy in the knowledge that Murdoch treated him as she treated no one else, even if each of her friendships was in turn different from every other. When he learned about her past, he asked: ‘After all that, isn’t it time for me to have a kind word?’ The expression became a code for their special relationship: ‘To me ... it was wholly different from what I guessed of her behaviour with others. No doubt it really was different ... Kind words, in Iris’s style to me, were not for them.’ Possession as we commonly understand it played no part in their relationship. Bayley had his own part of Iris; he left the rest to herself – to her work – and the world.

Such an arrangement seems to have made their marriage supremely happy. It could transform even the darkest moments. During a bus trip from London to Oxford, Murdoch, disoriented and anxious, made a tremendous scene. She ran up and down the gangway, demanded to know and could not understand where she was going, interfered with the driver, upset the passengers, spilled the contents of a woman’s handbag on the floor. Exhausted and suffering from a bad cold, Bayley finally managed to get her back to her seat, giving her, he admits without excusing himself, ‘a violent surreptitious punch on the arm’. At home, still raging and full of self-pity, he has a long and nasty screaming fit, ‘furious to see my words are getting nowhere, and yet relieved too by this, so that I can continue to indulge my fury’. And then, all of a sudden, ‘while I am still screaming at her she says: “Let’s go. There now. Bed.” ’ She says this quite coherently. We squeeze together up the stairs, huddle under the cold duvet, and clutch each other into warmth. In the morning I feel a lot better.’ Note the verbs: these people were close to each other.

Close, and yet apart. ‘Iris,’ Bayley writes with perfect equanimity, ‘has always had – must have had – so vast and rich and complex an inner world, which it used to give me immense pleasure not to know anything about.’ Even as she looked after him when he was ill, he could ‘see from her face that her mind was far away, pursuing the plot of the story she was engaged on’. That was never a problem: ‘One of the pleasures of living with Iris was her serenely benevolent unawareness of one’s daily welfare.’ She was deeply detached from the everyday – she once said she was no more concerned with the existence of her possessions than she was with her own existence – and Bayley is struck ‘by the almost eerie resemblance between the amnesia of the present and the tranquil indifference of the past’.

Bayley can’t have been much more practical than Murdoch himself. Their shared indifference to life’s ordinary demands was one key to their happiness. They accepted many things, including each other, as they were. They seldom tried to bend the world to their will – not for long anyway. Their cooking was indifferent, their housecleaning minimal; already the place to which they most recently moved had ‘reached a comfortable point of no return’. Their attachment to houses or cars, though sometimes intense, was always temporary. They were always passing through. Even Cedar Lodge, where they lived for 30 years, ‘did not belong to us ... we were there only on sufferance’. They once planted a rose garden, but they never learned how to care for the roses; most of them died ‘without either of us getting distressed about it’. They threw few things away, but only because ‘some of them might be useful sometime’. Only one object ever provoked lasting passion in Bayley: a beautiful silk scarf ‘hideously violated’ by two friends of Murdoch, who thoughtlessly used it to strain a reeking herring soup. In fact, it is not the scarf but the affront to Murdoch, and her not minding, that provoked Bayley’s fury: in her position, ‘I should have gone after the pair, murdered one or both of them, or at the very least cut as many of their possessions as I could find into ribbons, with a sharp knife.’ Strong words. As it is, more like Murdoch than he admits, he finds it difficult to be ‘more than barely civil’ to them.

‘Our bedroom habits,’ Bayley writes disarmingly, ‘were always peaceful and unbothered by considerations of better, or more.’ They reserved their passion for reading and writing, for paintings and for rivers. They spent long hours at work, and usually read during lunch. Those silent lunches – the two of them next to each other, but each in a separate world – seem to me a perfect image for their marriage, which Bayley describes in the words of the poet A.D. Hope as a process of moving ‘closer and closer apart’. What that means, I think, is the feeling that you don’t need to possess, or be possessed by, another person in order to feel you can depend on them absolutely. You can be the most important presence in their life although you are both important to others and others are important to you. You can keep something for yourself or another without betraying a trust – something private, but not secret. It is, as Bayley says, a kind of reassuring solitude ‘that precludes nothing outside the marriage, and sharpens the sense of possible intimacy with things or people in the outside world’. It acknowledges complexity without trying to master it: it is both respect and affection, the true companionship this book celebrates.

John Bayley fell in love with Iris Murdoch the first time he saw her, bicycling up the Woodstock Road, totally unaware that anyone was watching. ‘Perhaps I fell in love,’ he writes, but there is no ‘perhaps’ about it. ‘Certainly it was in the innocence of love,’ he continues, ‘that I indulged the momentary fantasy that nothing had ever happened to her: that she was simply bicycling about, waiting for me to arrive. She was not a woman with a past, and an unknown present.’

They were married three years later, but Bayley gets to the wedding by a long and winding route, one third of the way into the book, in a chapter that begins: ‘Rivers featured on our honeymoon.’ Rivers were as important in their life as they are to the narrative itself, which begins with Bayley and Murdoch, already stricken, swimming in a branch of the Thames near Oxford. Oppressed by the heat and depressed by their situation, Bayley immediately interrupts himself and recalls the day, 45 years before, when they first found what became one of their favourite spots. An equally lovely lunch had followed that swim, given by an admirer of Iris who did not allow Bayley’s presence to dampen his good mood and manners. The chapter then moves further back, to Bayley’s first glimpse of Iris, forward to their first meeting, on to their first conversation, and eventually to a dance at St Antony’s. It ends with Murdoch’s diary entry that night: ‘Fell down the steps, and seem to have fallen in love with J. We didn’t dance much.’ The second chapter returns to the sad present: Murdoch obstinately refuses to remove her socks before she enters the water. After a swift backward turn to another river, in Perth, we are carried forward again to the Thames: Bayley realises they will never swim there again.

Wandering in time, mixing present and past, this narrative of rivers is itself river-shaped. Its deep bends keep shifting direction, crossing the same terrain over and over again. It is the least direct, most roundabout way of getting anywhere. The structure of Bayley’s story bolsters the confidence his voice inspires. It is a true reflection of his sense, so central to the book, that, contrary to the complaint of Murdoch’s heroine in A Severed Head, neither sex, nor marriage, nor even life itself, needs to be ‘getting anywhere’: ‘we were happy for them to jog on just as they were.’

Iris is essentially a book of details, and so are the lives it describes. To combat Iris’s anxiety and his own depression, Bayley followed Sydney Smith’s advice: ‘take short views of human life – never further than dinner or tea.’ But something like that seems to have coloured everything the two of them did. That is not to deny their absolute seriousness, their total absorption in their work. It only suggests they took pleasure in immediate tasks: the particular book they were reading or writing, the specific painting they were looking at, the individual friends they were seeing, and not in some grand further project. Big plans are not part of their story, which has an innocent and childlike air. Bayley confirms it: ‘One reason why we fell in love, and got on so well, is that both of us have always been naive and innocent.’ Once again, Nietzsche comes to mind: ‘Maturity – consists in having found again the seriousness one had as a child, at play.’

Once even dinner and tea were beyond Iris Murdoch’s grasp, short views served them reasonably well. They joked and flirted, they kissed and embraced; but though ‘all this sounds quite merry. ... most days are in fact for her a sort of despair’. And also for Bayley. He doesn’t put it in those terms, of course, but increasingly he came to suspect that nothing remained in Murdoch’s mind, that in the last stages of her illness he may have known her completely. The gradual disappearance of the solitude on which their marriage was based filled him with dread.

      It was very different from the life we live today. It was like being alone, and yet we were not alone ... We were separate but never separated ... Now we are together for the first time. We have actually become, as is so often said of a happy married couple, inseparable.

      Every day we are physically closer ... She is not sailing into the dark: the voyage is over, and under the dark escort of Alzheimer’s she has arrived somewhere. So have I.

      Life is no longer bringing the pair of us ‘closer and closer apart’, in the poet’s ambiguously tender words. Every day we move closer and closer together. We could not do otherwise ... Purposefully, persistently, involuntarily, our marriage is now getting somewhere. It is giving us no choice: and I am glad of that.

Every element of their unusual marriage seemed to be drifting away. ‘I am glad of that’ is the one sentence in this whole book which seems impossible to believe. Perhaps Bayley meant that if Alzheimer’s consumed Murdoch’s mind completely she would no longer suffer, and that might be a source of relief. But I don’t think so. Bayley is right that ‘we are born to live only from day to day.’ Yet, even reading this book before Iris Murdoch’s death, I couldn’t help feeling that if she really arrived ‘somewhere’, she would have disappeared completely.

Sometimes when he lay in bed next to her, Bayley had a more complex vision, mixing present and past, surface and depth, ignorance and awareness:

It is wonderfully peaceful to sit in bed with Iris reassuringly asleep and gently snoring. Half asleep again myself I have a feeling of floating down the river, and watching all the rubbish from the house and from our lives – the good as well as the bad – sinking slowly down though the dark water until it is lost in the depths. Iris is floating or swimming quietly beside me. Weeds and larger leaves sway and stretch themselves beneath the surface. Blue dragonflies dart and hover to and fro by the river bank. And suddenly a kingfisher flashes past.

I hope their relationship remained to the end as it is here, and throughout most of this marvellous book, bright sparks illuminating its comfortable shadows. This would imply that John Bayley was never relieved of ‘the horrid wish, almost a compulsion at some moments, to show the other how bad things are. Force her to share the knowledge, relieve what seems my isolation ... make a savage comment.’ But also that Iris Murdoch could still mean what she said when, in response to such moments, she looked ‘relieved and intelligent’ and uttered the words: ‘But I love you.’