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.

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