Sickbed Secrets Revealed-And a Wife’s Trust Betrayed?

Elegy for Iris: A Memoir , by John Bayley. St. Martin’s Press, 276 pages, $22.95.

My sister and I have a pact. If either one of us falls into a coma or is otherwise incapacitated, the other will step in to pluck her eyebrows and the occasional chin hair and to make sure her teeth are clean. We don’t plan to broadcast our efforts, and we’ve sworn to squelch family discussion of our droolings and twitchings and the contents of our diapers. (Perhaps you have to have a family capable of such discussion to feel how we clutch at this resolution.) Call it vanity. Or dignity.

Although there are many beautiful, touching passages in John Bayley’s memoir of his wife Iris Murdoch, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1994, I am left with the impression that Mr. Bayley has, in some way, betrayed an unspoken trust. He doesn’t air the contents of her diapers, but he takes his reader placidly through the indignities of Ms. Murdoch’s day, which once began with her settling at the typewriter soon after 7 but now begins with prolonged, heavy sleep and culminates in her avid watching of Teletubbies . There are several references to Ms. Murdoch’s underpants, which it is now Mr. Bayley’s chore to pull on and remove, as best he can, while she struggles with him vaguely. The garments function almost as a leitmotif, and underscore her loss of control over her own body.

Admirers of Ms. Murdoch’s remarkable novels will still find this an engaging, even compelling account of a rather private writer. It is refreshing, though no surprise, to learn that Ms. Murdoch never read reviews of her books or gave a thought to her literary stature. When her husband, a teacher and critic, brought up aspects of her novels in conversation, she would listen to his views with polite disinterest, as if the reception of her books bore only a faint relation to their composition. “You’re the critic,” she would reply, smiling kindly. She did respond to letters from her readers, though, typing long and thoughtful answers to their questions, a task which has also now fallen to her husband. His disclosures of the sources for some of the characters and events in Ms. Murdoch’s novels are among the best parts of this book.

Equable, affectionate, somewhat disengaged, Ms. Murdoch was never a cooking, cleaning sort of wife. Mr. Bayley remarks, with relief, that she never wanted to look after him: “[I]ndeed, one of the pleasures of living with Iris was her serenely benevolent unawareness of one’s daily welfare.” Another pleasure of their marriage was solitude, an apartness “that is part of the closeness, perhaps a recognition of it; certainly a pledge of complete understanding.” The theme of Mr. Bayley’s memoir is the loss of this separateness that had characterized their union. Their solitude, rather than the actual presence of his wife, is what he memorializes. For although “Iris Murdoch” is gone, Mr. Bayley is left with a benign companion, shuffling from room to room, repeating anxious, enigmatic queries, and trembling at his absence.

And yet, as he describes her, the Iris of the present bears a striking resemblance to the Iris of the past. She and Mr. Bayley met at Oxford in 1954, a few months before her first novel, Under the Net , was published. She was then teaching philosophy at St. Anne’s College. Catching sight of her on her bicycle, in her shapeless macintosh, Mr. Bayley idealized her as “pure spirit … leading a nunlike existence in her little room in college.” He recounts his subsequent alarm, when he arrived for their first date, to find her girlishly arrayed “in a sort of flame-colored brocade,” with a lather of unappealing lipstick on her mouth. They fell in love that night.

The passage from friendship to romance was marked by “endless, childish chatter.” “We rambled on and on,” he recalls, “seeming to invent on the spot, and as we talked, a whole infantile language of our own.” So serious was Ms. Murdoch’s usual demeanor that Mr. Bayley relieved his jealousy of her friends and suitors–she seemed “deeply and privately attached to them all”–with the knowledge that she could not share with them this nursery language of jokes and songs.

Although not a helpful conversationalist, Ms. Murdoch was much sought-after as a friend, disseminating around her “what seemed an involuntary aura of beneficence and good will.” The interest in Buddhism evident in her later novels appears to follow from these personality traits, as does her untroubled reluctance, in the end, to commit herself to any one religion or philosophy. Yet there is more to her placid nature than this gentle inwardness. Ms. Murdoch once told her husband that the question of identity always puzzled her: “She thought she herself hardly possessed such a thing, whatever it was. I said that she must know what it was like to be oneself … as a secret and separate person–a person unknown to any other. She smiled, was amused, looked uncomprehending.”

More than once, with this revelation in mind, Mr. Bayley suggests that Alzheimer’s is not such a terrible fate for Ms. Murdoch. Rather than obliterating a sparkling and defiant personality, the disease seems chiefly to exaggerate what he calls her “natural goodness”: “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.”

This is a sad and loving reflection, but it can be read as the ultimate diaper-airing. For Mr. Bayley’s portrayal of his wife is rooted in the present. He even remarks at one point that he seems to have lost his memory, as well, and that he can hardly recall his wife as she was before the illness. What he remembers best, it is clear, is their simple, childish fun. These memories help him link the vacant figure before him with the woman he married, so that his physical care for her, washing and dressing and putting to bed, seems to find a comforting basis in the past.

Yet his need to find continuity in his wife’s personality before and after the illness has made him emphasize her blandness, her long silences, her “goodness.” And he presents her, from the beginning of the book, in her current diminished condition, so that the reader, too, cannot picture her as any different. Each of his later descriptions of their trips together, or their conversations, is overpowered by his images of her arranging bits of trash around the house and refusing to be undressed for her bath, as if she showed, even as a young woman, a sort of latent Alzheimer’s.

As the first significant biography of Iris Murdoch, from the person closest to her, Mr. Bayley’s account will weigh heavily in subsequent books about her. The final five or six years of her life may come to epitomize certain character traits, certain tendencies in her novels. But this is a sickbed memoir, grossly limited and limiting. While Mr. Bayley offers an intimate view of his senile wife, he cannot offer a portrait of a brilliant and esteemed writer–the Iris, presumably, for whom one would write an elegy.