The celebration of a life where it should be grim

On books

January 03, 1999|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

I have come to detest the genre that I think of as ``poor-pitiful-me'' books. Some are novels, some memoirs, occasionally collections of short fiction. There's poetry, too. But you know what I mean. Little substantial literature is unremittingly cheery. But enduring art generally has a spine of redemption, an affirmation of the indomitability of human life. That's rejected by today's victimhood culture.

So, it is joy to find a book that - without a hint of sentimentality - treats hopelessly sad things in a manner that celebrates eternal human verity. Such a book, wondrously so, is ``Elegy for Iris,'' by John Bayley (St. Martin's, 275 pages, $22.95). Bayley is the husband of Iris Murdoch, and has been for more than 40 years.

Murdoch, an internationally important scholar of philosophy, has 26 published novels, as well as a significant body of scholarship, plays, essays and other nonfiction. Her novels - millions of people have their Murdoch favorites and mine is ``The Black Prince'' - are intricate, accessible, rich, important.

Hers is one of the most fertile and productive brains of the second half of the 20th century. Five years ago, when she was 74 and writing her last novel, that organ began to atrophy irreparably with Alzheimer's disease.

Bayley is a prominent Oxford English literature scholar and a novelist as well. Since the onset of Alzheimer's, he has taken care of Murdoch entirely on his own, with no outside nursing care.

Bayley was 28 and Murdoch 34, in the 1950s, when he fell in love with her. They were both at Oxford, where they remained on and off through their lives, and are today. It was the first and only time, Bayley says, that he ever fell in love.

Soon, still seemingly strangers, they went to a dance at St. Anthony's, Bayley's Oxford college. More than 40 years later, going through her papers for material needed by her publisher, Bayley writes, he found ``one entry, dated June 3, 1954, [which] read 'St. Anthony's Dance. Fell down the steps, and seem to have fallen in love with J. We didn't dance much.'' Nor did they much later, but they were in love for life.

Bayley writes of that earliest closeness in quick counterpoint with moments of the present, of Alzheimer's disease. That could - actually should - be genuinely depressing, except for the dauntless, uncomplaining, lyric fact of Bayley's love.

A wonderfully literate man, of course, Bayley clarifies his observations often with quotes from novels or poetry. He finds aspects of their life - their ``closeness of apartness'' - in images from Jane Austen, Henry James, William Faulkner, the ancient Greeks. This gives the book a quality of attentive conversation in the most intelligent sense of that process of intimacy.

Bayley is an intent and perceptive observer. His accounts of their marriage, and of Murdoch's life both within and outside it, are concise, precise and wonderfully revealing. Yet throughout more than 40 years, Murdoch remains quite mysterious, working alone, though nearby, depending on intense individual friendships.

Bayley treats her solitude or inscrutability with profound affection; there never seemed to be a moment in which he felt painfully excluded. The effect is to keep Murdoch tantalizing.

Throughout, there are lovely little snapshots of women and men passing through their lives: Elizabeth Bowen, Honor Tracy, Isaiah Berlin, J. B. Priestley, Stephen and Natasha Spender, others.

I wonder if any outsider can understand the maddening experience of living with someone suffering from Alzheimer's. Imagine an incoherent person who nonetheless appears susceptible to anxiety, to humor, to something like real communication, a person who can safely swim, but who cannot remember how to dress, or to bathe. Who speaks, but whose words have no comprehensible meaning.

His most telling description of the disease, to me anyway, is this: ``This terror of being alone, of being cut off for even a few seconds from the familiar object, is a feature of Alzheimer's. If Iris could climb inside my skin now, or enter me as if I had a pouch like a kangaroo, she would do so. She has no awareness of what I am doing, only an awareness of what I am.''

Since the essence of their remarkable marriage was to be simultaneously entirely together and entirely separate, Murdoch's affliction imposed more dramatic change than that disease might in other relationships.

It is the loss of that ``closeness of apartness'' that becomes the core of Bayley's consciousness when Murdoch's brain succumbs completely to atrophy.

``Now we are together for the first time,'' he writes. ``We have actually become, as is often said of a happy married couple, inseparable - in a way, like Ovid's Baucis and Philemon, whom the gods gave the gift of growing old together as trees. It is a way of life that is unfamiliar. The closeness of apartness has necessarily become the closeness of closeness. And we know nothing of it; we have never had any practice.''

The latter half of the book, titled ``Now'' in contrast to the preceding ``Then,'' is comprised of brief diary entries, the first of them January 1, 1997. They are the story of what has happened to Murdoch since the onset of Alzheimer's.

A two-paragraph item, ``March 30, 1997,'' ends: ``I make a savage comment today about the grimness of our outlook. Iris looks relieved and intelligent. She says, 'But I love you.'''

It was far from the only point in this magnificently, hauntingly humane book that I had to stop reading to clear my eyes of tears. Magically, at its last page, I was quite certain that the world and its inhabitants are lovelier than I had known before.

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