Books: The book of loving and forgetting

Iris and the Friends: A Year of Memories by John Bayley Duckworth pounds 16.95
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The Independent Culture
Iris Murdoch's death from Alzheimer's disease earlier this year has become almost as fascinating as her work - and it has seized our imagination in part because it stands in such ghastly contrast to the work.

It's impossible not to be affected by the idea that the woman who wrote Under the Net and A Severed Head and The Sea, The Sea, who dominated British fiction for 30 years and altered the landscape of modern philosophy with Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals ended up unable to remember her name, let alone read a book.

"She hardly eats now unless I spoon it gently into her mouth," her husband John Bayley tells us in this moving memoir of the final year of Murdoch's life, "Baked beans, icecream. She makes crooning and glugging noises."

And I stop reading and reflect again that this person once wrote a wonderfully articulate introduction to Jean-Paul Sartre (Sartre; Romantic Rationalist) and explained that: "A philosophy cannot be a total system because the world is contingent and infinitely various."

It is as well to admit the ghoulish side of our interest in Murdoch's decline and death, though ghoulish doesn't always have to mean cheap or fruitless. Rather like looking at a car crash, there are more or less profound ways of staring at horror. We can gaze at a collision of two cars in order to help us feel the unexpectedness of death and the fragility of what we hold dear. We can contrast Murdoch at the height of her mental powers with her final years and understand the cruel subservience of our minds to our fickle and frail bodies.

This is the second book that John Bayley has written about Murdoch, and is a companion to last year's best-seller, Iris: A Memoir. It is a compliment to this book to say that it doesn't read like a book; that is, it is entirely without the formality, the self-consciousness and slight artificiality that renders so many memoirs dull. And the reason is that Bayley has clearly (and avowedly) been driven to write from pain. The death of his wife has removed all inhibitions; he is speaking plainly to us, without caring what we think. As Janis Joplin well knew, freedom is nothing left to lose.

A few years ago, I remember seeing a photo of Bayley and Murdoch's kitchen in their house in north Oxford. It was unbelievably disordered, but full of lovely things - which is rather what Bayley's book is like. Iris and the Friends mixes an account of the last year of Murdoch's life with Bayley's own memories of his past.

He explains that he began to think about his earlier self as a way of escaping the loneliness of living in a house with someone who could not talk to or understand him. While Murdoch was forgetting everything about herself, Bayley was starting to remember himself.

His life makes for fascinating, if wholly undramatic reading. Most of the anecdotes in the book are told at Bayley's expense, and present him as a bumbling, impractical but loveable figure. He was born in 1925 into a stiff upper-middle- class family, and went through the typical experiences of someone of his temperament and class - humiliations at boarding school, bungled attempts to get girls into bed, eye-opening service during the Second World War, a failed attempt to write a novel, then a drift into academia. We hear of an unconsummated love affair with a plump German girl, Hannelore, just after the war, and another with a porcelain restorer whom Bayley met after reading a poem of hers called "Evening Primrose" in the now defunct magazine The Countryman. Many of the anecdotes read like stories by Barbara Pym (whose work Bayley championed).

The book is affecting throughout, but perhaps the finest passages are where Bayley describes the ambivalence that he felt for his wife in the final year: "Hardly a day goes by without my flying into a brief frenzy, shouting at Iris, or saying in level tones something like: 'I don't know what to do with you - you exhaust me so much.' Or sometimes saying, with a reassuring smile, 'Have you any idea how much I hate you?'" The difficulty of looking after Murdoch without assistance must have been immense. Bayley stoically describes the nightly struggle of putting her to bed, and her repeated flights from the house in the early hours.

On the way back from a funeral, Murdoch jumped out of the car in the middle of a country road. Afterwards, Bayley writes that he felt, "for the first time since we met, nearly fifty years ago, afraid to be alone with her. I had found myself alone with a mad woman."

But the image of the mad woman is not what lingers in the mind on finishing the book; rather it is the image of Bayley's love for Murdoch. Just as he did with Iris: A memoir, the bereaved husband has written a very eccentric and extraordinarily touching love story.