I seem all of a sudden to be suffering from a personality problem – some sort of emotion deficiency disorder. Catching sight on the TV news of Professor John Bayley and Dame Judi Dench at the premiere of the film Iris, for example, provoked in me strangely powerful feelings of gloom and irritation.
Why is this? Any normal person would see that uniting these two public figures, each in their way a national treasure, in a film about a great writer which show-cases other wonderful home-grown talents – Richard Eyre, Kate Winslet, Jim Broadbent – should be a cause for rejoicing. They say that the professor's books will now be bestsellers, that Dame Judi's performance as Iris Murdoch, succumbing to the ravages of Alzheimer's disease, might win her an Oscar. All in all, it is a great British triumph.
Yet, however hard I try, I find the idea of going to see Iris tempts me even less than reading the books on which it is based. Doubtless Winslet acting the wild intellectual, Jim Broadbent the romantically inept academic, Judi Dench in helpless deterioration, will all be affecting in their way, and the attitude of the stars has been suitably modest. "She was far more intelligent than me and I could never have written those novels," Kate sportingly admitted. According to Broadbent, this is "a grown-up film – something for which the British are renowned."
As for John Bayley, whose books on the last years of his wife have been praised by critics whom I trust, his verdict on the film was unambiguous. "Iris would have approved," he told reporters.
Would she? And how could anyone, even the man who knew her best in the world, have known that? Before she became ill, Iris Murdoch was notably unwilling to play the publicity game of which publishers and journalists are so fond. For her, as for any serious writer, it was what she wrote, not how she lived, that mattered.
Yet, with every new detail of those terrible, undignified last years, and now with every viewer of Iris, the power of Murdoch's novels fades, or rather becomes contaminated by the image of the author in final state of infantilised vulnerability.
Who now can read Under the Net or The Black Prince with any degree of literary purity, without an awareness of what eventually would become of all that brilliance and wit? Because, in a reality-obsessed age, no fiction can compete against the seductive power of a life intimately exposed, one the 20th century's most considerable novelists has been transformed into our most famous Alzheimer's victim.
Clearly, John Bayley did not write about his wife's illness in any spirit of ambition or cynicism. As it is for many people, writing was therapy for him. It just so happened that what he wrote appealed to the morbidly curious public taste of the moment.
The question is whether turning those books into a bittersweet love story for the silver screen is the best or kindest way to commemorate Iris Murdoch. After all, if the British are renowned for being grown-up, so are we also celebrated for a certain mawkishness when it comes to matters of love and family.
Over the past few years, childhood has become weirdly sentimentalised – last week, none other than Fay Weldon was bemoaning the assault on young innocence that a Disney remake of Cinderella would cause. Now, it appears, it is the turn of the old folks to get the saccharine treatment, and there is something patronising and reductive about the process.
Perhaps Iris will start a trend. Early in January, a distinguished American admiral and his wife, both in their late eighties, committed suicide together, an act described by one of their daughters as "quite a romantic thing". Maybe, even now, the phones are ringing in Tinseltown as Hollywood gears up for the next, tear-drenched wrinkle-pic.Reuse content