Apr 18, 2008

Elegy for Iris by John Bayley

Novelist and literary critic John Bayley had been married to author Iris Murdoch for forty years when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Elegy for Iris is his account of not only what it was like to witness her illness, but of a whole lifetime spent together.

I had been interested in reading this book ever since watching the movie Iris, starring Kate Winslet and Judi Dench. I was, however, slightly confused about which book to get, because John Bayley has written several books about his wife. The fact that this was the only one available on BookMooch at the time solved my dilemma, and it turned out to be the one I was looking for. There were several passages I recognized from the movie, and a lot of the dialogue was the exact same. It’s funny, because as I was reading the book I kept thinking it was a difficult one to adapt into a movie, and yet I knew that it had been done, and done quite splendidly at that. This was one of the rare cases in which reading the book increased my appreciation for the movie.

Elegy for Iris is not as depressing as you would expect a book about someone’s spouse suffering from Alzheimer’s to be. But this doesn’t mean that it’s not immensely touching. It's also a warm, gentle, intimate, and even humorous book. A lot of it focuses on John Bayley and Iris Murdoch’s life together before her illness, on how they first met in Oxford in the 1950's, on what drew them to each other, on what they shared and what they kept to themselves. The result is one of the tenderest accounts of love and marriage I have ever encountered. John Bayley’s concept of a perfect relationship is very close to my own:
So married life began. And the joys of solitude. No contradiction was involved. The one went perfectly with the other. To feel oneself held and cherished, and yet to be alone. To be closely and physically entwined, and yet feel solitude’s friendly presence, as warm and undesolating as contiguity itself.
Iris Murdoch was a fascinating woman, and I loved reading about her. This book will appeal to book lovers on a whole other level as well: it’s full of references to writing and reading, to novels (from The Lord of the Rings and Alice in Wonderland to Proust, all of which were among Iris' favourites) and poems, to other writers Iris was friends with, to the origins of some of her own work.

On top of everything, the book is exquisitely written. Bayley’s love for his wife is an almost palpable presence behind every word. And it’s there even during his darkest moments, even when he’s dominated by rage and loneliness and despair:
...the horrid wish, almost a compulsion at some moments, to show the other how bad things are. Force her to share the knowledge, relieve what seems my isolation. I make a savage comment today about the grimness of our outlook. Iris looks relieved and intelligent. She says, 'But I love you.
What this book felt like to me was one of those moments in which you take a deep breath and enjoy a little peace before you have to face the unavoidable. A moment of tranquillity before facing what will come. "We are born to live from day to day," Bayley says at the end of the book. And before his loss inevitably comes, this is what he does.
It is wonderfully peaceful to sit in bed with Iris reassuringly asleep and gently snoring. Half asleep again myself, I have a feeling of floating down the river, and watching all the rubbish from the house and from our lives – the good as well as the bad – sinking slowly down through the dark water until it is lost in the depths. Iris is floating or swimming quietly beside me. Weeds and larger leaves sway and stretch themselves beneath the surface. Blue dragonflies dart and hover to and fro by the riverbank. And suddenly, a kingfisher flashes past.


  1. This book sounds utterly amazing, Nymeth! I have never felt so emotionally moved by a book until now. Thank you for sharing such a treasure.

  2. I have read no non-fiction this year and don't have any planned which is rubbish of me. I keep meaning to watch the film of this but haven't gotten around to it yet. I think I will wait until I see the film to read the book, I find it just works better for me that way. I am not sure if I am ready just yet as they are pretty sure my gran has Alzheimer’s and is quite far gone sadly.

  3. Orchidus: This one really moved me a lot. I hope you like it as much as I did. It really is a very emotional book.

    Rhinoa: I'm so sorry to hear about your gran :( Do watch the movie first...it's what I did as well. It's an excellent adaptation. And I find that it works better for me that way too...otherwise I tend to judge the movie too harshly.

  4. I have this one stashed away. Bought it right after I saw the movie a number of years ago. Thanks for the push to bump it up on my list.

  5. This sounds like a very good book. I watched "Away from Her" recently, which is also about Alzheimer's and it was a very good, moving, and sad movie. Thanks for the recommendation!

  6. Andi: The movie is wonderful, isn't it? It left such a deep impression on me.

    Kim: I've been really wanting to watch that one...I read the Alice Munro short story it's based on a while ago and I loved it.

  7. I often read books and think--how could this be turned into a movie. I don't think I got the creative-think outside of the box gene because most times I have a hard time imagining how to pull the magic of books together.

    I haven't heard of this one, but I remember the movie a few years back (also haven't seen). Sounds intriguing--especially from the husband's perspective.

  8. Hi Nymeth :)

    What is your alias on BookMooch, would like to brouse your books and mooch some ;),
    Have a nice week-end

  9. Trish: I have a hard time imagining it too. In this case it was particularly hard, because the power of the book depends on Bayley's first person account of events, on the tenderness with which he writes about his wife. And yet somehow they manage to give the movie the very same emotional tone. I really admire the people who are capable of doing that.

    Madeleine: It's the same as here, Nymeth. I'm afraid that the great majority of the books in my inventory are in Portuguese, though.

  10. I'm not familiar with either the book or the movie, but now really want to add both to the wish list. Your review was beautiful...I so love the quotes you chose. It just sounds like such an emotionally touching story.

  11. This book sounds really moving. I've only read one book by Iris Murdoch and have never got around to seeing the film for some reason. Must do so, plus I love Dame Judi.

  12. I do not speak portuguese. Thank-you so.

  13. Debi: I recommend the movie as highly as the book...both are beautiful and very touching.

    Tanabata: Judi Dench's performance as Iris Murdoch is extraordinary. I have never read any of Murdoch's books, but I really really want to. She sounds so insightful and intelligent and unpretentious at the same time.

    Madeleine: I assumed as much :P Most of my books are on BookMooch exactly because I had translations that I am slowly but surely replacing with original versions.


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