ELEGY FOR IRIS by John Bayley


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A sweet if somewhat old-fashioned memoir about a literary marriage. Bayley, author of the novel The Red Hat and a noted critic, met novelist and philosopher Dame Iris Murdoch (Jackson’s Dilemma, 1996, etc.) while he was teaching at Oxford’s St. Anthony’s College and instantly came under her sway. Though Murdoch was less quick to return his affection, she too fell in love after a delightfully disastrous date in which a well-advertised restaurant served them “nasty” food and Murdoch herself fell down some stairs on her way to the dance floor; these mishaps unearthed the couple’s deepest connection: a fine sense of humor, indeed, their joy in private jokes and laughs. In her time, Murdoch was a woman of unconventional intelligence and independence’she had a long string of lovers, did not want children, had an almost slovenly disregard for her appearance, and was in no hurry to get married, though she never seems to have doubted that Bayley should be the groom. Using flashbacks, Bayley lightens his accounts of Murdoch’s present disappearance into Alzheimer’s disease with happier memories of their long, comfortable life together, a life filled with trips, summer swims, and pleasure in books. Bayley clearly adores and admires his celebrated wife, and his care of her illness is a model of devotion. This unalloyed affection is refreshingly sweet, but too often his descriptions of Murdoch edge over into the saccharine—for him she is “Christ-like”—and the result is an unusual lack of insight into her abilities. Would the woman who never took any interest in children really have “looked after [her own child] better and more conscientiously than most mothers, and no doubt would have brought it up better, too”? Nonetheless, this seems an appropriate error for a loving husband to make, and the book’s intimate tone will surely please both his fans and hers. (6 b&w photos, not seen) (First serial to the New Yorker)

Pub Date: Jan. 25th, 1999
ISBN: 0-312-19864-7
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: St. Martin's
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 1998


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