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A Memoir of Memory and Desire

by John Bayley

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-393-04856-X
Publisher: Norton

Sweet memories of the distant past are juxtaposed with present agonies as Bayley, a retired Oxford don, novelist, and critic, concludes the story of wife, Iris Murdoch’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease in this piercing follow-up to Elegy for Iris (1998). Unlike Elegy, which covered more of Bayley’s life with Murdoch, this memoir focuses on the terminal stage of Alzheimer’s—and the means of mental escape that caretakers devise for themselves lest they be consumed by isolation and regret. In harrowing detail, it traces the regression of Murdoch, one of the most brilliant novelists of the postwar period, to a childlike state—banging on windows, making cooing sounds while being fed by her husband, escaping from home, and confinement to a nursing home—before her death this past February. “As her condition worsens,” Bayley notes, “and our imprisonment becomes more complete, the compensations mount up—they have to.” Memory is one of the “friends” he gratefully seizes, with his mind roaming back to the days before his marriage: to childhood vacations at Littlestone-on-Sea, an English seaside resort; service as a lieutenant in WWII; a postwar flirtation with a young German woman and a romance with a former postulant; and his courtship of Murdoch. Bayley seems as forthright in detailing his own frustration as in chronicling Murdoch’s final days, describing his inner rage, suppressed violent impulses, psychic separation from the woman he has known for nearly a half-century, the impending loneliness he knows will follow her death, and his breakdown after more than five years of watching the disease. The scenes of Bayley’s youth and early manhood are not as vivid as Elegy’s recreation of the earlier kind, loving Murdoch, or of the friends and university life she shared with Bayley. This memoir successfully conveys, however, how mutual affection and respect solidify into a tenderness and commitment that cannot be sundered by adversity. A moving final tribute to the healing force of memory and the sustaining power of love.