The book bears a very odd subtitle: A Study in Bereavement (or How Margot and Mella Forced Me to Flee my Home). Much of it, of course, is about being suddenly alone (after a 44 year marriage).
A lot of the book—the least successful parts, to my mind—are about Bayley’s fending off (or failing to) two particularly ardent female friends (Margot and Mella) who want to care for him in his new aloneness (one of them, Mella, cares for him right up to the point of taking him to bed—an event to which Bayley gamely accedes, albeit without much enthusiasm). “I had wanted the period following Iris’s death to be an especially quiet one,” Bayley writes, about a third of the way into the book. “It had not been…”
Here are the book’s arresting first sentences:
“Now do eat it while it’s nice and hot, ordered Margot, putting a large lump of casserole onto my plate.
I have always disliked casseroles. During our forty-four years of married life Iris and I never made a casserole. Nor did we ever eat one, except under duress, if we were guests at a dinner party.
I was tempted to say rudely that I would rather eat it nice and cold. Instead I found myself rapidly picking the largest lump off the plate—Margot at the stove had her back to me—and stuffing it into my trouser pocket.”
Clearly the book is off to a ripping start. And already, at this point, I’m beginning to feel that I have clearly been misjudging John Bayley as a writer, relegating him to the status of rather elfin, unkempt, sweetly bumbling old Oxford don. This is not a book by a bumbling elfin don. In fact, it is often a rather cruel book. And bleakly funny.
And somehow, in writing about the year that followed Iris Murdoch’s death, the book almost inadvertently becomes—especially in the long middle portion around which Margot and Mella hover like parentheses) an unforgettably intimate look at the way it is when you live with and care for an Alzheimer’s sufferer: “This morning, I went down to the kitchen at six o’clock, as I always used to do when she was in the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease. I made a cup of tea, a weak green tea, to which I had first become addicted in the early hours of the morning when Iris used to wander about downstairs, talking to herself, piling up rubbish , cutlery, cushions bits uf clothing ….”
The sadness of the book is almost burdensome with unabsolvable grief and fictive absence: “Iris did sit now and again in the garden chair I got for her, but not very often. I had a slight qualm when I saw her sitting outside with her exercise book and fountain pen. She looked thoughtful, but not in a good sense. She seemed to be wondering what was happening to her, and finding it something quite outside her experience….”
This beautiful book has of course sent me back to Murdoch’s novels. I’m reading The Flight from the Enchanter now, and will soon thereafter turn to The Bell and The Sandcastle.