Friday, January 23, 2015

John Bayley Dead at 89


I'm not going to lie and claim that I was much of aware of English critic and novelist John Bayley before I stumbled upon his memoir, Iris: A Memoir of Iris Murdoch, in which Bayley recounts the intimate details of his marriage and life with his more famous wife.  

I happened upon the book in a London bookstore in 1998 and, as I recall, I had read the whole thing within two days of having purchased it.  I was so struck by the utter modesty of the man as he downplayed his own achievements to focus the book almost entirely on his wife, that I came away from it a big admirer of John Bayley: the man, if not so much John Bayley: the critic.   Bayley was the lone caretaker for his wife as she went through the whole downward spiral that is Alzheimer's.  He was there for her from the very beginning...and he was there for her at the end.

Now comes word from the U.K. that John Bayley has died at age 89, and I cannot help but miss knowing that this gentle soul is no longer with us.  

All told, Bayley wrote three memoirs about Iris Murdoch, but I want to quote from the prologue of the last one, Iris and Her Friends: A Memoir of Memory and Desire, because of how perfectly the quote captures the tone of all three of the books:
I can hardly believe it's all over.  At the end it happened so quickly.  My diary says that Iris and I were together, struggling along in the particular way that an Alzheimer's patent and caregiver do, less than three weeks ago.
And then between one day and the next, it became all but impossible to get her to eat and drink.  I coaxed her in every way I could think of, but she seemed abruptly to have given up being a good, if sometimes difficult, child, and became a sadly determined adult.  Politely and smilingly, she declined to open her mouth to have a teaspoon or the edge of a cup put in, as if she had decided it was no longer worthwhile.
Iris Murdoch was a great writer and she had a brilliant mind. Perhaps I shouldn't, but I always feel that Alzheimer's is a greater tragedy for people like her to suffer than it would be for the rest of us more ordinary types (wrongheaded thinking, I know).   Iris was very lucky to have had a man like John Bayley in her life.  

Rest in peace, Mr.  Bayley.  You will be long remembered even by those of us who know you more for what you did for Iris Murdoch than what you accomplished during your own brilliant career as writer, critic, and teacher.

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