Elegy for Iris

Elegy for Iris John Bayley St. Martin's Press, $22.95, 275 pp.

From the mid-forties through 1994, Iris Murdoch wrote more than two dozen novels, at least three important philosophical works, plus literary criticism, poetry, reviews, and essays. A trained classicist who taught philosophy at Oxford, she spent much of her working life creating fictions that examined the intricacies of human relationships with the eye of the moral philosopher-not through strident judgment but through loving observation and attention. The past tense is appropriate, though an obituary is not yet in order. Murdoch has lost her memory and with it the power she once possessed to write masterly fictions and lucid philosophical works. A woman with the intellectual and creative energy to generate such an outpouring, she now writes nothing. She remembers nothing but the most simple phrase, and that for no more than a moment. She suffers from Alzheimer’s disease.
As poignant as her condition is, Elegy for Iris tells a story even more touching than the loss of her prodigous creative powers. Iris Murdoch is also John Bayley’s wife. More than a story of her-or of him-more than the story of her novels or his own literary works, or of her disease and his steadfastness in caring for her, this memoir is Bayley’s story of his forty-year marriage to Murdoch.

Whatever the nineteenth-century source for Tolstoy’s sentence opening Anna Karenina, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in...

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About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.