“Sailing Into the Darkness”: John Bayley, Elegy for Iris


Twice, Iris has said to Peter Conradi that she now feels that she is “sailing into the darkness.” It was when he asked her, gently, about her writing. Such a phrase might be said to indicate the sort of inner knowledge that I had in mind. It seems to convey a terrible lucidity about what is going on. . . .

Every day, we are physically closer; and Iris’s little ‘mouse cry,’ as I think of it, signifying loneliness in the next room, the wish to be back beside me, seems less and less forlorn, more simple, more natural. She is not sailing into the dark. The voyage is over, and under the dark escort of Alzheimer’s, she has arrived somewhere. So have I.

Elegy for Iris is a strange book, at once rambling and inexorable, solipsistic and generous, celebratory and poignant. It’s Bayley’s tribute to his wife, but it’s also, inevitably, as much his story, and he’s not always a very likable guy. In fact, he often comes across as a bit of a stodgy old fart (a description I’m not sure he would necessarily have disavowed). One of the main reasons it’s hard to like him, though, is that he’s not always very nice about or to Iris. Yet it was actually when his behavior to her was least admirable that I found myself liking his book the most, because the moments of painful, shameful honesty (“The rage was instant and total, seeming to come out of nowhere. ‘I told you not to. I told you not to.’ In those moments of savagery, neither of us has the slightest idea to what I am referring”) admit both the real difficulty of their situation, and offset the possibility that he himself would emerge the hero of the book. He’s no saint: he just loves his wife and sticks — doggedly, affectionately, imperfectly — to his commitment to her.

One of the most interesting aspects of Elegy for Iris, I thought, was actually how he views their marriage. For him, a good marriage is a condition of being alone though together: “the apartness is part of the closeness,” he says, “perhaps a recognition of it.” “The solitude I have enjoyed in marriage,” he explains,

and, I think, Iris too, is a little like having a walk by oneself and knowing that tomorrow, or soon, one will be sharing it with the other, or, equally perhaps, again, having it alone. It is also a solitude that precludes nothing outside the marriage, and sharpens the sense of possible intimacy with things or people in the outside world.

“So married life began,” he reports of their wedding,

And the joys of solitude. No contradiction was involved. The one went perfectly with the other. To feel oneself held and cherished and accompanied, and yet to be alone. To be closely and physically entwined, and yet feel solitude’s friendly presence, as warm and undesolating as contiguity itself.

“Apartness in marriage,” he says a bit later, “is a state of love, and not a function of distance, or preference, or practicality.” This seems to me a fairly unconventional idea(l) of marriage, nowadays at least. I liked the freedom it suggests — the priority it implicitly places on letting each partner simply be, and be different, rather than obsessing over being together or being the same. It certainly seems to have been the right idea for John and Iris, and it also seems to have prepared them — or John, at least — for the unexpected variety of apartness inflicted on them by Iris’s Alzheimer’s. As he tells it, she was always somewhat elusive to him, always ineluctably other. The disease painfully perfects the mystery, and yet seems, somehow, to leave their union intact.

Elegy for Iris is full of interesting bits and pieces: reflections on Iris’s novels, for instance, and her relationships with other novelists and philosophers; comments on art and artists, including the Canadian painter Alex Colville, whose work she greatly admired; descriptions of their peculiar and somewhat disturbing housekeeping methods, which basically consist of “letting things go” (“a principle which we had once followed almost unconsciously, [but which] was now asserting itself as a positive force”); many scenes of swimming, a cherished shared pleasure. Inevitably, though, these snippets of a life fully lived are overshadowed by our knowledge, and his portrayal, of Iris’s mental decline. Always gentle, she seems to get softer and softer as the disease encroaches, puttering confusedly or anxiously but never angrily — that’s for him to feel. In her prime she had, he says, “Christ-like qualities of tolerance, amusement, and good nature.” This unworldly, or other-worldly, Iris becomes the child-like Iris who watches Teletubbies with rapt fascination: “They trot about, not doing anything much, but while they are there, Iris looks happy, even concentrated.” That’s terribly sad, though she isn’t, which may itself be the hardest and strangest thing about this voyage of hers “into the darkness.”

3 thoughts on ““Sailing Into the Darkness”: John Bayley, Elegy for Iris

  1. D.Reynolds August 10, 2015 / 5:08 pm

    Iris was the only person I’ve read who both had many interesting and original philosophical thoughts and wrote a superb novel, The Sea The Sea, that I found enticingly re-readable, occasioning as much wonder as the first time I read it, and is a favorite of mine. A contemporary, Sartre, of course, wrote with some accomplishment in both areas, but neither with her deep understanding nor humanity. Thank you for your review, in which I learned some about her marriage and character, and which , like all good criticism, will return me to reread and rethink her work.


    • Rohan August 11, 2015 / 10:38 am

      Thanks for your comment! I have to admit that I started The Sea, The Sea before Elegy for Iris as I wanted to have a better sense of Murdoch’s fiction — and I ended up putting it aside, for now anyway. It’s not that I didn’t like it or think that it was well-written, but somehow I wasn’t connecting with it. I felt too much impatience with it — along the lines of “not another egocentric middle-aged man and his problems!” I think it might just be the wrong time for me to read it. I’m definitely still interested in getting more familiar with her fiction, but maybe I have to work my way up to The Sea, The Sea.


      • dollymix September 8, 2015 / 2:46 pm

        While I don’t want to give too much away (and I’m not sure it would count as giving something away), I think the novel itself pokes a lot of holes in “the egocentric middle-aged man and his problems”. (I tend to react negatively to this type of book, but I love TSTS.) Suffice it to say that Arrowby should not, I think, be taken as an entirely reliable narrator.


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