“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.”

“Ragged, Inglorious, and Apparently Purposeless”: Iris Murdoch, Under the Net


Like a fish which swims calmly in deep water, I felt all about me the secure supporting pressure of my own life. Ragged, inglorious, and apparently purposeless, but my own.

In the very last chapter of Under the Net, I finally arrived at a passage that was the kind of writing I’d expected from Iris Murdoch:

Events stream past us like these crowds and the face of each is seen only for a minute. What is urgent is not urgent forever but only ephemerally. All work and all love, the search for wealth and fame, the search for truth, life itself, are made up of moments which pass and become nothing. Yet through this shaft of nothings we drive onward with that miraculous vitality that creates our precarious habitations in the past and the future. So we live; a spirit that broods and hovers over the continual death of time, the lost meaning, the unrecaptured moment, the unremembered face, until the final chop chop that ends all our moments and plunges that spirit back into the void from which it came.

OK, “the final chop chop” is unexpectedly colloquial, but overall this is more or less what I thought a “philosophical novelist” would sound like, or write about.

I’m not sorry Under the Net was not like that all the way through. In fact, I’m thrilled and relieved that it wasn’t, because imagine how dreary and pretentious it would have been! I am sorry, though, that I had so little understanding in advance of what Under the Net actually is like, or is about, because most of the time while I was reading it I felt quite adrift — not in an angrily puzzled way, but in an off-balance, faintly delirious way. I could tell that the novel was some kind of kunstlerroman — that Jake was somehow becoming something more or other, especially as a writer, than he was at the start. It felt like a quest plot, too, though a strangely erratic one, as Jake rushed off in one direction and then another, each time quite sure of what he was doing but rarely of exactly why or to what larger end. “There was a path which awaited me,” Jake says at one point, “and which if I failed to take it would lie untrodden forever.” His challenge, and thus our challenge, is first to discern it, and then to follow it.

For a while I concluded that the aimlessness, the fits and starts, were themselves the point: that Jake’s peripatetic misadventures stood in for a vision of life as itself without direction or purpose. I’m still not entirely sure that’s not the point — but at the end of the novel there’s a sense, not of everything coming together into a shapely unity, but of Jake gathering up the loose ends and preparing to make something more out of them. If I’d read the Introduction first, rather than last, I would have  seen this coming. Instead, the Introduction confirmed it for me: “In a nutshell,” says Kiernan Ryan helpfully, “Under the Net is Jake Donaghue’s account of how he became the writer who wrote Under the Net.” Aha! Although where, in Under the Net itself, qua novel, is the evidence of that slow-growing self-awareness and control? Maybe that’s to imagine Jake becoming a different kind of writer — the kind Pip is, for instance, in Great Expectations, one who infuses the story of his past inadequacies with the wisdom they helped him acquire. Maybe Jake has not acquired any wisdom, or maybe he doesn’t believe in art with such a moralizing bent. Ryan notes the novel’s affinity with a literary tradition I don’t know well at all: “the French surrealist Raymond Queneau, to whom the novel is dedicated, and the novels of Samel Beckett,” for instance. My disorientation arose, that suggests, from my associating the idea of a “philosophical novelist” with a different tradition — with George Eliot and Henry James, for instance, not just in their realism and moral seriousness but in their overt designs on their readers. What in either of them could have prepared me for the Marvellous Mister Mars?

Ryan’s introduction points out a whole range of things that I really didn’t grasp about Under the Net and philosophy — or as philosophy. If I reread Under the Net, I would try to focus on the meanings he sets out for its motley array of characters and its bizarre, seemingly haphazard events. That would be the way to a good reading of the novel, or at least a better one than I managed this time. In my defense, though, I don’t think that happy confusion is an illegitimate first response to Under the Net. Murdoch’s choice of an unaware first-person narrator means that we are necessarily in a different position than we are with Eliot or James: short-sighted or deluded where he is, hampered by his limitations of perception and insight. This doesn’t mean we can’t tell when he’s screwing up, but it does make it more of a pleasant surprise when he arrives at some self-knowledge, as when it occurs to him that his former lover Anna “really existed now as a separate being and not as part of myself”:

Anna was something which had to be learnt afresh. When does one ever know a human being? Perhaps only after one has realized the impossibility of knowledge and renounced the desire for it and finally ceased to feel even the need of it. But then what one achieves is no longer knowledge, it is simply a kind of co-existence; and this too is one of the guises of love.

There he goes again, being philosohical! And this, too, is near the end of the book, so it feels like somewhere Jake has arrived after some effort. The puzzle of Under the Net is how exactly he figured this out — and also how seriously we are  supposed to take it, given how bad Jake’s understanding of himself, of others, of life, has been up to this point. It feels more like a revelation than like any form of Bildung, and simply happening upon a significant idea is not a particularly philosophical method.

I could quote more of the introduction about how this all actual reflects “the fundamental wisdom that suffuses Iris Murdoch’s fiction,” and how the novel is “the imaginative embodiment of Murdoch’s artistic creed,” but that would be to borrow someone else’s comprehension as a mask for my own ongoing bemusement. Under the Net is the first Murdoch I’ve read. Maybe the pieces will fall into place as I read more! In the meantime, I look forward to my book club’s discussion tomorrow.