26 SEPTEMBER 1998, Page 38

In sickness and in health

Anthony Quinton

IRIS by John Bayley Duckworth, £16.95, pp. 189 Atheme that comes up in a number of Iris Murdoch's novels is that of the destruction of some treasured object: Bruno's stamps in Bruno's Dream, the retired diplomat's china collection in An Accidental Man. As soon as some precious thing hove into view in the narrative, one began to hold one's breath for the inevitable catastrophe. Something analo- gous happened to her marriage to John Bayley after 40 happy years a little while ago, when she become a victim of Alzheimer's disease.

They had enjoyed a total companionship, unencumbered by children, and involving themselves only minimally — just enough to keep going — in the everyday details of domestic life: cooking, for example, which such as it was, he took over, cleaning the house, which was soon smothered with dust and littered with books, papers, unwashed plates and odd objects which Iris had befriended, or tending the garden, which was described by a friend as 'a concentra- tion camp for flowers'. Nor did they assem- ble the ordinary structures of social life that nervy, exhausting tidal flow of drinks and dinner parties with special glasses and cutlery. They pottered contentedly along, engrossed in their work and communicat- ing almost wordlessly with jokes and pri- vate rituals.

Their marriage was transformed — but not destroyed, rather intensified — by Iris Murdoch's rather rapid descent into the mental nullity of Alzheimer's disease. John Bayley's marvellously written memoir is an account of their life together and of its des- perate transmogrification, for the most part about its long, happy, equal phase; the last, sixth, in diary form, presents representative images of its present sad condition of one- sided dependence. On the surface they were an unusual couple to come together. He is an Etonian, from a military family, who did his war ser- vice as a Grenadier, she was the only child of a minor civil servant from Belfast. They met on common ground as young teachers at Oxford. After an anxious courtship on his part — including a splendidly recounted college dance with all its social hazards - they got married, and all went swimmingly — in more than one sense: the book is punctuated by scenes of bathing, normally in unpromising stretches of water, wherever they go, at home or abroad, so that it almost comes to seem their native element.

They were linked, of course, by their par- allel commitment to literature: she in writ- ing her long series of idiosyncratically imaginative fiction, he in his criticism, enormously perceptive, capacious in appre- ciation, wholly unentangled in theory or ideology. They worked in devoted and affectionate solitude. Now he has to be with her every hour of the day.

Although at a more fundamental level they are both of them innocent and unworldly, they are so in very different ways. She is unworldly all the way through, he is unworldly by choice. He knows all about the actual world of pushing and striv- ing and status, but simply as an object of amused, gently disdainful contemplation, not as a stage on which to perform. He writes about himself with quiet, confident self-depreciation. He convincingly asserts his wife's absolute modesty, but he has a sophisticated modesty of his own, cheerful- ly admitting all sorts of follies and lapses which others would cosmetically obliterate.

Most would take car-crashes or ill-judged house-buying in their stride, but to confess to losing the lower part of one's false teeth twice while bathing — once in the Canaries, once in Lake Como — takes a special sort of grit, as, in its own way, does admission to a taste for the Archers (helpfully described, for American readers, perhaps, or even posterity) as a gong-running radio serial'.

Iris cannot now remember anything or talk in meaningful sentences, apart from a few endlessly repeated questions — 'when are we going?', 'who is coming?' which she does not seem to understand. She cries a lot, energetically resists being put to bed, needs constant reassurance. John Bayley admits to losing his temper with her from time to time.

Should he have written this book? It has already been said by some that he should not have, sometimes in ignorance and spite. It is a real question, all the same. If one would not do it oneself, even if one's wife were dead, one should ask why. Of course, it does her no harm. But it must influence people's view of her. Would one's motive be just discretion or squeamish- ness? It should perhaps be seen as John Bayley's way of keeping himself going as Iris Murdoch's devoted custodian.