Biographia Literaria: Just a Story

Sometime in the early 1980s, when I was still a graduate student in English at UC-Berkeley, I received an invitation from a member of my dissertation committee. He and his wife were having a dinner party for a visiting writer, a much-lionized British novelist who was spending a week or two on the Berkeley campus as a Regents' Lecturer. Was I familiar with the novels, and would I like to come to dinner?

Yes, indeed, to both questions. And could I, I asked, please bring my -- well, whatever word we were using in those days for the man you lived with but hadn't yet married. (I think the current phrase was some acronym derived from census-taking jargon, but I couldn't swear to it. All I know is that we were past "boyfriend," past "significant other," but not yet into "partner.") There was a slight hesitation at the other end of the phone line -- Did they lack adequate seating? Did they fear that a sociologist wouldn't know how to converse with literary types? What, exactly, was that pause about? -- and then the second invitation was duly issued.

In the event, it was my husband-to-be, Richard, who made the greatest social hit. The minute he clapped eyes on the writer's husband, who entered the living room of that fastidious Julia Morgan house wearing one green sock and one red sock, he knew he had found a friend. They were seated next to each other at dinner, as it happened, and while I engaged the Lion in serious literary discussion down at our end of the table, they exchanged jokes and stories and generally amused one another. At the end of the evening, I was informed that the two men had already made a plan for the coming weekend: The four of us were to take a little trip together down the coast to Big Sur.

That's how Richard and I came to spend two nights in Carmel with Iris Murdoch and John Bayley. (As I said to Richard at the time, "How funny. The last time we were in Carmel I brought an Iris Murdoch novel, and this time I brought Iris Murdoch.") I have many terrific memories of this trip, all still as clear to me as if they were preserved on film. There is Iris swimming in the Pacific Ocean at Point Sur, where only a maniac would brave the freezing water, the surf-carved rocks, and the threatening undertow. There is John chatting in the courtyard of our Carmel motel with some of our fellow guests, a husband and wife from the Central Valley who repeatedly describe themselves as "educators." ("Oh," said John afterward, with his usual twinkle, "I thought they kept saying they were hedge cutters.") There are Richard and John exchanging amused glances as Iris talks earnestly with Emil White, the self-appointed curator of the Henry Miller Museum, while he desperately attempts to flirt with her. There is Iris stalled in front of one of Carmel's tourist-trap art galleries, pausing to admire, with great seriousness and attention, a particularly grotesque glitter-flecked seascape. And there, above all, is the half-hour in the living room of our tacky little motel suite when the four of us watch a Star Trek rerun together. John and Iris, who have rarely if ever seen TV, remain riveted to the screen during the whole of the classically sentimental episode. At the end, when the disguised alien is killed while trying to help the starship's crew and reverts, in death, to his own true shape, the two of them turn to each other with tears in their eyes and dismay written across their faces. "It's just a story, it's just a story," they murmur reassuringly.

We saw them only two other times. The first was a couple of years later, on a quick trip to England, when we took the train out to Oxford to have lunch with them. John picked us up at the train station and drove us out to the seventeenth-century broken-down castle, or whatever it was, in which they had lived for many years. I vaguely remember vast unheated rooms, moth-eaten tapestries on the walls, and huge stacks of books piled here and there on the unswept floors. I recall more clearly the derelict quality of the kitchen from which the food emerged under John's ministrations, and also John's enormous pride in the secondhand pea coat he was wearing; he had bought it at an army-surplus shop for something like three pounds. We had a delightful lunch (it was mainly out of tins and packages) and then a pleasant walk to the local churchyard, where Iris was particularly taken with the little dog that curled at the feet of its dead mistress on one of the funerary monuments.

Our final visit was in the summer of 1995, when the three of us (Richard and I by now had a 10-year-old son) journeyed out to Oxford from London. By this time John and Iris had moved into Oxford itself, having abandoned the seventeenth-century wreck for a normal house, but they still drove to the station to meet us. While John waited in the car outside, Iris came in to get us. Her hair was every which way and her slip showed beneath the hem of her skirt, but this was not unusual and I thought nothing of it. (The first time I ever saw her speak in public, she had a long piece of masking tape trailing from her skirt that remained distractingly attached to her during the entire lecture; Iris was never one to pay much attention to appearances.) Still, as we walked around Oxford and looked at the colleges together, I began to notice an alarming vagueness in her conversation. When I asked her, for instance, if she had a new novel coming out, she said yes; but when I asked her its title, she said, "I can't remember."

This tendency became even more pronounced when John left us to attend a college meeting and Iris remained alone with us during lunch at a rather grand local hotel. She could converse about the food itself and about the room in which we sat, but beyond that -- in that capacious mind, which once held everything from ancient Greek philosophy to nineteenth-century Russian novels, which had room for every visual image, from Titian's Flaying of Marsyas to the trashiest Carmel seascape, and in which she used to compose her novels fully, scene by scene, before setting the first word down on paper -- there remained only a series of blanks. Like John, who was still resolutely pretending that nothing was wrong, I felt unable to come to grips with what had happened. "Alzheimer's," said my husband sadly as we sat on the train going back to London. But the word seemed inadequate to my sense of despair.

The strange thing about the movie Iris is that a surprising number of its reviewers, particularly but not exclusively in England, have had similar stories to tell. Iris Murdoch knew an inordinate number of people, and it is very odd indeed for all of us to see her played by Judi Dench -- so much so that this substitution of an actor for a friend (this transformation, if you will, into an alien after death) has come to seem a part of what the movie is about.

In the stills advertising the movie, Judi Dench looks astonishingly, terrifyingly like Iris. But in fact her portrayal did not remind me of Iris at all. Granted, only about five minutes of screen time are devoted to the Iris Murdoch I first knew: the strong, generous, confident novelist who has made her mark on the world. The rest of the performance -- and Dench does her usual magnificent job, there is no quibbling with that -- is devoted to an Iris in decline, an Iris who is ceasing moment by moment to be herself.

There is one particularly wrenching scene in which John has taken Iris to a clinic to be examined for Alzheimer's and they are speaking to the examining doctor. "It's implacable," the doctor says of the disease.

"But it won't win in the end," says John, hopefully, agitatedly.

"It will win," says the doctor.

"Thank you. It's very kind of you," says Iris, and she means it, because honesty matters more to her at this point than anything. What makes the scene so touching is that even as her memory and speech are going, Iris retains this essential quality, her passion for the truth.

An innocent viewer can be swept away by such moments, as I was swept away by similar moments in A Beautiful Mind. But then I had never met the Nashes, nor had I read Sylvia Nasar's book, so I could enjoy (if that is the right word) the movie on its own Hollywoodish terms. Iris is significantly less Hollywoodish than A Beautiful Mind; it is at once more tactful and more unsparing, like the doctor's kind because they are truthful words. (It certainly has a better director -- the marvelous stage director Richard Eyre -- and a cast that can't be improved upon.) Yet it left me cold, and I think this is only partly because I knew the real Iris and the real John.

Iris has been structured as a series of parallel scenes between the lost past -- that golden Oxford period when John Bayley and Iris Murdoch first met -- and the debased present, in which Iris goes progressively downhill. Kate Winslet plays the young Iris, and she is actually very good. In some ways, although she is of course far too pretty, she is closer to the Iris Murdoch I knew than is Judi Dench. Winslet has captured something of Murdoch's deep-voiced seriousness, her placid conviction, her powerful sense of her own powers. Unfortunately, because of the way the movie is arranged, we associate these qualities almost entirely with the young Iris, and so they seem to have disappeared long before the Alzheimer's set in. What Iris ends up being is therefore an elegy to lost youth -- a reasonable subject for a movie, I suppose, but not at all what this one should have been about. For what Iris Murdoch and John Bayley presented, even in late middle age, was a portrait of a loving and deeply satisfying marriage. That condition is briefly gestured toward in the movie Iris, but it is never made as real as either the excitements of the early courtship or the horrors of the later decline.

A large part of the problem lies in the way John Bayley has been portrayed. Both Hugh Bonneville (as the younger John) and Jim Broadbent (as the older one) have chosen to play him as a bumbling, unattractive, stuttering, somewhat inarticulate fellow, a bit of a fool sometimes, and certainly the petitioner in relation to Iris's much-desired, much-petitioned queen. It is true that John Bayley stutters, but the rest of this is nonsense. When I knew him, he was sharp as a tack and very funny, much funnier and sharper than Iris herself. She had a huge, heavy intelligence that tended to squash things as it came down on them; his was much more like a knife, or a scalpel, or a sewing needle, or some other implement that is useful for detail work. I have read the word "besotted" in reviews praising Jim Broadbent's performance, and indeed his face, in some of the scenes where Dench is speaking, deserves the adjective. But John Bayley was never besotted with Iris, at least not by the time he had reached the Jim Broadbent stage of his life. He knew her for what she was -- not fully, perhaps, but well enough to love knowledgeably. And even at the Hugh Bonneville stage, he was not unaware of a certain near-ridiculousness about her: That, indeed, was part of the appeal.

Iris's potential to appear ridiculous, which was perhaps a function of her pure obliviousness to appearing anything at all, is crucially missing from the movie. Instead, we are offered a once-dignified woman who is suddenly reduced to the mindless condition of a Teletubbies watcher. But to the Iris Murdoch who wrote the novels, that element of ridiculousness was essential. She needed to rush in where angels feared to tread in order to capture the human emotions she was after. The novels are never cautious or discreet or merely intelligent; they are great flaming bundles of feeling, not unlike the fireworks display that appears in one of the earliest books. Jealousy and sexual passion and a frequently misapplied desire to manipulate the passions of others are central to the story lines. Characters go vastly astray and are only rescued by the most ludicrously unlikely plot turns -- when indeed they are rescued, which is not always. I would not put Iris Murdoch's novels into the Orwellian category of "good bad books," but nor would I confidently claim for them the status of enduring literary masterpieces. At their best they satisfy deeply, but it is in much the way the best Hollywood melodramas of the 1950s satisfied: through a strange combination of intense sensation and coolly distanced perspective. It is the clash between the distance and the sensation that makes them so interesting as novels.

John Bayley is a writer of a wholly other sort. He never verges on ridiculousness, except on purpose, which is an entirely different thing. Bayley is completely in control of his rhetoric, and his sensibility is a coherent one. He makes us feel his emotions through his intelligence, and vice versa. His whole personality, but particularly his wit, shines through in his writing. This is why he is so much better as a memoirist and essayist than as a novelist; we need to feel him talking to us to get the full thrust of what he is saying. His best books, I think, are The Characters of Love (a literary critical work about how people love, and why we love them as characters, in Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Henry James) and Elegy to Iris, which was written after Iris developed Alzheimer's but before she died -- and which became the basis for the movie Iris.

In deriving the movie from John Bayley's book, Eyre and his collaborators made a fatal rhetorical error: They took the narrator's self-presentation at face value. John does, it is true, sometimes portray himself as a bumbling, inexperienced, befuddled young man, and he does construct a fairy tale about this youthful self and the powerfully mysterious Iris. But the way he tells the story is very self-consciously as a fairy tale, and clearly not the kind that has a happy ending. Also, he intercuts the befuddlement with lines of such sharp observation that they almost take your breath away.

I was heartened by her general appearance, and its total absence of anything that for me in those days constituted sex appeal. There was nothing so conventional as that about this woman. She was not "a girl," and she had no girlish attractions. That made the fact that I was in love with her much more exciting. . . .

One cannot imagine the Hugh Bonneville character in Iris thinking anything at all like that about the Kate Winslet character. The movie has simply got it wrong.

Why does this matter so much? Because, by losing the character of John Bayley, the film loses the essence of the love story. Elegy for Iris is not about a great and powerful woman who lost her mind and was loyally cared for by the good but inferior man who loved her. If John Bayley at times makes it seem that way, it is because he is being gallant: He, who still possesses the language in which to tell their story, is consciously diminishing the degree of power he wields in relation to his now-mute wife. We can tell he is being gallant because the language itself reveals his strengths. His sentences show us that John was a man capable of seeing Iris for who she was, the potentially ridiculous mixed with the utterly admirable; and they imply that she, in turn, was capable of loving him for the incisiveness and self-consciousness she lacked. It is this mutuality -- not equality, exactly, but something much more necessary to love -- that made their married happiness so tremendously appealing. And it is this mutuality that disappeared when Iris's mind went. The movie, by tipping the balance of power in Iris's favor, does her a deep disservice, and it does us an injury, too, by depriving this real-life fairy tale of the delicate tragic balance John worked so hard to preserve.