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Books: Biography of a marriage

Books | For better or worse, in sickness and in health

Issue: "Remember Los Alamos," March 27, 1999

British novelist Iris Murdoch died Feb. 8, 1999, shortly after her husband published this book. She died at age 79, about 45 years after her first book was published in 1954. She had written 26 novels, as well as plays, works on philosophy, and literary criticism. In 1994, John Bayley first became aware that Iris, like her mother before her, had been stricken by Alzheimer's. Elegy for Iris is his bestselling story of their life together-before and after. From the day Mr. Bayley first saw Miss Murdoch bicycling past his lodgings and fantasized that she was "a woman without a past, just waiting for me," to the final days of caring for her in the anxious and abstracted time of Alzheimer's, he brings his love for her to life in this quietly lyrical biography of their marriage. Telling the story more or less chronologically, Mr. Bayley often moves forward in time to reflect on the differences between the days Miss Murdoch was healthy and the anxieties and lack of understanding she later displays. The narrative is poignant, and anyone familiar with the work of Alzheimer's in a loved one's life will find himself nodding in recognition. The final section of the book, apparently entries from Mr. Bayley's journal of 1997, shows the inexorable changes, the frustration and sometimes anger of the caretaker, yet the love that continues to grow and envelop the marriage partners even in the midst of the difficulties. At times the narrative can drag for readers unfamiliar with the literary and intellectual world Mr. Bayley and Miss Murdoch inhabit. However, the focus remains primarily on Mr. Bayley's musings about his wife and their relationship, one that is far from perfect. Turns out Miss Murdoch had some affairs during the marriage, which her husband comes to accept as part of who she is. Nor was their marriage particularly close; Mr. Bayley characterizes it-until Alzheimer's-as a "joy of solitude." Yet I found myself drawn into these lives and wanting to understand them. They are part of "the world," that is, the world without Christ. And yet the tenderness and love they share, Mr. Bayley's Hosea-like faithfulness despite his jealousy over his wife's unfaithfulness, and the way he cares for her throughout her illness-these are traits many in the church would do well to consider and emulate. With the divorce rate higher than it should be among those in the church, a marriage that lasted a lifetime is one to investigate. And what I find hidden within the narrative are the age-old keys: unconditional acceptance of the other person; understanding of and adjustment to the other's personality; unalterable commitment. I have the sense that Mr. Bayley never thought much about these ideas, just lived them. Perhaps his story can serve to remind others to do the same.

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