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the Complete Review
the complete review - biography

Elegy for Iris

also known as:
Iris: A Memoir of Iris Murdoch

John Bayley

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Elegy for Iris

Title: Elegy for Iris
Author: John Bayley
Genre: Biography
Written: 1999
Length: 275 pages
Availability: Elegy for Iris - US
Iris - UK
  • US title Elegy for Iris
  • UK title Iris: a memoir of Iris Murdoch
  • This book has now been made into a film, Iris (2001). Directed by Richard Eyre, it stars Judi Dench and Kate Winslet in the title role.

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Our Assessment:

B+ : an account of Bayley's wife, Iris Murdoch, that is generally touching and interesting

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Boston Globe A 3/1/1999 Gail Caldwell
The LA Times A 14/2/1999 Abraham Verghese
The NY Rev. of Books A 4/3/1999 Rosemary Dinnage
The NY Times A- 24/12/1998 C. Lehmann-Haupt
The NY Times Book Rev. A+ 21/12/1998 Mary Gordon
The Observer . 26/9/1999 Sally Vincent
Publishers Weekly A 19/10/1998 .
The Sunday Times A 1/11/1998 Caroline Gascoigne
The Times A- 17/9/1998 Roy Porter
TLS A+ 9/10/1998 K. Duncan-Jones
The Village Voice B- 12/1/1999 Dale Peck
The Washington Post A 7/2/1999 Carolyn See

  From the Reviews:
  • "Elegy for Iris is beautiful and heartbreaking, though it isn't really elegiac -- it's more a love poem writ in melancholy, an ode to the past and the stratosphere of commitment that such a past ensures." - Gail Caldwell, The Boston Globe

  • "In its evocation of the lyrical, the comic and the tragic, this splendid book enlarges our imagination of the range and possibilities of love." - Mary Gordon, The New York Times Book Review

  • "There is no great guffaw in this memoir, and nowhere does it stoop to tear-jerk. It moves in mysterious ways but never manipulates." - Sally Vincent, The Observer

  • "It is hard to do justice to the tenderness with which, in exquisite, measured prose and surprising detail, he evokes their marriage" - Caroline Gascoigne, The Sunday Times

  • "Bayley wisely avoids voyeuristic wallowing in the morbid. Mostly his book reads as a joyous paean to his beloved." - Roy Porter, The Times

  • "This is a brave and a brilliant book, which makes Iris's fading seem only the latest and worst of many accidents that have somehow come right. The totality of her fiction is enriched, not diminished, by the addition to it both of John's own fiction and of his Memoir" - Katherine Duncan-Jones, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Ostensibly a genuflection, Elegy for Iris is actually composed of equal parts adoration and hubris" - Dale Peck, The Village Voice

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Iris Murdoch, one of the great figures of postwar English literature, died in 1999, shortly after publication of this book. Suffering from Alzheimer's disease her decline was fairly abrupt and rapid, first noticed by Bayley in 1994 when Murdoch found herself incapable of responding to an audience in Israel. This book chronicles her sad decline, as well as recounting much of Bayley and Murdoch's relationship.
       Switching between the present and the past, Bayley adeptly relates her state as he writes this book, as well as her previous self. It is an interesting, though necessarily one-sided and cursory overview of Murdoch's life, with a great deal of insight and some fascinating detail. It is a very generous book, and Bayley describes the difficulties of dealing with an Alzheimer's patient well. Both in his book and in life (so it would appear, at least) Bayley is extremely generous. They make a happy couple, or so it would seem, and seem to have led a happy life.
       Bayley writes well, and he handles the difficult subject of Alzheimer's with considerable aplomb. Nevertheless, the book does not always stand on sure footing. Their courtship is well-related, but other aspects of their lives together are flung in or ignored without sufficient reason. Bayley also has a peculiar gossipy streak, which would be less bothersome if not for the curious obliqueness he affects on occasion. An unnamed German Dichter plays a fairly prominent role, fodder for a few anecdotes. Described so specifically that there can be no doubt that it is Elias Canetti, why does he remain unnamed ?
       The details of Ms. Murdoch watching the teletubbies and such similar information is not as awkward as one might expect. Bayley handles his material decorously and his affection for his wife shines through. We felt slightly uneasy for almost all of the book, but it is a fine effort.
       We do recommend the book, certainly to anyone interested in Murdoch (or Bayley). It is a small, gentle, memoir, and makes for quite good reading. We do not know that anyone involved in an Alzheimer's case will be able to take much comfort from it, but then people do enjoy reading about others miseries and so this too might appeal (though for all of Bayley's generous spirit the inevitable outcome lurks on every page).

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Elegy for Iris: Reviews: Iris - the movie: Iris Murdoch: Book by Iris Murdoch under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       John Bayley was born in India in 1925. Educated at Eton and Oxford, he became a fellow of New College in 1955 and Professor at St. Catherine's College in 1973. A noted literary critic and former chairman of the Booker Prize Committee he has published several works of criticism, as well as works of fiction. He was the husband of Iris Murdoch, whom he married in 1956.

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© 1999-2021 the complete review

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