Get Ready for Elegy for Iris: Lesson 17
Biography, memoir and the risks we face as writers
A film clip to start us off:
John Bayley wrote Elegy for Iris after his wife, celebrated novelist and thinker Iris Murdoch, had succumbed to the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a memoir written without her permission and with the certainty she would never read it. Some Mary Tabor "Only connect ..." is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
We’ll discuss the risks we writers face: solipsism, absence from others and the possible invasion of the lives of those we love, care about — or don’t.
To get ready, buy the book or watch the movie—terrific flick—or do both! I did. To buy the book used go to Amazon. John Bayley has died (I don’t recommend buying books used by living authors because no one who matters gets what little is paid.) The second link is to Bayley’s obituary in The New York Times.
Consider these questions as you read:
Does Bayley violate Murdoch’s privacy? If so, is that violation defensible?
The story is told in the first person, his point of view. How much of the book is about him?
How do these questions pertain to you and your thoughts about writing fiction, memoir or poetry—or what you think writers ought not do? Are you concerned about betrayal, about being misunderstood? Are there areas that are off-limits for you? Are there areas that ought to be off-limits for all writers?
If the lines between fiction and non-fiction were clean and firm, one might argue that the fiction writer may explore his character’s thoughts; the memoirist may explore only his own.
But the line is not clear.
In this memoir, the lines between autobiography and biography are blurred. As John Bayley tell his story and Iris Murdoch’s story, we get a picture of a famous literary figure’s life and that perhaps accounts for some of its interest.
Here’s a link via Wikipedia to Iris Murdoch’s celebrated life.
As you watch the film or read the book, think about your journey as a reader/viewer, and consider these questions:
What are the limits of biography?
What are the obligations of biography?
Do these questions matter for this memoir?
To give you time to do all this, I’ve invited Terry Freedman for a guest post on how to read op-eds, newspapers, non-fiction books —not memoir, not fiction—and how to do so speedily. Terry publishes the Eclecticism newsletter, where he writes about literature, life and everything in between. We’ll enjoy him next up.
And don’t miss my new adventure: Inner Life: Created with Castalia and Joshua Doležal and me to bring together other writers who dig deep into literature, philosophy, music, poetry, painting—the arts, in the broadest sense. We post every Tuesday and every Friday with a byliner. So check us out and subscribe. You’ll find fab writers you might never have found—a heartfelt, compassionate collaboration of thought. If you’d like to write under your byline on a Friday, write me at <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
The invasion of privacy question is a great one. I don't know the work of either Murdoch or Bayley, but I've heard of both. I'll seek out the film! Another thought-provoking post, Mary - thank you.
I think all writers are thieves though the artistic crimes range from shoplifting to bank robbery. I'm working on a post about this very theme!