John Bayley died on 12 January 2015. He was eighty-nine years old and from 1974 to 1992, was Warton Professor of English at Oxford, and was a Fellow of St. Catherine's College. He was also a novelist and wrote literary criticism for several newspapers. He edited Henry James' The Wings of the Dove and a two-volume selection of James' short stories.
He had been married to the writer Dame Iris Murdoch from 1956 until her death in 1999. About a decade ago I read Elegy for Iris, one of John Bayley's three memoirs of his life with Iris Murdoch, and was moved by this beautiful but sad story. His love for her led him to create a luminous memoir of her brilliant life and their love for each other. He poignantly describes the dimming of her brilliance due to Alzheimer's disease. Elegy for Iris is a story about the ephemeral beauty of youth and the sobering reality of what it means to grow old; filled with touching moments that seem almost too personal but are beautiful anyway. Most of the memoir is devoted to happier days but in some sense the final weeks and days of her life, while sad, are treated with an even greater beauty and serenity. For those who have enjoyed the novels of Iris Murdoch this is a wonderful testament to her life and career. It is a literary romance of years together.
It was many decades earlier, however, that as a reader I first read the criticism of John Bayley. Too many years ago when I was a college student I read the stories of Leo Tolstoy in a collection that Bayley edited and introduced. It was this connection with Tolstoy that I renewed in the early eighties as I once again read an introduction Bayley had written, this time for The Portable Tolstoy collection from Viking Penguin.
Most recently I have enjoyed dipping into his very "personal anthology" of literary passages entitled simply Hand Luggage. This appropriate title is a book of literary prose extracts and poetry samplings that he culled from his years of reading. It impressed me as a sort of "commonplace" book of a type that I have had increasing enjoyment among my readings. I share his use of books as hand luggage whenever I am traveling around town or to further destinations.
Throughout all the years since I first encountered John Bayley's writing I was continually impressed with his superb writing ability; it was something that he had shared with his partner, yet unlike Iris he remained primarily a critic of fiction and literature. He made an impact on my reading life that I will not forget just as he became a light for readers everywhere with both his writing style and love of literature.
"Almost the best pleasure of anthologies is to find things mislaid from the past, as well as some new thing whose stay in the mind may turn out to be a ephemeral as it is agreeable." - John Bayley
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