It’s the biting and the kicking and the hitting that comes as a surprise, especially in one so old. The shouting and swearing were always present, but the biting, that’s probably the most unexpected. My father has Alzheimer’s and dementia. It’s not quite the happy sing-a-long of “getting by with a little help with your friends” as the current ad on British TV suggests. It’s is well-intentioned of course, but the reality for most carers, most families when dealing with dementia and Alzheimer’s is nothing like a rousing chorus of a Lennon and McCartney number. It is stressful, constant, endless, unrelenting, with little to no respite. Indeed, my father seems no longer capable of sleep. It’s called “sundowning,” when twilight begins and night closes in, the sufferer becomes anxious, fretful, often aggressive. My father knows he has something to do, but he does not know what.
Last year, when I had four rounds of surgery for cancer and post-operative infection, there was the inevitable thoughts of mortality before the anaesthetic sent me off to temporary oblivion. In the same way, I think nightfall (darkness) brings some subconscious response to the end of life, the rush of panic, the rage against the dying of the light—so much still to do, but what, but what? There’s not much else one can do but try and soothe, listen and help.
All this has made me a cheery little fellow, and of late I have reading Iris Murdoch and sadly thinking how Alzheimer’s eroded her once great mind. Here was an author who was described by her husband John Bayley as “the most intelligent woman in England,” who was said to have composed the novels in her head first before putting first mark on paper—which is some remarkable feat. Together Murdoch and Bayley lived an intensely cerebral and sheltered life at their home, Cedar Lodge, in Steeple Aston, Oxford. They had their own language, held tight in their own world—once removed from the fickle fashions of modern culture. It was a hothouse where Murdoch returned again and again to her favored classics, rarely reading any modern literature, drawing much of her inspiration from the works of William Shakespeare.
Everything comes out of Shakespeare: pure romance, melodrama, marvellous characters, poetry, and wisdom about life. I read the plays again and again hoping something will rub off.
Things did indeed rub off—most obviously in her novels A Fairly Honorable Defeat (based on Much Ado About Nothing), The Black Prince (a reworking of Hamlet), The Sea, The Sea (elements of The Tempest) and The Good Apprentice. Writing fiction allowed Murdoch to revel in the complex ambiguities, the magic and mystery of life. She created self-contained worlds, like perfect snow globes that may to some now seem dated now but are ultimately still immediate and relevant because of Murdoch’s ability to tell a story. Spinning a yarn, as she once pointed out, is “a fundamental human form of thought.” Which made her loss to Alzheimer’s all the more tragic.
Murdoch did not give many television interviews, those that are available on YouTube are of a rather dry discussion on philosophy and literature, which is all fine and dandy but don’t reveal much of her giggly enthusiastic personality as this interview between Murdoch and James Atlas for the 92Y and The Paris Review does, capturing the author at her brightest and best as she discusses her life and career.