Widower's House: A Study In Bereavement
By John Bayley
246 pages, $23.95
John Bayley, recently remarried former widower of novelist Iris Murdoch and literary critic, has made a cottage industry of being bereaved. In "Widower's House," named after a play by Bernard Shaw, Bayley tells us that "in widowhood you lose not only your loved one but much of yourself." He says "I used to be a different person: the person who had lived with Iris for forty-four years, so different from her and so separate, and yet so completely a part of what she was, of what together we were."
The author, good critic that he is, sees his own life through, among other things, the books he's read: Evelyn Waugh's "A Handful of Dust," Virginia Woolf's "The Voyage Out." And he draws up memories of Iris Murdoch, deliberate and involuntary, that are loving, if unusual. He calls the recollection "laboriously stitching a presence together out of an absence." For example, Bayley speaks of their being together but not noticing each other; being "closer and closer apart."
So Bayley's new book gives Iris Murdoch her due, but it is uneven in its exposition. Of course one must be careful about being too critical. We become weak with age. Even the strongest among us lose control and family ties. What seems stupid and unbelievably soppy at 65 may be more nearly apt at 80.
The first 100 pages of "Widower's House" is largely a description of how the 76-year-old gent copes with two women running after him: Margot, an old friend whose husband has died, and Mella, a former student, who brings him meat pies and a promise of more. (Later, he pursues and marries a third woman, another old friend and widow, Audi, who owns a home in the Canary Islands.)
It must be said that Bayley's approach to widowerhood, advertised by his publisher as "A book to be given to anyone dealing with the catastrophic loss of a loved one," doesn't bear up very well. It is scattered and fissiparous. I'd use the book to balance a wobbly table rather than give it to an uncertain surviving spouse.
The book has a few laughs and tears; Bayley's a fine writer. But it hardly compares to C.S. Lewis' 1963 classic, "A Grief Observed," the recounting of how Lewis, a mid-fifties bachelor when he married Joy Davidman, an American poet with two young boys, deals with his wife's death after only four years of marriage.
Lewis began "A Grief Observed" by saying "No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing . . . I find it hard to take in what anyone says. . . . It is so uninteresting . . . If only they would talk to one another and not to me." Ultimately, he finds his faith again, recognizing the fragility of life.
Bayley, on the other hand, interested in meat pies and enjoying some human warmth, doesn't mince words. He describes how Mella, who had come to clean up what Bayley's other woman friend Margot called his Augean stable-like house, has an apparent spell of weakness from mopping the floor. The author, great ditherer that he is, stands about watching her.
Mella, not exactly a blushing young thing, goes upstairs for a rest. Bayley follows her into his room. Time passes and things happen. Bayley feigns consternation, saying that "She came up and kissed me, then got straight into bed and pulled the duvet up over her head. It was obvious what I had to do, and, on the whole, I didn't mind doing it."
Really? Can our septuagenarian widower be serious? His description reads like an 1890 police gazette. Assuming Bayley's not making all this up, what must Margot and Mella, the infelicitous graces of this poor re-tread, think now that this book is published?
For that matter, it's a good thing that C.S. Lewis is dead and gone and can't read this missive to the mindless.
John Bayley has given us a new definition of grieving, " . . . the untidy, scuffling, scuttling way of living that bereavement must be for everybody." Good grief? Not on your life.
Michael D. Langan is a former headmaster at Nardin Academy and a former Treasury Department official