Aging and sickness are not the easiest topics to write about, and for some they are even more difficult to read about. In the Nov. 7 Washington Post Book World, you can practically hear reviewer Diana McLellan’s stomach churning when she describes parts of John Bayley’s “Iris and Her Friends: A Memoir of Memory and Desire” as “geezer porn.”
“Englishmen of a certain age and class, trained from babyhood to bury embarrassing emotions, probably shouldn’t be encouraged to root them up and wave them around their heads late in life,” McLellan writes, going on to observe that the book “seems designed to revolt the young and terrify the old.”
Bayley’s memoir is a frank and loving chronicle of his 43-year marriage to the late British novelist Iris Murdoch, which ended in February with her death from the effects of Alzheimer’s disease. It was clearly a little too candid for McLellan’s taste. “I don’t really want to know, for example, that toward the end my idol performed her bathroom functions on the carpet,” she writes.
Bayley, an esteemed critic, novelist and former Oxford don, had already written about his wife’s decline in “Elegy for Iris,” published here in January. In the new book, he often alludes to his own battle with aging. At one point, he loses his dentures in Lake Como, and the then-healthy Murdoch retrieves them. “Bayley’s memories of losing his lower dentures … are sweet, but should anyone outside the AARP be allowed to share them?” McLellan wonders.
“She rather suggests that there’s a decorum required of the elderly which I seem to have failed to provide,” Bayley said in an interview at New York’s Roosevelt Hotel three days after the Post ran McLellan’s review. “In this case I feel quite shameless, and I think one has to be. In the case of dementia or mental illness, there’s no point in trying to be generous about it. It’s too frightful, and one just has to face it.” The “geezer porn” crack and the other jabs didn’t seem to perturb him. “She’s quite funny about it,” he said with an unruffled smile. “This is much more like the English reviews — that is to say, more tough.”
Those who think that McLellan, a writer for the Washingtonian magazine, is a fanatical ageist may have to think again. “This is not an ageist thing. She’s speaking from a great promontory of experience,” says Book World editor Marie Arana. “She’s been around Washington a long time. She’s not wet behind the ears.”
When Salon Books called McLellan to ask about possible ageism, she replied, “Well, I’m 62 and ready for Social Security, my dear.” But, she added, “I don’t think people should flaunt it and disgrace themselves in front of their juniors by burbling about losing their false teeth and crapping on the carpet.”