Alzheimer’s Early Tell

In the early 1990s, Iris Murdoch was writing a new novel, as she’d done 25 times before in her life. But this time something was terribly off. Her protagonist, Jackson, an English manservant who has a mysterious effect on a circle of friends, once meticulously realized in her head, had become a stranger to her. As Murdoch later told Joanna Coles, a Guardian journalist who visited her in her house in North Oxford in 1996, a year after the publication of the book, Jackson’s Dilemma, she was suffering from a bad writer’s block. It began with Jackson and now the shadows had suffused her life. “At the moment I’m just falling, falling … just falling as it were,” Murdoch told Coles. “I think of things and then they go away forever.”

Jackson’s Dilemma was a flop. Some reviewers were respectful, if confused, calling it “an Indian Rope Trick, in which all the people … have no selves,” and “like the work of a 13-year-old schoolgirl who doesn’t get out enough.” Compared to her earlier works, which showcase a rich command of vocabulary and a keen grasp of grammar, Jackson’s Dilemma is rife with sentences that forge blindly ahead, lacking delicate shifts in structure, the language repetitious and deadened by indefinite nouns. In the book’s final chapter, Jackson sits sprawled on grass, thinking that he has “come to a place where there is no road,” as lost as Lear wandering on the heath after the storm.

THE NOVELIST’S GAZE: Iris Murdoch in 1966, the year her tenth novel, The Time of the Angels, an inquiry into the existence of God, was published. At the time, decades before scholars saw a decline in her vocabulary, literary critic Denis Donoghue wrote that Murdoch’s “imagination is a Gothic energy.”Horst Tappe/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Two years after Jackson’s Dilemma was published, Murdoch saw a neurologist who diagnosed her with Alzheimer’s disease. That discovery brought about a small supernova of media attention, spurred the next year by the United Kingdom publication of Iris

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from Nautilus

Nautilus8 min read
Why It Pays to Play Around: Play is so important that nature invented it long before it invented us.
The 19th-century physicist Hermann von Helmholtz compared his progress in solving a problem to that of a mountain climber “compelled to retrace his steps because his progress stopped.” A mountain climber, von Helmholtz said, “hits upon traces of a fr
Nautilus4 min read
What an Extinct Bird Re-Evolving Says About “Species”
You may have heard the news of what sounds like a resurrection story on the small island of Aldabra, off the coast of Madagascar. Around 136,000 years ago, the island was submerged in water and a layer of limestone captured the rails—a species of fli
Nautilus9 min read
The Worth of an Angry God: How supernatural beliefs allowed societies to bond and spread.
A god who knows everything, is everywhere, and wields impossible power, is a potent fantasy. Allegiance to it animates the lives of billions worldwide. But this “Big God,” as psychologists and anthropologists refer to it, wasn’t dreamt from scratch b