When my boss brought me a Penguin Classics edition of this Iris Murdoch book a few months ago, I was confused. How could Penguin have book it considers a classic by an author that I’ve never heard of? And a female author to boot? Needless to say, I was a bit skeptical about this Iris Murdoch character, because I had never heard of her, and because I have this strange notion that no good literature was written in the 1970s. (This book was published in 1970.) Please don’t lambaste me about this opinion, because I know it makes no sense. I know there’s plenty of quality literature from the decade that gave us disco and leisure suits. I just don’t think I’ve read any of it. This book was a welcome introduction to an amazing writer and also to mid-twentieth century literature; unfortunately for my book piles it means that several more decades of fiction have come to my attention.
A Fairly Honourable Defeat has a moderately large cast of characters, but Murdoch is very good at introducing them all and making them into individuals very quickly, so it was surprisingly easy to keep everyone straight. The center of this circle of people is Hilda and Rupert Foster, a couple who has been happily married for twenty years at the start of the novel. Here is Murdoch’s introduction to these two: “Hilda and Rupert Foster, celebrating their twentieth wedding anniversary with a bottle of rather dry champagne, were sitting in the evening sun in the garden of their house in Priory Grove, London, S.W. 10. Hilda, a plumper angel now, reclined limply, exhibiting shiny burnished knees below a short shift dress of orangy yellow. Her feet were bare. Her undulating dark hair showed some needle-thin lines of grey. Her burly boyish-faced husband, whom she had at last persuaded to stop wearing shorts, sat open-shirted, cooking in the sun. He was red, hoping later to be brown. His shock of abundant fair hair had faded with the years, becoming unglistening and dry while still undeniably blond. They were a handsome pair. They were altruistic, but treated themselves judiciously to luxuries… (p. 3).” Can’t you just picture them perfectly? The descriptions of the other characters are equally vivid.
There is also Rupert’s younger brother Simon and his partner Axel, who is much older; Hilda’s sister Morgan and her estranged husband Tallis; Hilda and Rupert’s ne’er-do-well son Peter; and last but not least, Julius King, Morgan’s former lover, and an acquaintance of Rupert and Axel’s. The action opens with Hilda and Rupert enjoying their anniversary, and gossiping about the above characters. The entire book has amazing dialogue, but the ease with which Hilda and Rupert converse in the first chapter just seemed so real, like a real conversation, not one written in a novel. Another thing I noticed about Murdoch’s dialogue: she doesn’t often use tags at the end of a line of dialogue, like “and then Rupert said,” or whathaveyou. She relies on the reader being able to figure out who is saying what based on what it being said. And it actually works, because the voices she has created for her characters are so unique. Only once or twice did I need to go back to the start of a dialogue and count forward, which is really good for me—I am not infrequently confused by who is speaking in a long dialogue.
Julius and Morgan’s affair hits the skids in the United States, and both return to London, throwing what is normally a fairly peaceful social circle into an uproar. Morgan has had some sort of breakdown and has come home from America to lick her wounds and to drink a lot of alcohol. There is not a chapter she is in without a drink in her hand. I found her somewhat irritating throughout. At first I felt sorry for her as she seemed so damaged by this Julius character, but then I came to see that she may just be a bit crazy. She spends the first portion of the book pursuing Julius (who does not want to be pursued) and drinking her way across London. About midway through she has a “revelation” about the beauty of the universe while on a drive with her nephew Peter. Well, one could also call it a “psychotic break,” because one minute she is having a panic attack, and the next she is passionately kissing her sister’s son. This whole interaction troubled me greatly. What is she thinking? Am I uptight? Did stuff like this just happen in the sixties? Or is Morgan preying on a vulnerable kid (Peter is nineteen or twenty)?
Julius seems to have come back to London because he is bored with America. His return has nothing to do with Morgan’s. He is probably a genius, a biologist who at some point worked on “a kind of anthrax which resists antibiotics (p. 4).” And people like that can be dangerous when they get bored. After Julius hangs around London for a few weeks, spending time with Hilda, Rupert, Simon, and Axel, he determines that he will play a game. He introduces his plan to Morgan, and says his playthings will be Axel and Simon. “’I could divide anybody from anybody. Even you could. Play sufficiently on a person’s vanity, sow a little mistrust, hint at the contempt which every human being deeply, secretly feels for every other one. Every man loves himself so astronomically more than he loves his neighbor. Anyone can be made to drop anyone…. Quickly, in ten days! Don’t you believe me? Would you like a demonstration? (p. 214)’” And Morgan bets him ten guineas that he can’t break up Axel and Simon. And at some point he also sets his sights on Hilda and Rupert as well, and makes Morgan part of his game, though unbeknownst to her. I actually felt like I was going to be physically ill when Julius’ plans become clear. How could someone be so intentionally hurtful? And out of boredom? It’s just terrible. But it’s fascinating to watch him do his work. Fascinating and terrible.
Julius makes his plan out to be something that would be completely fixable once he has reached the end of his little experiment, but when things begin to spiral out of control (and anyone reading the book knows that is going to happen), he seems to feel remorse. I think. It was hard for me to tell. He definitely attempts to disseminate the truth at the very end, but by that point it’s just too late, and tragedy is inevitable. I won’t get into what exactly the tragedy is, because you guys should all read this book and I don’t want to ruin it for you.
The second half of A Fairly Honourable Defeat definitely goes much more quickly than the first half, though I enjoyed the whole thing. The first part was more character study and the second was equal parts comedy of errors and suspense novel. There are so many more details I’d like to go into and discuss. For example: Simon and Axel’s relationship. It surprised me to find a homosexual relationship so openly discussed in a book written “so long ago.” And though their characters are fairly stereotypical, with Simon the flamboyant openly gay younger man and Axel the conservative closeted older gentleman, the love they have feels real to me. I hated the way Julius played on their own insecurities to try to undermine their relationship. Another character I’ve barely touched on is Tallis, Morgan’s husband. He is a fascinatingly strange fellow—he sees the ghost of his sister at night and lives in terrible squalor with his dying father while waiting for his wife to return to him. A whole essay could be written about his motivations and lifestyle. Finally, there’s this book of philosophy which Rupert has written. He has been working on it for literally years and it factors heavily in the ultimate tragedy of the ending. Hopefully this paragraph makes everyone want to read this book so we can discuss it!
I have long maintained that there was nothing of interest to me written in the 1960’s and 1970’s. If you look at my books, they are either classics written before 1940 or modern books written in the 1990s and more recently. Some authors such as Toni Morrison who were writing in the 70’s made the cut, but generally there’s a gap. I made the mistake of saying to Bethany last week that I didn’t think there was anything of merit written in the 70’s. Of course she corrected me, saying Updike, Cheever, and others were all very good. These folks are all men, which may be a reason why they never interested me. But perhaps this view was instilled into me by the books I was assigned to read in classes: as we’ve mentioned, there were very few modern titles chosen for our English classes in high school; and in college the English classes I chose to take had a bias towards the pre-twentieth century era. That was the advantage of only minoring in English; there weren’t any requirements beyond just completing five upper division classes. So maybe I was never directed towards books published in the mid-twentieth century, and that’s why I started to think that nothing good was written then. I don’t know. But I do know that I’m going to read more Iris Murdoch.