Tuesday, December 20, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: A Fairly Honourable Defeat by Iris Murdoch

I’d never read anything by Iris Murdoch, novelist and philosopher, but she is apparently one of the best British/Irish writers of the twentieth century. I can’t remember where I heard this, or how I heard of her, but something prompted me to take A Fairly Honourable Defeat out of the library. It’s an extraordinary book.

The novel presents a family group that is locked in a tense dynamic, about to be disrupted.

At the center is the happily married couple in middle-life, Rupert and Hilda. They are well-to-do and very pleased with themselves. Rupert considers himself an intellectual, a philosopher. Hilda is a kind woman who doesn’t think of herself as very clever, but she is good to everyone. They have a college-age son, Peter, who has dropped out of Cambridge and is a mess. Peter has been taken in by Hilda’s brother-in-law and old family friend, Tallis. Tallis teaches part-time, hasn’t much money, lives in a filthy run-down apartment, and takes care of his extremely grouchy elderly father. Tallis is also currently estranged from his wife, Hilda’s younger sister Morgan. Morgan is supposed to be the clever sister. At least, she is university educated and taught linguistics for a while. But Morgan escaped from her marriage, running to the U.S. to seek more from life. She had an affair while in the U.S. with another old friend of Rupert’s named Julius King. Finally, Rupert also has a younger brother, Simon, who is gay and living with a significantly older man, Axel, who is yet another old friend of Rupert and of Julius. The only two who don’t know each other are Tallis and Julius – but they will meet soon enough.

Part One of the book introduces the reader to all of the players. They are all a bundle of insecurities with various strengths and talents, but none are particularly likeable. Morgan has returned from the U.S. after having ended the affair, but she doesn’t want to go back to her husband. She comes to her sister looking for support. Unfortunately, Julius returns to England at just the same time. He wants nothing further to do with Morgan, but she doesn’t believe this. She is still infatuated with him.

The whole lot of them are living rather exaggeratedly normal lives, hiding little secrets from one another, feeling self-satisfied on some levels and anxious on others. The plot takes off in Part Two, when Julius decides to perform an experiment on them, ostensibly to prove to Morgan that all human relationships are superficial and temporary. He says he can break up Simon and Axel within three weeks. He sets out to do this, while at the same time tearing apart Rupert and Hilda’s marriage by instigating and orchestrating an affair between Rupert and Morgan. 

The book is billed as a dark comedy of errors. It is that. But it’s also the kind of book that makes me almost ill with tension as I read. Julius is an awful man, but the other characters (with the possible exception of Simon and Hilda) are nearly as awful. In an upside-down way, the character everyone considers to be the weakest (poor cuckolded Tallis) is the most clear-sighted and strongest, although his life is a mess. If only these people would speak the truth to one another, everything could be cleared up quickly but, of course, they are all afraid to be honest. Or else they think they can fix the mix-ups by somehow working around the lies.

Murdock constructs the dark farce brilliantly and brings it to a logical if painful conclusion. It is an extraordinary look into human foibles and failures. I was particularly impressed with the author’s ability to construct conversations that could extend for pages, often without indicating the speaker and sometimes including multiple voices, that were nevertheless clear. The character’s voices were that distinct. It was like being present at their party and eavesdropping on different conversations at the same time.

It’s a smart book, a disturbing one, a draining one, and in the end, a satisfying one. I’ll have to read more by this author. But not right away.

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