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A Fairly Honourable Defeat by Iris Murdoch
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A Fairly Honourable Defeat (1970)

by Iris Murdoch

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  Kirmuriel | Sep 19, 2013 |
I have picked up and put down so many Iris Murdoch novels that it is a wonder that I actually got through this one. So many of my friends and other respected readers love Murdoch, and I do see why they do. Her novels are novels of ideas and she allows herself room to explore the big questions. But, I just cannot get past the wooden quality of her characters and her clunky, clunkity plots. Or her women, who seem to be either hysterical or earth mamas. Or her ideas of masculinity which point towards the mythic and drive me mad. All of that said, this book had some lovely moments. ( )
  tippycanoegal | Apr 1, 2013 |
(one of 24 books found today at 2nd hand shop...24 for $10!)
  velvetink | Mar 31, 2013 |
After finishing this book, I learned in the introduction that Iris Murdoch was a philosopher who often used fiction to explore ideas. This helped explain a couple things in A Fairly Honourable Defeat – the philosophical leanings of several of the characters, the somewhat stereotypical and static characters, the dialogue that is a touch too high-flown. The plot is absorbing and sometimes bizarre or even surreal. Julius King, a cynical scientist, turns his friends against each other, breaks up relationships and generally sows chaos though his friends don’t need any help doing that. Despite the problems, I would have found this to be an overall enjoyable book except for the fact that I couldn’t stand Morgan, Julius’ ex, and her nonstop annoying clichéd behavior.

Hilda and Rupert Foster are a happily married, successful couple. Rupert’s younger brother, Simon, has a loving May-December relationship with Rupert’s friend Axel, but Hilda and Rupert attempt to solve the problems of their son Peter, who has dropped out of school, Hilda’s flaky sister Morgan, who left her husband Tallis for Julius, then left Julius, and the socially awkward Tallis. At the beginning of the book one notices that the characters’ conversation is more elevated that real-life discourse – exceptions being the uncommunicative Tallis and his crotchety old man-type father. There’s a bit too much information given to the reader and long, fluid conversation blocks are common though for the self-important Rupert and intellectual Julius this is not unexpected. Conversations indeed dominate the book. This is not surprising as some of the events show the ineffectual power of words, especially when they are used to talk around things or used in place of action. The book opens with Hilda and Rupert cheerily discussing their guests while awaiting their arrival. The situations of Tallis – who’s in a holding pattern as he patiently waits for Morgan and struggles to get by teaching – and Peter, who in typical teenage rebellion is rejecting materialistic Western values, are unhappy but not horrible. Everyone’s lives are changed by the simultaneous but separate arrivals of Morgan and Julius, who is an old friend of Rupert’s and Axel’s.

Murdoch takes her time in getting to the machinations of Julius. Instead, there are a series of apprehensive visits and confrontations. Simon is worried about seeing Julius – a fear of being judged and jealousy – but is pleased to reconnect with Morgan though Axel hates her. Hilda and Rupert swoop in to save Morgan from herself and worry about how she’ll behave with Julius. But their son gets a little too close to Morgan, who wants to avoid the inevitable meeting with Tallis and finds her feelings for Julius revived. It can all feel a bit incestuous as well as upper-middle-class-white-people-relationship-problems, though there are a couple hints that the real world and history affect them – WWII is not so distant (the book was published in 1970) and one scene has an overt racist incident. The close focus on relationships does make the book feel surprisingly modern (except for a couple things - an exotic dinner out is Chinese food). Peter’s worry about the modern world and attempt to drop off the grid (all while being supported by his parents) is a stereotype of college students today. People never get tired to poking fun at the self-satisfied bourgeois and creating drama is only amplified today with reality shows and social media. Axel’s dilemma over hiding his homosexuality is a lessened worry but still one that has to be faced.

Julius notes that everyone is capable of betrayal and that people are foolish when it comes to relationships and prone to lying and drama. He’s not wrong with this cast. Even some of the more grounded characters have this happen. Tallis is able to act at a couple crucial moments but he’s stuck when it comes to Morgan. He also lies to his father about his terminal illness. Axel, upright in a more thoughtful manner than Rupert, is, to his shame, living a lie by denying his identity. He’s also attracted to drama – one scene where he, Julius and Tallis interrupt a brawl has the former two pleased for hours. Morgan and Peter are more purely selfish while Hilda and Rupert act in conventional ways to avoid unpleasant topics and try to prevent anyone from getting hurt which only makes things worse.

All the characters are a bit thin – not exactly one dimensional, as their thoughts and feelings are given in detail, but each person is a type at the beginning and stays that way, though they might be exposed as hypocrites or come out somewhat worse for the wear. Hilda is the supportive good wife, mother, sister and friend and her husband the upstanding, self-satisfied, successful politician. Simon’s an emotional twink and Axel the cultivated but controlling older man. Peter is an Angry Young Man. Machiavellian Julius swings between cold disdain and scornful glee though he hides it with a smooth and sarcastic front. Morgan, unfortunately, is a seething ball of “annoying woman” stereotypes. She’s needy, clingy and weepy with Hilda and Julius. She acts like an outrageous flirt when someone loves her and she doesn’t reciprocate and quickly turns into a nagging, selfish shrew in another relationship. For some reason, people think that Tallis was lucky to have married her. They also refer to her as the smart one when comparing her to Hilda and apparently she has some academic concern, but in the one intellectual conversation she has, her field is easily dismissed by Julius. Clearly, there were some problems with the book but it was interesting enough that I’d try another Murdoch. ( )
1 vote DieFledermaus | Jun 14, 2012 |
Rupert and Hilda are perfectly matched. Their only worries are a drop-out son and Morgan, Hilda's unstable sister, just back from America. Enter Julius, Morgan's ex-lover, determined to give Rupert and Hilda's seemingly impregnable marriage a mild jolt. He finds an unexpectedly spirited opponent in Morgan's husband Tallis….. This is a tale of the struggle between two demonic beings, one good, one evil. The evil one wins, but the defeat of the good is a fairly honourable one…… This read was my first exposure to the pen of Iris Murdoch. I won't say too much about it here though. Suffice to say it is a very compelling, dark story, which I enjoyed a great deal. The characters were very compelling, each in their own way and the resulting fractious relationships kept the interest level high. ( )
  jwhenderson | Apr 28, 2012 |
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To Janet and Reynolds Stone
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'Julius King.' 'You speak his name as if you were meditating upon it.'
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0141186178, Paperback)

In a dark comedy of errors, Iris Murdoch portrays the mischief wrought by Julius, a cynical intellectual who decides to demonstrate through a Machiavellian experiment how easily loving couples, caring friends, and devoted siblings can betray their loyalties. As puppet master, Julius artfully plays on the human tendency to embrace drama and intrigue and to prefer the distraction of confrontations to the difficult effort of communicating openly and honestly.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:02:44 -0400)

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