Friday, 26 February 2010

A Fairly Honourable Defeat - Book review

Another of my favourite novels by Iris Murdoch is A Fairly Honourable Defeat. Published in 1970, the story is set in London during a long, hot summer. Hilda and Rupert Foster have been happily married for twenty years; they are essentially 'the perfect couple'. The only shadows at their gate are Hilda's sister Morgan and their grown-up son Peter. Nevertheless the novel opens with them celebrating their anniversary.

As they sip champagne in the cool shade of their urban garden, dipping their feet in the small pool, they discuss Julius King and his return. Julius is the intellectual, cynical and Machiavellian man who Morgan left her husband, Tallis, for some years previously. Morgan followed Julius to America where their relationship broke down. As Hilda and Rupert bask in their comfort, happiness and companionship they worry about their circle. Fraught with tension, their friends seem to be on the brink of self-destruction.

Their home is the centre - the haven which every character seeks at some point during the novel. Morgan returns to London in Julius's wake. Peter moves in with Tallis and Rupert's brother Simon and his partner Axel enter the melee as Julius slowly embroils them all in his deceitful meddling.

Julius makes a pact with the obsessive Morgan that he can destroy Axel and Simon's relationship - what he does not tell her is that he will also set out to destroy Hilda and Rupert's marriage, using Morgan as his weapon.

The lies, deceit and mistrust are triggered by Julius but all the characters perpetuate what could have been dissolved at the beginning if only they had communicated openly with each other. Julius is the 'puppet master' but Simon and Morgan are just as responsible. Evil perhaps is not just something achieved through actions but also through irresponsibility. The plot unfurls in a frustrating yet gripping fashion and climaxes with one of the most unexpected events that I have ever read.

Again, Murdoch packs her writing with symbolism but it is more subtle in this novel than the symbolism in The Bell. Clothes, food, a telephone and a giant teddy bear all shed their basic, material functions and become indicators of the internal lives of the characters. The swimming pool is a magnet, a honey-trap and even as reader I was entranced also. My imagination dipped my own toes into the same "square of flashing shimmering blue in the middle of the courtyard garden". But then, I have long had an obsessive love for being in water.

Despite the tragic events that unfold and the bleak outcome, the novel strikes me as a very, very black comedy. It is oddly humorous but there is no humour to speak of. The reader watches with a morbid fascination and you can see exactly what needs to be done to extricate the characters from their self-generated mess but there is nothing you can do. The sense of powerlessness ultimately results in warped sniggers as you read on with an increasing awareness that the novelist is almost mocking her characters for the ease at which her protagonist achieves his evil plan.

I only read this for the first time last year and it needs to be read again, like most of the books I have read by Murdoch. I think I love Murdoch's writing so much because of her probing fascination with relationships. A Fairly Honourable Defeat dissects every aspect of relationships and the reader is left emotionally drained at the end. A sign of a satisfying read!

Iris Murdoch 'season' is nearly over at Bloomsbury Bell. March will bring new books and musings but it would be great to know if any of you are thinking about reading Iris for the first time or if you will revisit her work. I have gone on and on about The Bell but here are a few more which I really recommend to you all:

1) The Sea, The Sea (won the Booker Prize - very odd, yet enjoyable read if you don't mind sea monsters)
2) Under the Net (her first novel, fascinating as very different in style and hilarious)
3) The Black Prince (A bit Fairly-Honourable-Defeat-like - packed with symbolism)
4) The Unicorn (psychological, fairly bleak but magical)
5) The Book and the Brotherhood another favourite of mine - opens at a midsummer ball at Oxford where a group of friends are reunited. Having years ago made a pact to each other which has not been fulfilled - this night sparks off a crisis. Duelling, murder, a suicide pact, passion and hatred - this is a meaty read.

I have a Vintage Classics edition of The Book and the Brotherhood to give away. Again, very kindly donated by Fiona at Random House. No question this time - just let me know in the comments section if you want to be entered for the draw. I will draw a random name on Friday 5 March and I will post anywhere. Good luck!


  1. I;ve not read "A Fairly Honourable Defeat", but think I might give it a go now, thanks for writing about it. I love "The Sea. The Sea', one of my favourites! I'd love to be entered into the draw if that's okay.
    Have a good weekend

  2. Now that I have The Sea The Sea & The Bell, I'd love to add to the slowly growing collection. Hope I'm lucky this time.
    Zehra X

  3. I'm ashamed that I've only ever read one Murdoch novel many years ago, and know I will love them and should read lots more, so I'd love to be entered for the draw. Many Thanks.

  4. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Under the Net, would love to add this one to my collection! Enter me into the draw please. Cheers! (@KatherineChu)

  5. I'd be very interested in having and reading this.

  6. Ahhh, not to be deafeted I'm back for another shot! I just checked out The Book and The Brotherhood on Amazon and it has some great reviews - I like the sound of it.

    Could this be my first Murdoch? Let's see......

    (that means, yes please I'd love to be entered) ☺

  7. I read this a few years ago. I remember it being brilliant but as with all Murdoch's novels I just could not remember the plot. It was great to revisit it through your review. Did you know that it's nominated for the Lost Man Booker Prize? I'll be posting about that soon and another book that's also on the longlist. Shortlist will be announced next moth.

  8. I've tried to get Murdoch for the last two weeks ever since reading a review elsewhere and failed. You have made me more than determined to get my hands on any of the books you have mentioned. All this goes into my TBR pile. Thank you for the recommendations and please count me in.


  9. I adore 'The Sea The Sea' and have the 'The Book and the Brotherhood' down as my next Murdoch to read, so a free copy would be a dream! Please enter me in the draw.

  10. Enter me please!

    abs x

  11. Sounds wonderful. Please enter me in the draw.

  12. Hi, very engaging review, I like what you said about how as a reader sometimes you watch something unfold and it is so obvious but the characters can't see it coming, so it becomes almost comic. I read something by Iris Murdoch many years ago but now can't even remember what, and would be intrigued to try The Book and the Brotherhood, please include me in your draw.
    thanks for sharing

  13. A very enlightening review - I'm becoming more and more enamoured with Iris!
    So, yes please enter me in the draw.

    Jeanne x

    PS If you want any more information on Columbine Hall just drop me an email;)

  14. The Book and the Brotherhood sounds fascinating! I would love to be entered into the draw please. As I keep mentioning (in the hope that the more I say it, the more it will compel me to make it happen), this is the year that I shall read Iris Murdoch.

    Mrs B has already mentioned A Fairly Honourable Defeat's place on the Lost Man Booker longlist, which I was going to point out.

  15. No need to enter me in your giveaway, as I already have a copy of The Book and the Brotherhood, which is one of my favorite Murdochs, along with The Bell and The Sea, the Sea. Began Under the Net a long while ago & have never finished it. You make me want to give it another go. But first I must read A Fairly Honourable Defeat. Thank you for your wonderful review!

  16. Lovely review - thank you for posting. I have enjoyed the Iris Murdoch that I have read although I must admit that I have only read a couple.

    I would love to enter the giveaway - yes please!



  17. Never read any of her books but your reviews have made me curious! Please enter me for your giveaway


  18. Please enter me for this - sounds like a great read, thanks :-)

  19. I'd love to enter the draw, been meaning to read some Murdoch!

  20. I love Iris Murdoch, so thanks for this competition.

  21. I am an avid fan of Murdoch and would include The Bell as one of my all time favorites. Very eager to read The Book and the Brotherhood after that beautiful review and would love to be entered into the draw....
    Best Wishes,

  22. I loved The Sea, The Sea (the Vintage edition has a beautiful wavey cover), and would be very interested to read The Book and the Brotherhood! Enter me please :)

  23. Please enter me, it looks really good :)

  24. Please do enter me for the draw. I shall read Iris soon, I promise! Ta very much.

  25. I've read Under the Net and really enjoyed it. As a philosophy graduate whose read her philosophical works I should read more of her fiction.
    Please enter me!

  26. Please enter me in your book giveaway. It would be so wonderful to receive a book in the mail. I don't think I have read a book by this author but after your reviews, I think I would like to. Cheers! Kay Guest

  27. I really loved "The Green Knight", and I would love to read this one, too. : ) Please enter me in the drawing.

  28. This is quite simply one of the best books I have ever read. After reading it, I started reading other Murdoch novels. Many have been good or so-so. This, however, is unalloyed genius.