on March 8, 2001
I first became a Murdoch fanatic in my 20s, and would gobble up her books like Oreo cookies. At the time I was dazzled: nobody wrote like her, with precise descriptions of physical and psychological terrain alike. Nobody made me laugh with delight with descriptions that were comic without being mean spirited. (I'm hard pressed to find a writer as brilliant.) In the past, I recommended this book to others with rave reviews-all the while certain that I had a lock on what it "meant." The characters alone are a hoot: You've got the Machivellian Julius, the sassy but silly Morgan, the calm but fuzzily ineffective Tallis. But there's also Rupert-whose writing a tome about philosophy and seeks to enlighten others. Add to that Simon, his gay brother, Hilda, Rupert's loving, slightly plump and aging wife. We don't really see her interior at all, and yet we know her, a droll, sweet and self-satisfied woman, and one who is about to face the shock of her life. The great characters and qualities that make ALL her books amazing are especially evident in this novel, with its sparkling wit, bold situations, and dryly humorous dialogue. Just to give you a taste, in one chapter, a character's clothing gets cut to shreds by an opponent,who leaves his foe literally naked and defenseless. Magically, this "scene" works and seems entirely believable. Few writers can pull that off. On a more serious note, "A Fairly Honorable Defeat" was always my favorite because of what it had to say about loving someone (e.g., truly noticing another and acting in their interest along with your own) vs. "using" them for whatever reason or out of whatever weakness. What it has to say beyond that, I'm not entirely sure. Not that a lack of knowing interferes with the pleasure of reading. Besides, Murdoch the story teller is saying something different than any of the pompous things that come out of the mouths of MOST of her characters. All I have to say is, in this one, don't underestimate Tallis. Happy reading.
on September 4, 2002
The scene is London, c. 1970, set among a group of friends and family members in a fashionable London suburb. They are urbane, intelligent, intriguing people who have their share of quirks, obsessions, and blind spots. There's Rupert and Hilda, the blissfully happy married couple; Hilda's sister Morgan, a fun-loving academic undergoing a midlife crisis; her estranged husband Tallis, an eccentric caring for his dying father; Rupert's brother Simon, in a loving yet stifling relationship with a man named Axel; and Rupert and Hilda's son Peter, a delinquent, aimless college dropout. Although filled with concerns, their lives are basically stable until the appearance of Julius King, an old acquaintance who sets upon them with the goal of destroying their lives. He does this to prove a point: that human beings are inherently distrustful, inconstant, and easily manipulated. He further wishes to demonstrate that suspicion can be induced with the slighest, subtlest insinuations, and that people are perfectly prepared to believe ill-conceived rumors over reliable knowledge. In a remarkably brief time Julius unravels these people's lives and replaces their love and trust with cynicism and despair.
Mudroch's novel suggests that certain people induce evil for pleasure, and further that the society we live in breeds such behavior. Unfortunately, she's probably right. Julius has great fun manipulating the puppets he plays with, that is, until they remember that they're not puppets but real people with their own consciousness and choice. As always, Murdoch's prose is expert and often gorgeous, her pacing measured, her characters fully realized and oddly plausible. At its beginning the novel reads like a late 60s sex comedy and seems light, almost giddy, compared to some of her other work. But she very gradually alters the novel's tone so that its true horror sneaks up on you. Murdoch spares no detail in conveying her characters' emotional deterioration, and it's more chilling, I think, than anything Stephen King ever devised. There's substantial hope at the novel's end, but getting there is a deeply unsettling process.
Finally, this is a book about relationships, one of which happens to be gay. Murdoch doesn't make much fuss about Axel and Simon being men, although their homosexuality isn't trivialized, either. In giving them equal status with the novel's heterosexual couples Murdoch accords more dignity to gay men and their lives than do the authors of many gay-themed novels, which this really isn't. The result is heartening and inspiring.
Very strongly recommended.
on September 15, 2002
Iris Murdoch's novels are addictive. Since a friend gave me a copy of "The Bell" a few months ago, I've read almost nothing but Murdoch--11 novels in all. In fact, I checked out six at one time from my university library so as soon as I finished one I could start on another. I've become a chain-reader. This one may be the best one so far. It's certainly the most chilling, if not the most riveting. It's a good place to start for the uninitiated because it's so incredibly engaging and entertaining, althougt not necessarily fun. All of the basic Murdoch elements are there--the complexity of love and life; the overwhelming essentialness of love to life; the frailties, faults, and follies of basically good people; the way the lives of good people can be wrecked by both their own carelessness and by intentional acts of evil; and despite all of this, an odd optimism that life is good and that all will be well. ... Julius is even more frightening, however, because you will recognize in him someone you know or have known. Although there are no monsters, ghosts, or serial killers, the book is as suspensful as any of the popular horror or crime novel that routinely makes the bestseller lists today. And no "romance" writer alive knows more about love and sex than Murdoch. I always finish Murdoch's books feeling unsettled but strangely satisfied and always awestruck by what she is able to do with plot, characters, ideas, and words. Put down your Stephen King, your John Grisham, or your Danielle Steel and pick up this book instead.
on September 11, 2003
Brilliant! This novel has everything I look for in a truly great book: complex characters, deft plotting, luminous prose, and profound insight into the human condition. Iris Murdoch knew what it was to be human. She understood our aspirations and longings, our blind spots, our frailties, and our capacities for love and betrayal. She's the only writer I know of who can hold her reader's rapt attention throughout a novel in which the action consists almost entirely of dialogue between the various characters. (If you think that sounds boring, believe me, it's anything but!) In this age of high-speed internet, cable tv, and the unending pursuit of distraction, that's no small feat!
I recommend this novel unreservedly. I started reading Iris Murdoch a couple of months ago and since then, have read no other fiction. This is the sixth of her novels I've read and my favorite to date. If, like me, you want fiction to illuminate the human condition and to give you more than an enjoyable way to pass a few hours, then give yourself to Murdoch. She's deepened my thought, sharpened my wit, and made me more compassionate, while holding me spellbound and fascinated at every turn.
on August 15, 1999
Easily one of my favorite novels. I've never understood why this isn't ranked more highly: I suspect it's paradoxically because, with this book, Murdoch got as close as she ever got to realizing her mozartean desire to be profound and entertaining at the same time. As someone else said, below, this is about as accessible as she gets.
But the themes are as universal as ever, and the questions of the value of honesty are questions I've returned to again and again. Amongst friends who have read this book, the characters and situations have become standard reference points, which is a rare thing.
Julius alone should make this book compulsory reading. You will find yourself trying to deny him just as much as anyone in the book. And when he has the last say, it's chilling.
on August 16, 1999
After reading Iris Murdoch's A Fairly Honorable Defeat, I had the oddest sensation of imagining what my own life would look like in her hands. I find this story of two marriages, tinkered with by an enigmatic magician so absorbing that I just spent the entire weekend reading it. Does anyone know if Julius King is a personification? I am now reading Iris Murdoch's book The Fire and the Sun. I like the part where she says that Plato "...was impressed by the way in which artists can produce what they cannot account for..." Whenever I read one of her novels, I find myself going to the library to find out what she was talking about.
on June 28, 2014
Iris Murdoch is a brilliant, witty, philosophical novelist and this is one of her best stories. Julius is convincingly evil, a sort of latter day medieval devil in sophisticated form and the musical chairs of the protagonists become believable as the story wends its way. I finished it several days ago and am still living in the world of Murdoch's characters part of the time. Watch out for the pool!
on July 25, 1998
If you've never read, Iris Murdoch, start here -- A Fairly Honourable Defeat is perhaps the most accessible of her more substantive novels. It's engaging, funny, deeply affecting, and provocative, with a plot that can be appreciated on many levels. No one need be daunted by the novel, and everyone will be entertained by this allegorical tale of the battle between good and evil.
on January 10, 2016
I don’t think anyone who has read Iris Murdoch’s A Fairly Honourable Defeat (1970) all the way through can be neutral about it. You either love the insights into human relationships, cynical as they may be, or you are repelled by the seemingly la-di-da treatment of evil. I’ve been reading Murdoch chronologically and have to say this is her best to this point.
The book really is two books, both Shakespearean in the way Murdoch’s books often are. The romantic comedies infuse the very stagey first part (there are long passages of pure dialogue without even a “he said” or “she remarked,” which is okay when there are only two characters but becomes a bit more difficult to get through when there are more, sometimes quite a few more, and you have to figure out who’s saying what). The highlight is a scene of attempted seduction that ends in what in any lesser hands could have been pure farce but in Murdoch’s masterful treatment becomes quite a bit more, including vaguely creepy, and ending with one of those cross-dressing escapades typical of the Bard’s comedies.
The much more compelling Part II is almost pure Othello with the best Iago character since, well, Iago, in the person of Julius King. King is a repellent character whose nihilism (which may date to something in his past revealed late in the book) prompts him to bloodlessly manipulate people like pieces on a chessboard, apparently only for his own amusement, and with absolutely no regard for feelings or consequences. His excuse is the outing of little everyday hypocrisies and self-delusions human beings are prone to but what makes it work, ironically, is the fundamental decency of the victims. What King’s manipulations result in and how they are resolved I won’t spoil for those yet to read the book, but I will say that Murdoch’s ending will certainly provoke a lot of strong reaction one way or the other.
There are some flaws in this otherwise wonderful work. The buildup in the first part of the book takes a bit too long, though it is hardly boring. A scene that takes place in a restaurant is not only somewhat implausible and crudely melodramatic, but, frankly, superfluous while the mechanics of how King pulls off his plot, especially a rather far-fetched scene that uses the old Shakespearean “hiding behind the arras” stunt, may be just a bit too contrived for some purists’ tastes, though I accepted the suspension of disbelief required.
Highly readable while also intellectually challenging, A Fairly Honourable Defeat should at or near the top of one’s Iris Murdoch reading list.
on July 9, 1999
This was my first experience with Iris Murdoch's fiction, and I was not prepared for the tragic ending, given a generally light and mannered tone that preceded it. Throughout the wonderfully inventive plot turns, I had no doubt that the rat Julius would receive his comeuppance in the end. Instead, the sad unraveling of so many decent characters forced me to re-evaluate the meaning of the whole exercise. I thought I was reading George Bernard Shaw and ended up with Ibsen instead.
Despite this incongruity, "Defeat" was a highly engaging story, with memorable characters and lots of moral and philosophical ideas. It would make an excellent stage play, and was so dialogue-driven it would hardly require adaptation.
Murdoch is a gifted writer, and I'll eagerly read her again, but not with the same innocence I brought to this one.