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A Fairly Honourable Defeat (2001)

A Fairly Honourable Defeat (2001)

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3.94 of 5 Votes: 2
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0141186178 (ISBN13: 9780141186177)
penguin classics

About book A Fairly Honourable Defeat (2001)

Relationships : It's Complicated!Tallis loves Morgan but Morgan loves Julius, Julius woos Simon but Simon loves Axel, Hilda loves Rupert but Rupert covets Morgan, Julius wants Hilda but Hilda loves Peter, Peter loves Morgan but Morgan loves Rupert. Leonard loves nobody because he's an old grinch and the exception to the rule of musical chairs deployed by Murdoch here in her study of love, morality and fidelity. If the tune sounds familiar, it's because I've spent half an hour on Google trying to identify a song that I kept humming back in the 80's. Turns up it's by a band named Chilly: Joey wants Penny but Penny loves Bo Bo isn't ready 'cos he's havin' fun - Playin' with many is better than none. Johnny loves Jenny but Jenny loves Joe I used to love Iris Murdoch, but after the rather ponderous and deprimant Dream of Bruno I took a break that turned to last two decades. Now I'm back, and I'm glad to report that her books can be not only deep, philosophical and provocative but also a lot of fun. Rambunctious is not a qualifier that I had occasion to use before, but it describes accurately the madcap permutations in the affections of the close knit group of friends and relatives at the center of this story. To borrow a title from my next review, the book could aptly be named : The Disorderly Lovers , a commedy of manners that could only be set in England, where appearances, stiff-upper-lips and repressed sexuality trump sincerity and trust: You are preserving your dignity by refusing to show your feelings. But there are moments when love ought to be undignified, extravagant, even violent. says Rupert at one time to Tallis about the latter's failure to convince runaway wife Morgan to come back to him.I'm getting ahead of the story. I should get back and properly introduce the actors before commenting on their foibles. Briefly, the novel starts with Rupert, a high ranking government official and his stay at home wife Hilda celebrating the 20th anniversary of their steady and slightly boring marriage. It's one of those elusive hot summer days in London and the couple gossips extensively about their guests as they sample liberaly from the drinks cabinet. We learn that Hilda's sister Morgan is expected to return soon from the United States where she had a torrid affair with Julius, a former school colleague of Rupert. Their son Peter is living out with Morgan's abandoned husband Tallis, while Rupert's brother Simon is expected to join them in the company of his 'significant other' Axel, another mate from Rupert and Julius school days. At this point I recommend a spreadsheet and some colored markers in order to keep track of who is involved with whom.To make it easier, I would say the novel is a cross between two literary classics : A Midsummer Night Dream by Shakespeare and Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. I am not qualified to comment in detail on the connections, as I am only familiar with the movie versions of these stories, but I see Rupert and Hilda as Oberon and Titania around whom the others gravitate, Morgan as the Marquise de Merteuil and Julius as the disruptive, malicious Puck / Vicomte de Valmont. This artificiality / theatricality is in fact the one major complaint I could level at the novel. In order to touch on as many aspects of the subject as possible, Murdoch uses a sandbox approach, with the characters acting sometimes as puppets whose strings are in their creator's hands and who move in predetermined patterns that puts them in exactly the situation that illustrates best the point Murdoch wants to make. With the same goal in mind, all the characters are upper class, highly educated and introspective, able to analyze their emotions and extremely articulate about expressing them. What saves the characters as people is the level of detail of Murdoch analysis and the real pain they go through as they try to reach out and touch one another. I had some issues with Peter and Simon, who are a little too stereotypical in their roles, one as a teenager refusing his parents love and the other as the effete, promiscuous, flashy dresser, gay interior decorator: Peter : - Peter, do drink something not just water. It would do you good. - What sort of good? You people all drink in order to escape from reality. I happen to like reality. I'm staying with it, not taking off for the land of make-believe. Peter , again : - I'm afraid nowadays it's you young people who are cynical and we middle-aged ones who are idealistic.- We aren't cynical. And you aren't idealistic. You're just a lot of self-centred habit-ridden hedonists. Simon : Simon was greedy for the surface texture of his life whose substance he luxuriously munched second after second as if it were a fruit with a thin soft furry exterior and a firm sweet fleshy inside. [...] Simon loved times of day, eating, drinking, looking, touching. All his experiences were ceremonies. He liked the slow savouring of moments of pleasure and he engineered his life to contain as many of these as possible.It sometimes seemed to him that all his enjoyments were similar in kind though not in degree, whether he was stroking a cat or a Chippendale chair or drinking a dry martini or looking at a picture by Titian or getting into bed with Alex. Murdoch most reliable characters for presenting her position on the major themes of the novel are Rupert and Julius. Rupert is actually writing a philosophical book about the power of love and positive thinking. Julius thinks Rupert is conceited and misguided and sets up to demonstrate that his own cynical approach to love is closer to reality. Rupert : Love is the last and secret name of all the virtues. Julius : - All human beings fly from consciousness. Drink, Love, Art are methods of flight. Philosophy is another one, perhaps the subtlest of them all. Even subtler than theology. - One can attempt to be truthful, Julius. The attempt has meaning. - About these things, no. The Venerable Bede observed that human life was like a sparrow that flies through a lighted hall, in one door and out the other. What can that poor sparrow know? Nothing. These attempted truths are tisues of illusion. Theories. Julius , again : Human beings are roughly constructed entities full of indeterminacies and vagueness and empty spaces. Driven along by their own private needs they latch blindly onto each other, then pull away, then latch again. Their little sadisms and their little masochisms are surface phenomena. Anyone will do to play their roles. They never really see each other at all. There is no relationship, dear Morgan, which cannot quite easily be broken and there is none the breaking of which is a matter of any genuine seriousness. Human beings are essentially finders of substitutes. ... and so, Julius proceeds to put his theories into practice by sabotaging the relationships he sees as conceited and insincere. He uses Simon's insecurity, Axel's reticence, Morgan's self-centeredness, Rupert's idealism, Peter's teenage rebelliousness, Hilda's complacency. The comedy that entertained me so much in the beginning of the novel gains tragic dimmensions as the victims of Julius seem unable to escape his devilish machinations. Jealousy rears its ugly head, and reason flies out the window . Julius : Mix up pity and vanity and novelty in an emotional person and you at once produce something very much like being in love. Murdoch defines the ensuing chaos as a 'muddle' , the very opposite of order and clarity, the very thing that Englishmen find abhorrent (I believe I'm quoting E. M. Forster on this). Life is a mess, and good intentions are not enough to see us through. I've been quoting most of the characters in the book, it's time to shine the spotlight on Axel : Eating reveals the characteristic grossness of the human race and also the in-built failure of its satisfaction. We arrive eager, we stuff ourselves and we go away depressed and disappointed and probably feeling a bit queasy into the bargain. It's an image of the decu in human existence. A greedy start and a stupefied finish. Waiters, who are constantly observing this cycle, must be the most disillusioned of men. Pretentious drivel or astute observation? As a seriously overweight person, I cannot refute this, at least as far as expectations and fullfilment in the matter of food are concerned. There is lot more to discover in the book than just troubled relationships and self-deceiving individuals. I could go on at length about age and disillusionment as seen through the eyes of Leonard, the one actor who isn't playing the game anymore and is just waiting for the exit. But I don't want to end the review on such a bleak note. I have seen several interpretations of the 'defeat' from the title : Rupert's awakening to the shallow nature of his philosophical musings when confronted with a real life crisis, Julius exile from London when his dirty deeds are exposed, Morgan's inability to see beyond her own needs, Tallis slovenness and incapacity to put either his kitchen or his emotions in order. But Murdoch chooses to close the novel with neither of these images, she picks the only couple to emerge strengthened and closer to each other from the ordeal: Of course our love is selfish. Almost all human love is bloody selfish. If one has anything to hang onto at all one clings to it relentlessly. We've tried to face it and to suffer it. To take refuge in love is an instinct and not a disreputable one.

A Fairly Honourable Defeat had a great premise. A university professor, Julius, decides to test his friends' relationships by planting ideas and otherwise messing with their lives. He doesn't believe in love or emotional bonds - for him, relationships will always be selfish and one will abandon ones partner in a heartbeat if the situation was right enough. The characters in this book aren't likeable. We have Robert and his wife Hilda, Robert's brother Simon and Simon's partner and Robert's old friend Axel, Hilda's sister Morgan, Morgan's husband Thallis and finally Julius King, Axel and Robert's friend form college. The only people I found likable at all was Thallis, Hilda and Simon. The others act selfishly the whole book and I found myself despising them sometimes. Morgan, absorbed in herself and looking for something huge and life-defining, is the worst here. She's immature and has never learnt that her actions have consequences. She kinds of rushes through her decisions and ideas and expects everyone else to change or adjust themselves accordingly. For example, she cheats on her husband, comes back and kind of throws her dislike of him in his face but doesn't want a divorce. I really hate that kind of character.Axel got on my nerves too on many occasions. But still, the point *is* to somewhat dislike these characters. None of them is in any way in touch with reality except Thallis - though he tries his best to occupy his mind and time with something else to escape life. He's in many ways the complete opposite of the rest of the characters. He is 'a man of action' while the rest of the characters do nothing but talk about doing the right thing (the restaurant scene and the ending comes to mind).I liked the book. The first half is a little dry and nothing happened for a while, but once the book picks up the plot, it gets really good.

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Iris Murdoch never ceases to amaze me, and A Fairly Honourable Defeat is no exception. She takes what could be a tragic story of deception, unrealized dreams, and marital infidelity, and turns the tables in such a way that the victims seem to deserve all they receive and the aggressors appear innocent of any wrongdoing. Murdoch's deft touch still provides some room to sympathize with the weaker characters on the losing end, but overall the novel is an entertaining ride exploring what happens when bad things happen to good people, while allowing the reader the space to cheer for those responsible for the pain and suffering.
—Sarah Beaudoin

Iris Murdoch is my favorite writer. I have been saving this, the last one I hadn't read. And it is, in a word, magnificent. Of course I've never not liked one of her books, but this one ranks near the top. About Murdoch, John Updike said, “Our actions, our decisions, our vows do matter; what can fiction tell us more important than that?” I love her complicated plots, her mysterious characters, her oftentimes outrageous interaction, and, most of all, her dialog. She uses dialog to delineate her characters better than any other writer I can think of. Thanks, Dame Murdoch, for decades of great reading. I guess I'll start over now and re-read my favorites.

I have to admit to a soft spot for 20th Century novels whose gay characters are not used as metaphors or killed off because the author can't think of what to do with them by the end of the book. In this book, we find a gay couple working through their problems in a very believable way.Murdoch can lean towards the schematic in her dialogue from time to time, but even so, the ethical drive of the novel steers clear of esoteric theories and philosophical abstractions.Love is the irrational that we accept into our lives without much question. 'A Fairly Honourable Defeat' makes those questions present in the lives of the characters and works out their consequences to various ends. What is required of us to accept the love of another person? and, ultimately, what does it mean to actually live without love? These are the questions that carry the reader through this novel of intersecting and colliding lives. When the drama ends, the questions remain for us.

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