A Fairly Honourable Defeat by Iris Murdoch
By Zehra Cranmer
A Fairly Honourable Defeat, published in 1970 was Murdoch’s 13th novel. Murdoch, philosophical in nature once more delves into a litany of philosophical enquiry and whilst doing so; she draws upon the classical plot device of a Shakespearean tragicomedy or black comedy if you will with such gusto that you are left spinning in the air with your fingers gripping the pages. Many gasps left my lips as I veered haphazardly through the pages in a state of astonishment; fear, sickness and amusement. If you are indeed after a stimulating read which will leave your heart in your mouth or in any other part of your body, then do not hesitate to pick this up and be ready to fall down a very long maddening hole.
Murdoch takes a group of people, beginning with a happy event; the twentieth wedding anniversary of Hilda and Rupert Foster who could not be more contented in their marriage, throws in some easily swayed characters, a few eccentric ones and Julius- the novel’s puppeteer. Love and trust are the greatest themes of our lives it seems and it’s certainly drawn upon here. People are so easily pulled apart and what once had a meaning, or thought to be set in stone, is soon dispensed of. An example of this is the home; Hilda and Rupert’s that is. It is a rather perfect home; a swimming pool in a gorgeous walled garden, beautiful flowers always on show, everything in harmony, but these items and aspects that make up a home only create an illusion of happiness, it is just that, an illusion. It never takes long to work out that it is the people in your life that create and destroy true happiness. “Love is the last and secret name of all virtues,” Murdoch writes, love is the key it seems, even William S Burroughs managed to see this at the end of his life and it is what the characters in this novel do not fully trust. They pursue it, they consume it, and politicise and philosophise over it yet it’s not until they are dangling over the precipice that some of them finally understand its essence. Murdoch brings together a bunch of somewhat self-involved characters, lost in their own lives who find themselves unable to help one another out; instead, they are easily led onto a path of destruction. The destruction of the other.
Murdoch, an ever observant author in her writing, brings London to life through detailed descriptions of the weather, the skies and flowers to the point that the setting is sitting on you lap, in fact it’s a setting fit for a stage. Her writing is dramatic, theatrical and utterly absorbing as the reader almost takes part in the unraveling that takes place before them.