Wednesday, January 05, 2011

the last book I read

A Fairly Honourable Defeat by Iris Murdoch.

I have a venerable paperback copy of the Faber Book of Parodies which contains a brief (5 pages or so) parody of an Iris Murdoch novel by fellow novelist Malcolm Bradbury. It begins thus:
"Flavia says that Hugo tells her that Augustina is in love with Fred."
More of this later. In this particular novel (published in 1970, about halfway through Murdoch's prolific career) it's Rupert who is in love with Hilda, and shares with her a comfortable upper-middle-class existence in a nice house in London. Hilda's younger sister Morgan has just returned from America after her estrangement from her husband Tallis and a doomed affair with Rupert's colleague Julius (who is also back in the country); meanwhile Rupert's younger brother Simon is living in domestic bliss with his gay lover Axel. I hope you're following this.

Most articles about Murdoch and her novels point out the recurrence in the novels of a demonic and charismatic male "enchanter" character who bends the actions of the other characters to his will for his own ends - a character based on Murdoch's own ex-lover Elias Canetti, apparently. A Fairly Honourable Defeat seems to conform fairly closely to this structure, as no sooner has Julius been introduced (and described as slim, white-haired and aquiline, which immediately conjured up an image of a slightly older Julian Assange) than he cooks up a plan to split up Simon and Axel and to lure Rupert and Morgan into an affair by the judicious redistribution of some old love letters. Whether this is to deflect the unwanted continuing affections of Morgan towards him (she's already turned up at his flat, stripped naked and thrown herself at him by this stage) or just for a bit of a laugh isn't clear.

Anyway, the bait is taken, and Rupert, who is a philosopher and fancies himself an expert on goodness and morality and therefore well-qualified to lead Morgan sensitively through her apparent infatuation with him, arranges a series of assignations with Morgan, one of which Julius contrives to eavesdrop on with Simon. Meanwhile Axel is becoming increasingly suspicious of Simon's relationship with Julius. While all this is being conducted largely in the luxurious surroundings of people's well-appointed apartments or upmarket public spaces like the British Museum, Morgan's husband Tallis is living in squalor in a rented flat, lecturing on history to unappreciative students and tending to his cantankerous father who has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer (though he thinks it's arthritis and Tallis hasn't got round to telling him otherwise yet).

Misunderstanding piles on top of misunderstanding and the characters' impeccable British reserve (and general inability to express themselves clearly and economically without hugely discursive waffly philosophical rambling) leads to an inevitable confrontation when Hilda finds out what's been going on between Rupert and Morgan, even though nothing really has, or not in terms of exchange of bodily fluids anyway. Hilda flees to the family cottage in Pembrokeshire, Simon cracks and confesses his part in Julius' machinations to Axel, and Julius explains what he's been up to to Tallis, whereupon Tallis marches him to a phone box and makes him explain everything to Hilda. Meanwhile Morgan, not knowing where Hilda has disappeared to, has broken into Rupert and Hilda's house to find some clues, only to discover Rupert's body face-down in the swimming pool. Suddenly the phone rings - it's Hilda! All has been explained and forgiven and she's coming home. Could she have a quick word with Rupert? Er, no, not really.

Murdoch was a lecturer in philosophy at Oxford as well as a novelist and has a pretty fearsome reputation. So it was with some trepidation that I approached this, the first novel of hers I've read (though I have a vague recollection of reading the first couple of chapters of The Good Apprentice in someone's flat during my student years). I have to say it wasn't really what I was expecting - plenty of Big Philosophical Ideas, to be sure, but a lot easier to read than I expected (even at a fairly beefy 447 pages), as well as more broadly comic in places (the scene where Morgan strips off at Julius' flat, then - after he leaves - calls Simon round, swaps clothes with him and then disappears into the night, leaving him to be discovered by Julius on his return, is all a bit Brian Rix). It would certainly be easy to criticise - it's all very upper-middle-class, nothing really happens until Rupert does his faceplant into the pool at the end, and there's no sense that the way in which the characters behave mirrors in any way how actual people act, or that, for all the bed-hopping, any real red-blooded passion is being experienced by anyone. But I enjoyed it, overall, and I certainly wouldn't rule out reading some more, though I suspect you don't really need to read all 26 novels.

Regular blog-watchers will know that that last criticism (lots of agonised mooning around and no action) is one that I levelled at Lawrence Durrell a while back as well, so it's an odd coincidence that the Faber Book of Parodies, in addition to the Murdoch one (which I can now re-read with new eyes and declare to be pretty spot-on) contains a Lawrence Durrell parody ("my tartan undershorts clung coldly to my alabaster thighs") by the very same Malcolm Bradbury.

Iris Murdoch's life and final descent into dementia was dramatised in the 2001 film Iris, which I haven't seen, but which is generally well-regarded. This trailer contains a hilariously inappropriate gravelly Voice-Over Guy narration, though.

No comments: