Monday, 29 August 2011

Battered Penguins XI

A Fairly Honourable Defeat is the first Iris Murdoch I've read. It was published in 1970 (and yet, amazingly, contains a reference to someone working on something called the 'Computer Forecast Working Party' - I had no idea computers had even been thought of all that time ago, let alone percolated down, if only as a concept, to middle class London, which is the novel's milieu). It appears to be some kind of reworking of the kind of Shakesperian comedy in which a mischievous spirit leads people astray for fun, confusing them about who they love and so forth.

The novel opens with 20-odd pages of straight dialogue, which is quite a daring way to begin a novel. Unfortunately, the experiment is 'brave', as Sir Humphrey would say, rather than particularly successful, partly because Murdoch has to burden it with slabs of exposition, which make the conversation flow in an unnaturally orderly way, rather than meandering about with endless broken sentences and countless digressions, as actual speech tends to do.

Similarly, while Murdoch's characterisation (notable for its unusually detailed visual descriptions; she supplies us, in a slightly Constable Plod kind of way, with hair colour, height, eye colour and even, bafflingly, in one case, something she designates as a 'slightly prissy mouth'),  is admirably fertile and inventive, the structure of the novel creaks a fair bit. She creates seven very vivid main characters but then proceeds to shove them in and out of situations that, while they highlight the points she wants to make about the nature of good and evil, love and illusion and humanity itself, do not entirely convince.

The book contains some good insights and is remarkably advanced about homosexuality (possibly the most sympathetic of the characters are the homosexual couple). At moments - for instance, when we are told of one character, 'He sat down on the divan bed and began to pick his nose' - it takes realism to extremes I have not encountered before.

It has some wonderfully comic moments - including a farcical sequence involving the disposal of a large pink teddy bear. The figure of Tallis's father, who, when he says to his son, 'I wish you were five again. I'd give you something. Not that beating ever did you any good. But my God I enjoyed it,' reminded me of Dudley Moore as the angry working-class father telling his effete son, Peter Cook, never to darken his own doorstep again, is consistently amusing, (I particularly like it when he tells his son he should get a shave,  because, 'you look like something growing on the side of a tree trunk.')

However, too much is left to the reader's kind indulgence, particularly when it comes to putting up with the idiotic pseudo-mystical thread  that runs through the text. The final revelation of terrible violence hidden in the past of two characters is probably meant to be shocking, but I found it merely gimmicky.

All in all, the book, though entertaining, is flawed and has, somehow, a hollow ring. I suppose it could therefore be described as a rare example of honesty in advertising. After all, the title tells any prospective reader the absolute truth: as a piece of fiction this novel is a fairly honourable defeat.

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