“The Black Prince” roundup and “The Sacred and Profane Love Machine” preview #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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Oh dear, it’s only a couple of days since I posted my review of “The Black Prince” – I promise I’ll be starting the next read tomorrow! Fortunately, my lovely fellow Readalongers held onto their thoughts and shared them as soon as it was up, so there’s already a discussion going on on the review – do add your thoughts to that post, even if you’re coming to the book after January 2019, as I always love to hear what people think.

As well as the discussion on the review, Jo has done another of her excellent Goodreads reviews so do pop and read that here. I particularly enjoyed the quotes she shared at the end of the review.

Peter Rivenberg has come up proper trumps with his covers for this one – he has the Penguin edition after mine, a great US paperback (the very one that was thrown across a room, not by him!) and a collected edition (but when was that published and when did it go up to? Here we go …

The Warner Paperback Library first – who is the chap, and why is Julian meditating with a funny vase? Is it the vase that Bradley breaks bringing back from Bristol? But then how …

As Peter says, the back of the book shows what an event this was:

I have to say I have never seen footnotes on a blurb before – marvellous!

Here’s the Penguin Modern Classic

… and the promises of sex and violence on the back. OK, there is sex and violence, but this is a bit odd, isn’t it?

In fact there’s rather too much violence for my liking!

And the lovely colours of that collected edition

and it’s own blurb:

“The Sacred and Profane Love Machine”

I’m not sure what it is about this book, but although I’ve read it at least three times, and probably one more as I have a 1980s copy, I can only ever remember an awful lot of standing on lawns, looking into windows (which hardly distinguishes it from all the other novels) and the shocking thing near the end. So I’m interested to see what I make of it this time round. I did draw a relationship diagram in my notebook last time round which I will try to remember to share.

I have three copies of this: the first edition by Chatto and Windus, a Penguin reprinted in 1984 (so probably bought in about 1986 in my first rush of Murdoch reading) and the Vintage before last, as this is one they didn’t reprint with the red spines (it does at least have an introduction).

I find it interesting that they all have very similar looking and rather fussy cover images – I wonder what other people’s editions show.

A bit of blurb recycling going on as ever, too. Here’s the first edition’s flap:

Then the Penguin:

and then Vintage have read the first edition, I feel …

Are you going to be reading or re-reading “The Sacred and Profane Love Machine” along with me? Are you catching up with the others or have you given up)? What’s your favourite so far? Your least favourite?


You will find a page listing all of these blog posts here, updated as I go along.

Book review – Iris Murdoch – “The Black Prince” #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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I’m so sorry this is so late – life and work have got in the way, I only finished this yesterday morning and here I am, trying to get the review in by the end of the month. I am enjoying the project and I massively welcome and appreciate everyone’s input: sorry if you’ve been waiting, poised with your amazing comments and reviews!

I’m going to start the next one on Friday, and that’s a promise!

Iris Murdoch – “The Black Prince”

(October 2018)

This is really one of those books that changes as you re-read it, I think – and I’ll be interested to hear other people’s experiences if they’re doing a re-read. I must have read it first in 1995, as that’s when my oldest copy is dated, although maybe I’d read my friend Mary’s copy before then. I remember then, at age 23, identifying with Julian and thinking she was great, and feeling it was all a bit Lolita-y. Now of course I’m nearer Bradley’s age than Julian’s and I see that actually it’s a book about menopausal women and the horrors of marriage!

I can see this in the context of a phase of IM’s experimenting with form. This story of eccentric loner retired tax man failed author Bradley and his violent falling in love with his rival, Arnold Baffin’s, daughter, alongside a backdrop of his sister’s arrival fresh from her failed marriage and his ex-wife’s return to London as a widow, with her weird brother. Although the scene moves from London to the coast, it’s quite one of her “closed” novels in that there’s a small group of characters and not much of the outside world – apart from Bradley’s colleague, who himself is pulled into the fold rather amusingly by the end. Where “An Accidental Man” worked through party chatter and chapters of letters, this narrative is nested within layers of editorial and commentary, something IM didn’t return to in the other novels as far as I can think. I will find it interesting to read “The Sacred and Profane Love Machine” in light of these experiments.

I had forgotten about what is pretty much a rape scene, when Bradley falls upon Julian having seen her dressed as a schoolgirl Hamlet. I really don’t understand how I’ve missed this stuff in two books now: I’ve always been a feminist, a domestic violence campaigner, alive to the assaults women experience day in, day out. It’s not like I was awakened by #MeToo and can suddenly see this stuff. I’m not saying IM condones it (although she talks here and there about people wanting to be forced, etc.) but it’s pretty horrible. I’m also not saying Bradley is a nice or attractive character, so he’s even more rapey than almost-forgiveably horrified by himself Garth in the last novel.

This novel is unusual in my mind in not really having a saint or an enchanter. Bradley is obsessed with Arnold and in love with Julian in some way, and induces a slavish secretarial following in Francis Marloe, but not really in an enchanter way. He’s also “a failed person” but “a trouble maker” (p. 43) – although he’s messy and weepy and contingent, being seen as an active stirrer makes him unsaintly, plus he’s into psychoanalysis, not something that’s often a positive in the novels. Bradley achieves some kind of unselfing when he becomes a void on loving Julian (p. 232) but this is soon lost in control and ego. Maybe Shakespeare is Bradley’s enchanter. Various men are described as demonic, but in a sort of more general way, somehow.

It’s really a musing on art, isn’t it – or a musing on musings on art, maybe, which follows the metafictional form of the novel. I had to both smile at this and wonder if it’s IM’s description of her own work in Arnold’s:

“he lives in a sort of rosy haze with Jesus and Mary and Buddha and Shiva and the Fisher King all chasing round and round dressed up as people in Chelsea. (p. 137)

I also liked the aside about critics, which would have been a nice epigraph for my book on IM and the Common Reader:

‘So the critics are just stupid?’

‘It needs no theory to ell us this! One should simply try to like as much as one can.’ (p. 240)

We do have our usual themes. The Civil Service is there, with Bradley’s ex-job as a tax inspector. Thinking of siblings, we only have Bradley and Priscilla and Christian and Francis. There’s plenty of hair: Rachel’s is gingery and wiry, while Julian has a weird crest which turns into those familiar flat metallic locks we’ve had before. There’s a heck of a lot of water – lots and lots of women’s ugly crying for a start, and then the sea in the Patara sequence, bringing calm but emphasising Julian and Bradley’s differences, she cavorting in the waves, he unable to swim. And a mist comes over the sea and over them as they try to live in their little bubble of love for a few days. Christian has a face like “a grotesque ancient mask” (p. 93), another small theme we notice again and again. Bradley stares in the windows of the Baffin house and happily we are back chasing a pale thing through the night, except this time it’s a balloon!

Doubling: we have two locations, two ended marriages bring people into Bradley’s life, and scenes at the Baffin household of mayhem and violence at both ends of the novel, even before P. Loxias’ intro and outro. Rachel and Priscilla both cry, half-dressed, in bed. Roger and Bradley both have relationships with very much younger women, Roger being successful with his. There are stones on the beach which are brought back to the bungalow and arranged. The buffalo woman is a strange symbol, usually accompanying someone of great wisdom, but broken until Francis mends it …

There is humour – Bradley failing to catch his train over and over again, his identification with the Post Office Tower and his horror at using the simile of a red-hot needle through the liver which he has picked up from Priscilla. Much of the novel is too horrific, though, for a smile to be raised.

Links with the other novels do abound. I’ve always felt this had a lot in common with “The Sea, The Sea” in terms of the unreliable and egocentric narrator, but this time round he also reminded me of Hilary in “A Word Child”, possibly because of the brother-sister relationship and back story. As in “An Accidental Man”, at least Rachel and also to an extent Priscilla are shown to have been diminished by their marriages in what could be brought round to a feminist tone. There’s also a lot about “women of a certain age” becoming hysterical and basically menopausal, which is not something I associated IM for writing about until I remembered all those faded and drying women, from “A Severed Head” through “The Nice and the Good” and onwards. Bradley not wanting to be “a nebulous bit of ectoplasm swaying around in other people’s lives” (p. 49) reminds us of is it Willy Kost who uses the same metaphor? Broken china features, as in “An Accidental Man” and a set of books are torn up, as Rupert’s book is in “A Fairly Honourable Defeat”. Rachel, suddenly naked to the waist, recalls Annette in “Flight from the Enchanter” and “The Italian Girl”. Julian climbs over a suburban fence (and her mother fails to), recalling so many fence climbers, from “Bruno’s Dream” maybe particularly. At the end Julian goes off to Italy in a car with her father – “The Flight from the Enchanter” springs to mind there, and another one? The theme of an ordeal which Bradley mentions he has in relation to Julian is going to come up in “The Green Night” and “A Good Apprentice”.

One last point: I was thrilled to notice a quotation from Njal’s Saga, one of my favourite Icelandic sagas:

There was even a sort of perfection about it. She had taken such a perfect revenge upon the two men in her life. Some women never forgive. ‘I would not give him my hair for a bowstring at the end. I would not raise a finger to save him dying’ (p. 382)

Those last two sentences are said by Gunnar’s wife as she fails to help him survive an attack on their homestead. How lovely to find that cropping up in an IM novel!

So a magnificent work that’s uncomfortable to read. Do we ALL know someone who threw it across a room and refused to finish it?


Please either place your review in the comments, discuss mine or others’, or post a link to your review if you’ve posted it on your own blog, Goodreads, etc. I’d love to know how you’ve got on with this book and if you read it having read others of Murdoch’s novels or this was a reread, I’d love to hear your specific thoughts on those aspects, as well as if it’s your first one!

If you’re catching up or looking at the project as a whole, do take a look at the project page, where I list all the blog posts so far.

“An Accidental Man” roundup and “The Black Prince” preview #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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I know I only just posted my review of “An Accidental Man” but it’s now time to round-up reviews of that one and talk about January’s read, “The Black Prince”. Fortunately, my lovely regular readers have come up trumps and started the discussion on the book even though they’ve only had a few days to do so.

Oh, and if you’re coming to this blog new at the turn of 2018/2019, I’d love to have you along for the ride if you’re doing a Centenary Read of Iris Murdoch’s novels: feel free to comment on all the reviews posted so far then read and review along with us, you’re very welcome!

So I had a bit of trouble getting started with this one due to the period, and a few others found the same. I had forgotten a whole pivotal scene which we all found troubling, and I found I’d changed my view of a few characters. A few of us have been discussing on the review and Jo has done her usual excellent Goodreads review.¬† Do post in the review comments if you’ve reviewed the book on your own website, blog or Goodreads page. I’ll add more links as you let me know about them.

Peter Rivenberg has shared two more odd covers for this book. I suppose the older and newer of mine do show scenes in the book (the poor Owl!) but the middle one still has me lost. Nothing of course beats the Horrible Penguin which Peter has carefully shared (coming up after the US one for the nervous reader who needs to skim) but the contrast between the blurbs on these US and UK paperbacks is very interesting.

Here’s the US paperback cover. Who is this egg-man? Apparently Humpty Dumpty is mentioned in the book. Is it Monkley? Who else has a moustache? It was published in the 70s so does everyone?

here’s the fascinating blurb

I think this is the first time we’ve had a quote from Playboy, right? (I remember being quite shocked when The Sun did a nice little piece when Murdoch died – seemed just odd to see).

And now … the horror of the Penguin cover. Argh!

What? Just what?

And the back is an interesting contrast with the US one.

The Black Prince

On we go to a favourite of mine but the only one my friend Ali refused to finish during our readalong (game for another go, Ali???).

I have the usual three copies and I have to say the front covers of the UK first edition, my Penguin bought on 19 January 1995 (when I was 22) and my new Vintage are not really that exciting, are they?

Well, the Penguin (I’ve never liked that very 90s edition with its rag-rolled border) does have the painting of Apollo and Marsyas on it and the most modern references Hamlet, but given that all the blurbs are quite excited about it being a thriller …

Here’s the first edition:

… and then no one seems to really go off these themes as we get in the Penguin:

and then the Vintage:

I’ve never thought of it as a thriller in the same way as “The Nice and the Good” can be read as partly one, but I suppose it has those elements. Anyway, off we set and I will try to get it read in better time this month …

Are you going to be reading or re-reading “The Black Prince” along with me? Are you catching up with the others or have you given up)? What’s your favourite so far? Your least favourite?


You will find a page listing all of these blog posts here, updated as I go along.

Book review – Iris Murdoch – “An Accidental Man” #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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I have to admit that I had quite a difficult time getting into this book. I think the time of year (even self-employed, working from home and fairly unsociable as I am, I had a couple of seasonal activities) and the fact that I slightly overworked myself in the last few weeks meant that I didn’t get the discrete slabs of time you need to really worm your way in to a Murdoch novel. I felt like I wasn’t “getting” it and even a bit dim. I even considered whether I should be doing this at all! But I think it was a temporary blip – I’ve never thought that much about this novel in between reads (this was my fourth time with it) and it’s always languished in a middle ground between the favourites and the least-favourites. So let’s push on with my notes and see what everyone else thought about it. I can’t remember if I had such lulls last time I did them all (maybe any readers who were with me then can remember?) but I know I went to one every two months at some stage, which is not going to happen this time as I want to finish in IM’s centenary year!

Iris Murdoch – “An Accidental Man”

(August 2018)

The main idea in this book read this time appears to be that if you associate with someone with bad luck, that bad luck is somehow evil and will rub off on you. There’s also a delicious parody at one point which shows that IM knew exactly what kind of reputation her books were getting. Apart from that, it’s a baggy (before the baggy monsters) book with a lot of characters, all related to one another, and I even went as far as to do an inept relationship map to show this (wait until the end for that …). We do have our favourite themes, including the good old Pursuit Of A Fleeing Woman.

So Austin Gibson Grey is an unlucky man who has a dodgy hand, a dead wife and now a fey wife he appears to have mislaid; he loses his job and ends up renting out his flat and moving in with ex-athlete Mitzi (I do love Mitzi). Meanwhile the Tisbournes extend their tentacles through the book – Clara and George the do-gooders who want to have everyone to live in their house, Clara’s sister Charlotte who is just finishing nursing their mother and continues nursing her bitterness, and Gracie, self-possessed and scary, engaged to nice Ludwig who has dodged the draft. Throw in fey Dorina’s nun-like/ non-nun sister Mavis, Austin’s portly non-monk brother Matthew and a few lower-class characters, plus po-faced Garth, son of Austin and friend of Ludwig and a few extra families, plus a boutique whose rise and fall is charted only through letters and cocktail party chat, and a book that’s partly made up of chapters entirely full of letters and cocktail party chat and you’ve got a recipe for confusion it would take a cleverer person than me to pick through entirely successfully.

We have good examples of Murdochian themes. Who isn’t a sibling? – we have Gracie and Patrick, Ralph and Sebastian, Austin and Matthew, Dorina and Mavis, Clara and Charlotte. Doubling and patterning can then occur, with Matthew having possible affairs with Dorina and Betty, Dorina and Mavis, and Gracie and Sebastian / Patrick and Ralph. More doubling occurs with Austin killing a child and an owl, two innocent children, two large houses, London and Oxford as centres, Britain and America. Garth and Matthew have both seen, and passed by, a violent scene of danger and death, which somehow draws them together. Charlotte and Mitzi both attempt to take overdoses of sleeping pills and end up making friends in hospital; the person who succeeds in taking her own life does it by accident.

Who is the enchanter and who the saint? Is Ludwig a saint? He’s the first person we see surrounded by muddle: “Of course it was no accident that he’d mismanaged the whole thing so horribly. this particular muddle he recognized as, for himself, characteristic.” (p. 7). He quietly does the right thing in the end, but is he really saintly? He also debunks Garth’s odd rantings with quiet simplicity. But then he does basically force himself on Gracie which is not nice at all and quite disturbing. Garth seems to be trying too hard to be saintly, although both of them do seem to learn and change through the course of the book, Garth certainly finding consolation and power in serving others in small ways. Or is Dorina our saint, always in a muddle, “her compassion […] part of her own helplessness” (p. 42)? Then again, Mavis has achieved mid-novel “a sort of colourless see-through blow-through existence, full of tasks and without ties” (p. 47) and it feels like she does end up renouncing Matthew as he’s just too busy to see her. But she eschews “the hot muddled personal unhappiness of the ordinary human lot” (p. 50). I don’t know the answer here, to be fair.

Matthew seems to be the enchanter, with his terrible attractiveness and Eastern accompaniments (he feels a bit like a failed and lesser version of James Arrowby from “The Sea, The Sea” to me). He tries to pass this role on to Garth, leaving him to listen to people, showing his enchantership is created by others, not out of a wish to control. Garth has already described him as “A false prophet […] an entangler. He’ll entangle you if he can. He’s a fat charmer, charming his way to paradise. He’s the sort of person who makes everyone tell him their life story and then forgets it.” (p. 89) (here he reminds me of Julius from “A Fairly Honourable Defeat, who will read your letters but deny it). Matthew comes to the realisation at the end of the novel, however, that the everyday is to be his fate:

He would never be able to share in Kaoru’s mind. From the good good actions spring with a spontaneity which must remain to the mediocre forever mysterious. Matthew knew with a sigh that he would never be a hero. Nore would he ever achieve the true enlightenment. Neither the longer way nor the shorter way was for him. He would be until the end of his life a man looking forward to his next drink. He looked at his watch and drifted down to the bar. (p. 372)

In renouncing his attempts to be good and accepting his lot in life, is he in fact a saint? (I don’t know.)

Gracie is an odd character, determined and almost prissy in her desire to keep away from mess and contingency, whether that’s Austin’s “soupy sort of emotions” (p. 11) or Dorina. Ludwig is constantly surprised by her insight, but she almost seems like a chorus, outside the action (while part of it) maybe like N in “The Philosopher’s Pupil”).

There’s quite a nice lot of humour in this novel, seen from the beginning, when Ludwig is struggling with Gracie’s virginity, her narrow bed with a shelf over it and her “pussy cat” cushions. The horrible path of their courtship and engagement, tramping grimly round London looking at things is funny in a sad sort of way. Charlotte’s view of her sister’s marriage is great:

Had she ever loved George? Perhaps. But now George was just something hanging in the corner of a spider’s web. Clara had eaten and digested him long ago. (p. 81)

The story of Kierkegaard the car, told through letters, is hilarious and the letters in the main can be very funny. They include the wonderful:

It appears that Ralph loves Ann Colindale who loves Richard Pargeter who (currently, he never does anything for long) loves Karen who (although she denies it) loves Sebastian who loves me who loves Ludwig who loves me. So that’s that situation tied up. (p. 210)

Even Charlotte’s announcement that her mother is failing is quite funny: “‘Clare, is that you? This is Charlotte. I think she’s going.’ ‘Oh God. We’re dining with the Arbuthnots.'” (p.30). There’s also the horrible funniness of the struggle to interpret Alison’s last words: trees, priest or Treece? I found a savage humour in Dorina’s constant assertion that one cannot bend the knees too much, mis-remembering this as the words of a wise priest before, in her last moments, recalling that it came from a ski instructor.

Smaller themes that remind us of other books abound: someone has to be writing a book and here it’s Garth and his novel, as well as Mr Monkley and his, and Garth’s is even lost for most of the book. Water doesn’t play a huge part, with some rain and then of course Dorina’s fateful bath, and there are only two sets of stones: Gracie’s enormous diamond and the stones on Gracie and Ludwig’s Irish holiday beach. The canny nuns who don’t want to be lumbered with Valmorama remind me a little of the nuns from “The Bell”, more worldly-wise than you might expect. Matthew’s china is smashed like Mischa Fox’s fish tank and Rupert’s torn-up book. Dorina stands barefoot on the lawn and Austin even manages to climb over a wall and peer in the windows of Valmorama. This echoes so many other books, doesn’t it. There’s the usual amount of letter reading and stealing and a touch of real blackmail (the Monkley sub-plot foreshadows the underworld stuff in “Henry and Cato” to me. Austin’s disgusting state and room remind me of Tallis, however he’s no saint, is he? He sells his stamp collection in a wry nod to Bruno, surely? There’s the lovely dog, Pyrrhus, and his own pattern of belonging to people who break up and I love the paragraph from his viewpoint late on in the novel. And we end up with flight, as in “The Flight from the Enchanter” and “A Severed Head” and several other novels, with Ludwig on his way back to America and Matthew rather oddly following him. Finally, there’s a forward echo to “The Book and the Brotherhood” in that last party piece:

‘Aren’t we all getting grand.’

‘Anyway, we’re still socialists.’ (p. 376)

Relationship map in the back of my Penguin – I obviously thought it was an affair, not a tennis racquet, between Matthew and Betty last time around … Does this help at all?

On re-reading this book, it’s hard to re-read it knowing what’s going to happen to Dorina, somehow, although I had that happening earlier in the book. I think I liked Ludwig more and Charlotte and cheered her renaissance. I’d missed the shock of Ludwig basically forcing Gracie, which was uncomfortable to read this time; I’ve been a feminist since I started reading Murdoch (I did find quite a lot about the role of the single woman as propping up society this time, and how Charlotte could have been more than just a carer, and Clara’s loss of identity in wifehood and motherhood, which could almost be read through a feminist lens I don’t usually find in her). And I was cheered to read Matthew’s description of jogging! I was also pleased to note that Dorina is reading “Lord of the Rings”, having discovered in the Letters that IM enjoyed Tolkien herself – a nice little “Easter egg” for the careful reader.

I have the Vintage Classics edition and Valerie Cunningham’s introduction does cast this as a “bleak” “problem play” where even horror is undermined by farce, the characters despoil Murdoch’s favourite places and art and it’s all a pretty troubling and dark, so maybe I’m not alone in having difficulty with it. What did you think?


Please either place your review in the comments, discuss mine or others’, or post a link to your review if you’ve posted it on your own blog, Goodreads, etc. I’d love to know how you’ve got on with this book and if you read it having read others of Murdoch’s novels or this was a reread, I’d love to hear your specific thoughts on those aspects, as well as if it’s your first one!

If you’re catching up or looking at the project as a whole, do take a look at the project page, where I list all the blog posts so far.

“A Fairly Honourable Defeat” roundup and “An Accidental Man” preview #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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It’s time to round up our reading of “A Fairly Honourable Defeat” and look forward to “An Accidental Man” There’s been a great discussion on my review again and I’m so appreciating the same people joining in each time, but if you’re coming along to this not in the month we read the book, please don’t be shy and do add your comments.

This one actually went down slightly in my list – not hugely and I didn’t dislike it but the characters were a bit more annoying than I remembered, and I’ve certainly gone off Morgan. But we have good old manky Tallis and his saintliness at last, seeing as I’ve been banging on about that for the last however many months.

Do post in the review comments if you’ve reviewed the book on your own website, blog or Goodreads page. Jo has done another great Goodreads review, even though this was her least favourite one so far. I’ll add more links as you let me know about them.

Just one reader-submitted cover this month. Peter Rivenberg has done stalwart work sending me the Viking US firsts and here’s the very odd but at least applicable one for this book:

 

An Accidental Man

Moving on to the next book (and we’re over half way through them now!) and I get the openings to this one and “The Philosopher’s Pupil” mixed up for some reason (anyone else?).

I have three copies as usual: a first edition found and sent to me by the lovely Kaggsysbookishramblings, a weird Penguin and the newer Vintage Classic (back to the red-spined ones). What odd covers they’ve all chosen! The Penguin is a representation for a hermaphrodite, for no good reason.

The firs edition goes onto the back and yes, I’m sure they are both scenes from the book, but aren’t there some more attractive ones to choose?

There was an original clipping and review tucked into the book: I do love the caption to the rather dashing photo of IM:

So there’s the blurb from the first edition:

I like the way the Penguin blurb uses “appalling” which always seems to be a very Murdochian word to me.

and the blurb writer for Vintage has as usual read the above.

Are you going to be reading or re-reading “An Accidental Man” along with me? Are you catching up with the others or have you given up)? What’s your favourite so far? Your least favourite?


You will find a page listing all of these blog posts here, updated as I go along.

Book review – Iris Murdoch – “A Fairly Honourable Defeat” #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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Here we are at the mid-point of the readalong (oh no!). How have you found it so far? Do you have a favourite and a least favourite so far? What are you looking forward to most in the second half of the project? If you’re joining outside the set months I did this readalong, welcome, and please do contribute your comment or link to your review!

I first read this one in my teens and remember feeling, as with “A Severed Head”, that this was terribly sophisticated, which was obviously rubbing off on me (or not). I’ve read it at least twice since then, and my attitudes to the characters have shifted slightly, though I think I’ve felt the same about the actual story. Talking story – the blurb on my Vintage copy begins with events that occur on p. 404 of 438! What’s that all about?

Iris Murdoch – “A Fairly Honourable Defeat”

(August 2018)

Here we have a comedy of manners, indeed, something referred to as a midsummer’s entertainment. We have a cast of middle-class characters, some conspicuous by their veneer of American sophistication (by association) and some more gentle and doing all the good they can. Beautifully drawn relationships, heterosexual, homosexual and sibling, as well as those among friends, show what can happen when, as arch-would-be-enchanter Julius mentions,

Human beings set each other off so. Put three emotional fairly clever people in a fix and instead of trying quietly to communicate with each other they’ll dream up some piece of communal violence. (p. 419)

Does this not just sum up Murdoch’s novels in general??

We open with the shock of Morgan returning to London after the end of her affair with Julius. She bursts into her older sister, Hilda’s house, where she lives in perfect harmony with husband Rupert. Meanwhile, Morgan’s messy, contingent husband Tallis lives in a decaying house with his ailing father, and Simon and Axel, Rupert’s brother and his partner, fret over decorations and the perfect dinner. There’s a wayward son, Peter, too, for whom I had little sympathy this time around (presumably as I myself grow away from his age). And into this set of situations comes Julius, ready to work some tricks and have some fun. I’ll now look at the usual Murdochian themes and comparisons to the other novels in the oeuvre.

We have plenty of siblings – Hilda and Morgan, Rupert and Simon, and Tallis and his dead twin sister, who still visits him. Rupert and Tallis are both writing books, great unfinished works (Tallis gives up on his and Rupert’s gets destroyed). Pairings and contrasts abound, from Rupert and the hedgehog to Morgan’s comment on her two lovers: “Tallis has no myth. Julius is almost all myth” (p. 52) Quite a few papers are torn apart and scattered and there are two sets of letters – based on two other sets of letters, of course.

We have only a bit of stone action and more water. The stone is the malachite paperweight which Rupert manages to give to both Peter, in childhood, and Morgan, and Rupert holds all his work papers down with stones. The swimming pool holds pivotal scenes and the rain drums down on it with a pivotal thunderstorm, too. Hilda thinks the sea will bring her strength and help her decide what to do, then fails to actually visit it. London is a character as usual, although more benign in its weather. Rupert and Axel are civil servants, and the institution of the museum as well as the civil service and universities, workers’ education and charities all come into things.

It is a funny book in places – not just the savage irony of the plot, but comments such as “Julius might read all your letters if you left him alone in your flat, but he’d be sure to tell you afterwards” (p. 26) and is it only me who finds Tallis’ father’s rants about the revoltingness of being human quite funny at times? Simon’s horror at the sight of a naked Morgan raises a smile, especially the sentence, “He did not find it enjoyable” (p. 154). The teddy bear is funny, especially when poor Simon is trying to get rid of it.

Who is the saint and who the enchanter? Well, Julius is mentioned alongside the word saint on the first page, but is he either? He wants to manipulate, and seeks to control, but then Axel, Simon and Morgan, and poor old Hilda, all do fall under his spell. He’s definitely no saint because he’s busily passing on the pain of his war in a concentration camp by upsetting and hurting people all over the place, for fun.

Tallis is, of course, along with Anne Perronet in “An Unofficial Rose” often mentioned as the classic Murdochian saint. I was actually less annoyed by him than in previous reads, although the descriptions of his kitchen are perhaps best not read over your own meal. Being described as spiritless, a muddler, tired, confused and overborne makes him a classic IM saint. Morgan says of him,

His sanity is depressing, it lowers my vitality … Tallis has got no inner life, no real conception of himself, there’s a sort of emptiness. (p. 52)

Julius points out that he only doubts himself when he considers himself (in this scene, where Julius tidies the kitchen, he does apply attention to Tallis, too, p. 327). He tries to forgive, to help others, even at the cost of himself, to learn about people and to absorb. He seems distracted but has that all-important attention: for example, he’s the only character to spot Julius’ concentration camp tattoo. He has a handcart which feels a bit like a cross, and doesn’t care about appearances or possessions, and has visions of being at one with the world (see p. 199). But for all his meekness, when he needs to act (and Simon has this, too), he slaps the assailant in the Chinese restaurant before anyone can notice he’s moved, and he forces Julius to undo his bad deeds by making him speak to Hilda on the phone. In fact, Morgan is obsessed with him as if he’s an enchanter, but I feel that might be down to Morgan’s character, rather than his, as she is also obsessed with Julius and Rupert …

Is Hilda a sub-saint? She doesn’t pass on suffering and Morgan points out:

Who was always talking about helping people? Rupert. Who was always really helping people? Hilda. Only one failed to notice Hilda’s virtue because she was unaware of it herself. And she treated her good works as jokes. (p. 378)

Julius also seems to respect her in a non-snarky way, saying, “She’s not interested in herself the way the others are. This is what makes her so restful to be with.” (p. 398) I’m not sure I was that aware of Hilda even on the last read. I certainly rate her higher than her sister now: dignified and practical with her help for others.

I love how Axel and Simon’s relationship is treated as entirely normal – in fact described as so – with nothing particular about it actually reminding us they’re gay: it’s just a relationship. This is still quite an early book and I’ve always loved this about this one – and Axel and Simon remain two of my favourite characters in the whole oeuvre. I think they survive because they don’t meddle in other people’s business, and do that consciously, too, talking about it and making a decision, so doing something active there.

In relation to other books, it hadn’t really struck me that Peter was an extension of the Godless young generation that IM discussed in “The Time of the Angels” and will go on to discuss in “The Message to the Planet”. He is described as belonging “to the first generation that’s grown up entirely without God” (p. 12). Tallis’ father seems another version of Bruno, railing against the dying of the light, his illness kept from him, mulling over his life and the grotesequness of age. Hilda and Julius’ conversation at cross purposes (“so you know?“) puts us in mind of similar misunderstandings in “An Unofficial Rose”. Julius’ comments that Hilda will suffer to “spare them suffering” reminds us of poor old Diana being told to step aside and fade into the background in “Bruno’s Dream”. Who is the “philosopher with the funny name that¬† [Rupert] admires so” (p. 342) – could it be John Robert Rozanov from “The Philosopher’s Pupil”? Axel and Simon and Julius going off to the Continent at the end reminds us of any number of the books, going right back to “The Flight from the Enchanter”.

So, a book with a more attractive premise than “Bruno’s Dream”, perhaps, and a good Shakespearean theme. I feel it’s a more conventional novel, but with so many touches that can only be Murdoch’s. And I still enjoyed it, even though my opinion on the individual characters has shifted once again.


Please either place your review in the comments, discuss mine or others’, or post a link to your review if you’ve posted it on your own blog, Goodreads, etc. I’d love to know how you’ve got on with this book and if you read it having read others of Murdoch’s novels or this was a reread, I’d love to hear your specific thoughts on those aspects, as well as if it’s your first one!

If you’re catching up or looking at the project as a whole, do take a look at the project page, where I list all the blog posts so far.

“Bruno’s Dream” roundup and “A Fairly Honourable Defeat” preview #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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It’s that time of the month again – we’re recapping our reading and discussion of “Bruno’s Dream” and looking ahead to “A Fairly Honourable Defeat”

A brisk and interesting discussion is going on on my review of “Bruno’s Dream” (do join in even if you’ve read it after October 2018!). We agreed that Nigel is odd (is he an incarnation of God or a weird, uncanny hippie?) and the book is full of rather unsavoury people and power relationships. Yet it’s a good read, very atmospheric, and not as gloomy and full of death as I thought when I first read it as a teenager (I remain endlessly fascinated by the process of re-reading and our changing attitudes to familiar books.

Also do post there in the comments if you’ve reviewed the book on your own website, blog or Goodreads page. So far, Jo has posted another of her excellent reviews on Goodreads as well as joining in the discussion on the review page. I’ll add more links as you let me know about them.

Now for some reader-submitted covers. Peter Rivenberg and Jo Smith have both sent me images of the Viking US first edition, not a cobweb in sight! What is that actually an image of?

That image from Peter, and here’s the rather lovely author pic, in Jo’s version:

Peter also has the most deliciously horrendous and inappropriate copy of the Dell paperback.

Really? And who is this: Danby and Adelaide or Miles and Lisa??? And the back cover blurb …

Really, really? Keep them coming: I love these!

“A Fairly Honourable Defeat”

This is one of my favourite of IM’s novels, and features, new readers will be glad to know, the character Tallis who I keep going on about in my reviews.

I have the customary three copies: my Chatto & Windus first edition, my 1980s Penguin reprint, and my new red-spined Vintage Classic with introduction.

More cover art from the first, as the disturbing image wraps right around the back!

Lovely! Competition to work out who all these people are coming soon!

So the blurb is quite straightforward in the first:

I love this: it explains who the main characters are, raises the idea of Julius and Tallis fighting over Morgan and discusses the final defeat. We go a bit more minimalist with the other two. Here’s the Penguin:

And well, that gives it away a bit, right? And the Vintage is getting into the whole Shakespearean thing but I’m not sure about that first paragraph. We’ll see.

Are you going to be reading or re-reading “A Fairly Honourable Defeat” along with me? Are you catching up with the others or have you given up)? What’s your favourite so far? Your least favourite?


You will find a page listing all of these blog posts here, updated as I go along.

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