Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, and not in a good way. We used to talk, in art-history graduate school, about the idea of a canvas being “transparent to” the subject; this meant that the painting itself did not get in the way of the illusion. It’s an old-fashioned notion, and it applies to fiction as well. Some novelists coddle you with this illusion of participating in an alternative universe. Others, however, want you to be aware that they are not. Normally I prefer the old convention, and that may be why I was so uncomfortable with A Fairly Honourable Defeat.
What brought me to Iris Murdoch was finally renting the movie in which she suffers from Alzheimer’s. It piqued my curiosity and a friend prompted me to follow up even though I’d long shied away from Murdoch, expecting her to be too intellectual or something. As it turned out, my apprehension was only slightly misplaced. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand the ideas she was handling; it was just that the whole exercise felt damn chilly.
Here’s the paradox: you are very aware at all times that Murdoch has brought her characters into being in order to put them through a sequence of episodes having to do with modern morals. There are the long-married Rupert and Hilda, rich, handsome, a tad smug. Hilda has an odious younger sister, Morgan, who crashes through the novel with the self-absorption of a two-year-old but a much better vocabulary. Rupert’s young gay brother is struggling with monogamy (this must have been shocking in 1970) and the biochemist Julius manipulates them all. Oh, I’ve forgotten Morgan’s ex-husband Tallis, hapless, old-fashioned. At a guess (geez, could it be his name?) he represents The Church and its outmoded ineffectiveness.
There’s some shifting of alliances, some flirtation, hours of talk. Conversation is often stilted: “People can use moral concepts, as you used the concept of truth just now to persuade me. Anyone can do this.” Since much of the dialogue is somewhat natural, there must be a reason for making characters talk like this, but I can’t think what it could be.
Most annoying is the fact that, despite their stiff conversations you come to care for most of these characters, and I resented deeply the things Murdoch had them undergo. She is so cold, so ungenerous to them! I feel as if she has called them into being only to make them miserable and prove a point. What pleasures she gives them are tainted with smugness; their disasters are irremediable.
Perhaps oddest still, the hateful ones, Morgan and Julius, aren’t even the kind of characters you love to hate. There is very little pleasure to be had in this book, and I was finally so resentful that I couldn’t even be bothered to grapple with the moral concepts. Give me Trollope on morality any day.