Iris Murdoch’s Gayest Novel


Arts & Culture

Iris Murdoch.

The critic and biographer Peter J. Conradi reports that in the four years leading up to the publication of A Fairly Honourable Defeat, Iris Murdoch devoted herself to rereading the plays of Shakespeare. One sees the influence everywhere in her thirteenth novel, which presents a harmonious social world, its nucleus the marriage of Hilda and Rupert Foster, only to show that world exploded by the machinations of a seductive, baleful outsider, Julius King. Julius uses strategies of deceit taken directly from Shakespeare’s Iago: he isolates his victims in silence, making it seem impossible for them to speak to one another; he leverages their fears and jealousies; he curates reality with the aim of their torment.

Julius’s stratagems have their tragic result, but the richness of Murdoch’s novel comes from its success, unequaled elsewhere in her work, in combining Shakespearean tragedy with Shakespearean comedy. As in Much Ado about Nothing, love is induced by flattery; as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a conjurer shuffles affections like so many cards in a deck. To Murdoch’s rereading of Shakespeare is owed the peculiar nimbleness of this novel, its ease with ensemble scenes, its brilliant use of cross-cut dialogue.

These are a few of my reasons for thinking that A Fairly Honourable Defeat, while not the most perfect of Iris Murdoch’s novels (that distinction belongs to The Bell), is decidedly her best. But there are others. First, the book is enlivened by a kind of verbal energy almost unmatched in her other work, both in its intensity and its range. One finds this energy in the elderly Leonard’s Bernhardian rants; in the eerie, imperturbable calm of the late scenes between Tallis and Julius; in the wonderful formal conceit of dialogue scenes that all but replace the sometimes dreary psychological exposition predominant in Murdoch’s weaker books.

Second, while there are the usual Murdochian archetypes—the muddled philosopher, the shy youth, the wandering woman, the enchanter—we find them here in their most fully embodied and least abstract incarnations. This is especially true of Julius, who has a presence, a reality, lacking in the more notional magi of The Flight from the Enchanter or The Unicorn or The Time of the Angels. Julius’s assault on Hilda and Rupert’s harmonious world is more convincing for being more visible: we see the machinery of his influence; we watch as his victims succumb. Third, there is Murdoch’s willingness to bare her own cherished beliefs to devastating critique in the savage and powerful assault Julius mounts on the book Rupert has spent a decade composing, which bears an unmistakable resemblance to Murdoch’s own The Sovereignty of Good, published the same year as A Fairly Honourable Defeat.

Finally, there is what most moved me when I first read the book some twenty years ago, and what continues to move me most now: Simon Foster, Murdoch’s most successfully rendered character, and his relationship with Axel Nilsson. Murdoch is famous for the plentiful and humane representation of lesbian and gay characters in her novels; but in none of her other novels is a same-sex relationship explored so deeply, and in no other is a marriage—and it is a marriage—between two men allowed to become the center of a moral world. This is a remarkable act of affirmation in a book published in 1970, just three years after the decriminalization of private homosexual acts in the United Kingdom; more remarkable still is that it remains, fifty years later, perhaps the most beautiful literary representation of a same-sex marriage I know.

Much of the beauty of that representation lies in its distance from the seeming ideality so precious to Hilda and Rupert. Simon and Axel’s relationship is rocky from the start; provisionality is constitutive of their union. Like all Murdoch’s characters, the two men are recognizable types, and their marriage represents the coming together of quite different queer cultures. (It is a sign of Murdoch’s investment in the affective lives of queer people that she can render those cultures so vividly, and imagine so richly the new thing their joining together might form.)

Axel is conservative, reserved, very nearly closeted; he shudders at public (and sometimes at private) affection; he disdains not just the gay scene of bars and clubs but any socializing among gay men, what he dismisses as “that goddamn secret organization.” Any performance of queerness—Simon’s “tribal habits”—provokes a rebuke. He defines himself by a dignity that is sometimes indistinguishable from shame. (His most moving moment in the novel is his acknowledgment of the partial justice of this accusation after a confrontation with Hilda and Rupert’s son, Peter.) He is horrified by gay male sexual communities, and haunted by Simon’s own history of cruising the toilets at Piccadilly Circus station.

Simon, by contrast, rather likes the habits of his tribe; faggotry seems a natural expression of his exuberance of spirit. He even, without at all compromising the joy and wonder he feels at the life he has made with Axel, thinks fondly on some of his cottaging adventures. The difference between the two characters is highlighted by a trick in the narration: in a novel willing to enter into the consciousness of almost all of its characters, Axel’s interiority remains closed off to us. Simon, by contrast, is the first character whose point of view the novel adopts, and he remains throughout the book a particular focus of narrative sympathy.

While working on A Fairly Honourable Defeat, Murdoch referred to the book as “the Simon-novel,” but Simon’s centrality has not always been recognized. It’s true that he’s an unlikely hero for Murdoch. He’s not a philosopher, for starters, and lacks even a philosopher’s disposition—his virtue consists in large part of an aversion to introspection. His vanity is all exterior; he would rather weave crowns of roses than cultivate his self-regard. This lack of moral ostentation leads Simon to be uniquely forgiving, in the novel, of the failures of others: having suffered Peter’s cruelty, “he felt no impulse to blame Peter who was clearly in some sort of bad way himself.” He alludes at one point to his “experience of being sneered at” (and we see plentiful examples of this sneering in the novel) but this hasn’t led to bitterness or to Axel’s excessive concern for dignity. One feels it has instead released Simon from the peculiar flaw inherent in Rupert and Hilda’s sense of morality, attachment to their own good image, and to the good image of their relationship. Love—the central preoccupation of Murdoch and her characters—consists for nearly everyone in the novel of judgment and instruction, a desire to change the beloved object; for Simon alone it manifests instead as affection and delight. (For Tallis, the novel’s saint figure, love is steady resignation.) “I don’t even mind if you’re selfish or frantic,” Simon reassures Morgan, Hilda’s relentlessly selfish and frantic sister.

Even Simon’s self-deprecation is generous, focused on what he feels is his failure to earn the love of others; his attachment to pleasure, and to moment-by-moment experience, saves him from a morbidly lacerating self-regard. (“I am a man with a lot of nonsense about me,” he thinks, weighing himself against Axel’s standards; “nonsense is indeed the element in which I live.”) That Simon’s judgment of himself is inadequate becomes clear in the novel’s sweetest surprise: his heroism, which is instinctive and free of posturing. It occurs twice: in a restaurant where, alone and certain that he is merely redirecting violence to himself, he interrupts a racist assault; and in the marvelous pool scene where he finally physically defies Julius and so begins the unraveling of Julius’s enchantment.

Simon is dismissed by the novel’s other characters as silly, unserious, superficial. He appears to be all surface, no depth, and it’s certainly true that his attention is consumed by the visible world: he fiddles with flowers and sofa cushions; he lingers longingly at shop windows. And yet in Simon’s character we find a scrambling of the usual values attributed to surface and depth; his attention to the sensuous world, to visible (touchable, tastable) surfaces, takes on the quality of a moral discipline. This is Murdoch’s point, I think. The relationship between morality and attention is a central theme of The Sovereignty of Good, in which Murdoch strives to recuperate “the metaphor of vision”—the idea that much of morality consists of trying to see an object or situation clearly—after its demotion in contemporary moral philosophy in Britain.

Much of her argument is concerned with coaxing morality down from the heights of academic philosophy, and with attempting to account for moral thinking in everyday life. Early in A Fairly Honourable Defeat, Rupert insists that “love is the secret name of all the virtues,” a sentiment with which Murdoch would likely agree. But, as he finds himself ever more baffled by his strained relationship with his son and his increasingly confused and passionate feelings for Morgan, he conceives of love in heroic terms: “There is a path, he said to himself, because for love there is always one. But for him it was a mountain path with many twists and turns.”

But much of Murdoch’s point in The Sovereignty of Good is to subtract from the idea of virtue heroism conceived in this way. Far from a decisive, heroic ordeal, love—and by extension virtue—is woven into the fabric of dailiness. “Love is knowledge of the individual,” she writes, and necessary to that knowledge is attention conceived of as “a just and loving gaze directed upon an individual.” The exercise of this gaze comes not in singular actions but in a certain disposition toward the world, a way of being. “The task of attention goes on all the time,” Murdoch writes, “and at apparently empty and everyday moments we are looking, making those little peering efforts of imagination which have such important cumulative results.”

Such efforts of imagination—apparently trivial, cumulatively profound—are Simon’s characteristic activity, and the particularizing, individuating gaze he turns on those he loves is the novel’s most compelling challenge to Julius’s claim that “human beings are essentially finders of substitutes.” There’s a curious, charming passage late in the novel where Axel’s “rather dark and discreetly flowery tie,” a particularly successful gift from Simon, leads to an extended reflection on Axel’s sartorial tastes, and an account of Simon’s slow and stealthy campaign to understand them:

Later on, more tactful and with deeper knowledge of his subject, Simon conceived a special style for Axel, something darkish yet rich in colour, intricate and yet not startling in design. Like someone studying an animal on a new diet, Simon watched Axel’s tie behaviour. After a considerable repertoire had been built up Simon was even able to compile statistics and thus to discover the point at which his own taste and Axel’s tended to converge. The birthday tie was, in Simon’s opinion, bang on.

Simon’s goal isn’t to transform or correct the beloved, but to observe and comprehend him. “One can hardly ever see what another person is like,” Hilda says; for Murdoch, love lies in the attempt. I spoke above about the very different queer cultures Axel and Simon represent, and Simon’s careful curation of Axel’s ties stands in for the larger effort of creating a space in which they can coexist. Simon revels in the daily tasks that make up the work of loving another, a more compelling demonstration of devotion than any of Morgan’s theatrical declarations. It’s through long, daily attentions of this kind that love attains reality in Murdoch’s novels, that it becomes a fact that can withstand the vagaries of feeling. Heroic coups de foudre nearly always falter in Murdoch’s books, they prove passing or illusory; part of the essentially conservative world view of her novels is their reverence for structures built up by stable and habitual obligation.

I use the word conservative not with its current cramped political resonance but to characterize Murdoch’s view that lives are more importantly structured by habit and obligation than they are left free to impulse or sudden passion. This tension—between improvisational freedom and set obligation—is conveyed by the way the novel’s characters discuss their relationships in theatrical terms. The idea of acting or role-playing appears in the opening scene as an impediment to love, when Hilda laments her fractured relationship with her son: “If only I could stop acting the emotional mother and you the stern father.” The idea occurs later in the novel in Morgan’s relationship with Tallis (“I must act a part, play a scene, to preserve myself, I’ve got to”) and in Julius’s theory of substitution (“Anyone will do to play the roles”). In all these instances, the implication is that habitual roles are distinct from authentic relation, that to “act a part” is necessarily to compromise one’s love. Only Tallis, who serves as a surrogate guardian to Hilda and Rupert’s troubled son, articulates a different understanding:

Tallis’s Peter was a very different person from Rupert’s Peter or even Hilda’s Peter. Tallis knew that. With his parents Peter acted a part. Tallis had thought this was something bad but was just now beginning to believe that it might be an element of salvation. The separation from which so much had been hoped had conceivably stripped the boy of his last defence, the imperative need to keep up appearances. With Tallis Peter had no role and lived in a state of vulnerability and nakedness which was not too far from despair.

The roles that so many of the characters long to be free from are part of the world of “appearances,” and like Simon’s cultivation of sensuous experience they have a profundity that may not be immediately apparent. The roles that structure the characters’ lives—son, mother, husband, partner—are not so much theatrical as they are structural: they bind individual freedom and autonomy by insisting that meaningful identity is relational, that we are who we are because of our place in the structures made by our long-standing obligations and habitual attentions.

That obligation and meaningful bonds are more important than freedom and autonomy; that love is something one does, not heroically or decisively but minutely and repetitively, so that minor graces become major facts of the world: these are common ideas in Murdoch’s novels. It may be a flaw that the books make the points so determinedly, again and again, and there is truth in the criticism that Murdoch often seems more interested in philosophical argument than credible characters. But I think that there’s less grist for that particular mill in A Fairly Honourable Defeat than in any other Murdoch novel, and familiar truisms are renovated to a remarkable degree by their application to a same-sex union.

The imperfections of this wonderful book lie elsewhere, in its late veer toward stock devices of melodrama: broken telephones, revelations of dark pasts, heavily foreshadowed mishaps by the pool. Even in this respect, though, the book is restrained, its melodrama almost as qualified as its perfect title. And the novel ends, unusually for Murdoch, in a less obviously determined, more open way, with vignettes that show us the elements of Hilda and Rupert’s once peaceable world settling into a new constellation: Tallis at his kitchen table, Hilda and Morgan in America, Julius entering a restaurant in Paris.

Simon and Axel, the sole surviving couple, are vacationing in France, and the final lines of their section point the way back, after the tragedy of the book’s second half, to the affirmation of Shakespearean comedy. Simon “was young and healthy and he loved and was loved,” Murdoch writes. “It was impossible for him, as he sat there in the green southern light and waited for Axel, not to feel in his veins the warm anticipation of new happiness.” As in so many Shakespearean comedies, an order that has been troubled and changed is reassembled around a new center, two individuals—somewhat chastened, maybe in important ways reformed—bound to each other by a slightly wiser love.


Garth Greenwell is the author of What Belongs to You, which won the British Book Award for Debut of the Year, was long-listed for the National Book Award, and was a finalist for six other awards, including the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice, it was named a Best Book of 2016 by more than fifty publications in nine countries and is being translated into a dozen languages. Greenwell’s fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, A Public Space, and Vice, and he has written criticism for The New Yorker, the London Review of Books, and The New York Times Book Review, among other publications. He lives in Iowa City.

Excerpted from Garth Greenwell’s introduction to A Fairly Honourable Defeat, by Iris Murdoch, reissued by Vintage Classics this week in the UK.