Friday, 26 February 2010

A Fairly Honourable Defeat - Book review

Another of my favourite novels by Iris Murdoch is A Fairly Honourable Defeat. Published in 1970, the story is set in London during a long, hot summer. Hilda and Rupert Foster have been happily married for twenty years; they are essentially 'the perfect couple'. The only shadows at their gate are Hilda's sister Morgan and their grown-up son Peter. Nevertheless the novel opens with them celebrating their anniversary.

As they sip champagne in the cool shade of their urban garden, dipping their feet in the small pool, they discuss Julius King and his return. Julius is the intellectual, cynical and Machiavellian man who Morgan left her husband, Tallis, for some years previously. Morgan followed Julius to America where their relationship broke down. As Hilda and Rupert bask in their comfort, happiness and companionship they worry about their circle. Fraught with tension, their friends seem to be on the brink of self-destruction.

Their home is the centre - the haven which every character seeks at some point during the novel. Morgan returns to London in Julius's wake. Peter moves in with Tallis and Rupert's brother Simon and his partner Axel enter the melee as Julius slowly embroils them all in his deceitful meddling.

Julius makes a pact with the obsessive Morgan that he can destroy Axel and Simon's relationship - what he does not tell her is that he will also set out to destroy Hilda and Rupert's marriage, using Morgan as his weapon.

The lies, deceit and mistrust are triggered by Julius but all the characters perpetuate what could have been dissolved at the beginning if only they had communicated openly with each other. Julius is the 'puppet master' but Simon and Morgan are just as responsible. Evil perhaps is not just something achieved through actions but also through irresponsibility. The plot unfurls in a frustrating yet gripping fashion and climaxes with one of the most unexpected events that I have ever read.

Again, Murdoch packs her writing with symbolism but it is more subtle in this novel than the symbolism in The Bell. Clothes, food, a telephone and a giant teddy bear all shed their basic, material functions and become indicators of the internal lives of the characters. The swimming pool is a magnet, a honey-trap and even as reader I was entranced also. My imagination dipped my own toes into the same "square of flashing shimmering blue in the middle of the courtyard garden". But then, I have long had an obsessive love for being in water.

Despite the tragic events that unfold and the bleak outcome, the novel strikes me as a very, very black comedy. It is oddly humorous but there is no humour to speak of. The reader watches with a morbid fascination and you can see exactly what needs to be done to extricate the characters from their self-generated mess but there is nothing you can do. The sense of powerlessness ultimately results in warped sniggers as you read on with an increasing awareness that the novelist is almost mocking her characters for the ease at which her protagonist achieves his evil plan.

I only read this for the first time last year and it needs to be read again, like most of the books I have read by Murdoch. I think I love Murdoch's writing so much because of her probing fascination with relationships. A Fairly Honourable Defeat dissects every aspect of relationships and the reader is left emotionally drained at the end. A sign of a satisfying read!

Iris Murdoch 'season' is nearly over at Bloomsbury Bell. March will bring new books and musings but it would be great to know if any of you are thinking about reading Iris for the first time or if you will revisit her work. I have gone on and on about The Bell but here are a few more which I really recommend to you all:

1) The Sea, The Sea (won the Booker Prize - very odd, yet enjoyable read if you don't mind sea monsters)
2) Under the Net (her first novel, fascinating as very different in style and hilarious)
3) The Black Prince (A bit Fairly-Honourable-Defeat-like - packed with symbolism)
4) The Unicorn (psychological, fairly bleak but magical)
5) The Book and the Brotherhood another favourite of mine - opens at a midsummer ball at Oxford where a group of friends are reunited. Having years ago made a pact to each other which has not been fulfilled - this night sparks off a crisis. Duelling, murder, a suicide pact, passion and hatred - this is a meaty read.

I have a Vintage Classics edition of The Book and the Brotherhood to give away. Again, very kindly donated by Fiona at Random House. No question this time - just let me know in the comments section if you want to be entered for the draw. I will draw a random name on Friday 5 March and I will post anywhere. Good luck!

The Bell chimes the winner

The lucky winner of the Vintage Classics edition of The Bell is.... Jenny. Congratulations! Jenny - I couldn't find your email address on your site so it would be great if you could contact me so that I know where to send the book to!

Thank you to everyone who entered - I am sorry that I don't have a warehouse full of copies to give away. I hope that you all pick up a Murdoch and enjoy her writing as much as I do. Let me know what you think!

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Bloomsbury Bell chimes for The Bell - book review

Having declared my love for The Bell in the last post, it is only fitting that this post should be a review of my beloved. I have told you the story of how I first came to read The Bell - I will now tell you exactly why I love it so much.

The Bell is about ideas, religion, sex and human relationships. It is about people who have ideas, who share ideas, whose very thoughts change their lives and impact upon others. But more than this, in a way more simply than this, it is such an English novel.

Set in a dilapidated country house in the middle of nowhere, somewhere in the English countryside The Bell examines a lay community. The community has taken up residence in the house to be close to the enclosed order of nuns who are next door at Imber Abbey.

The opening two lines are Murdoch's best "Dora Greenfield left her husband because she was afraid of him. She decided six months later to return to him for the same reason." And it is Dora Greenfield who we follow, through her disastrous marriage to Paul, to Imber Court where she joins her husband who is an art historian researching some 14th century manuscripts that belong to the Abbey.

Very quickly we realise that this is a fractious community, a community struggling to find its way and purpose in the modern world. The outside influences of Dora, Paul and the young Toby Gashe bring to light the flaws within the community. The peripheral presence of Nick, encamped in the lodge is a constant shadow over the community, specifically for its leader Michael Meade.

Meade is essentially a good but weak man. Naive, metaphorically blind and an idealist he has established a community but struggles to realise the very human flaws which can destroy such a community. James Tayper Pace is the very religious and austere presence and it is he who ends up as confessor.

The Abbess at Imber Abbey is the ever watchful presence within the novel. From the confines of her closed order she exercises authority over the community outside. But, at the heart of the novel is the bell itself.

Dora is told by Paul about the legend of the Abbey bell - that during the 14th century a nun was suspected of having a lover. When the Abbess asked the nun to confess, she would not. The Bishop arrived to probe the matter further, still the nun would not come forward so he put a curse on the Abbey and the bell "flew like a bird out of the tower and fell into the lake". Where the bell remains as the characters prepare for a new bell to be delivered and blessed at the Abbey.

Toby Gashe discovers the old bell whilst diving in the lake and he confides in Dora. Dora knowing of the legend hatches a plan with Toby to raise the bell from the murky depths. This they achieve which sets a sequence of events spiralling out to affect all the characters and ultimately destroy the community at Imber Court.

Not only does the novel nod to realism it is also packed with symbolism and bountiful imagery. It reminds me very strongly of another of my favourite books, Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf which, whilst examining different themes, is set in a country house with the same sense of history and tension running through.

I love country house novels - and this is a perfect example. It is solid, balanced, gripping and utterly re-readable. I have an old and very dog-eared copy that has my scrawling notes throughout and bent corners, tea stains and sticky marks where my fingers have been. This copy is not the one pictured above which is a first edition - my pride and joy - that is kept very safely in a cabinet.

This is a book that I can just sink into. Every time I read it I discover something new; I realise something new about one of the characters or see an event differently. From the butterfly on the train to the raising of the bell from the lake there is so much to see and enjoy. I rant at the characters, I sympathise with them, I grieve for them, I misunderstand them and I am frustrated by them but I love returning again and again to find out what they are up to.

I am not sure why but Iris Murdoch does not seem to be as widely read as other 20th century writers. So, in an attempt to get people reading Iris Murdoch I have a copy of The Bell to give away. It is a lovely edition pictured here which was kindly donated by Fiona at Random House. To be in for a chance to win (I will draw a random winner on Friday 26 Feb) simply answer the following question: In which year was The Bell first published? I am happy to post anywhere so don't worry if you don't live in the UK. Good luck!

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Iris Murdoch: A Writer at War - Book Review

When I was 16 and supposed to be revising for my GCSE's, BBC Radio 4 serialised Iris Murdoch's The Bell. Every Sunday afternoon I would sit down at my desk with a cup of tea, arrange my textbooks in front of me, turn the radio on and sit back entranced. My desk was strategically positioned so that should an unsuspecting member of my family come up the stairs I could quickly bend over my papers and start 'memorising' imporant facts such as how Oxbow lakes are formed (actually I do still remember how they are formed - fascinating, beautiful and I look out for them wherever I go).

This introduction to Iris Murdoch's work came at a time in my life when, like any 16 year old, I was hungry for knowledge, certainty and answers. Suddenly, I wanted to know more - who was this writer? I had never heard of her before so I swiftly demanded that my mother (who has survived two teenage daughters - I don't know how) tell me more. She directed me straight to her bookcase and handed me a copy of The Bell to read. That was it. It started with The Bell and then The Unicorn, then Under the Net, then The Book and the Brotherhood and on it went and on it still goes.

The Bell remains my favourite and is in fact the inspiration for the second part of this blog's name. The first, of course, is a nod to Bloomsbury my favourite area in London and perhaps also to the work of the Bloomsbury Group - particularly Keynes, Forster and Woolf (both Leonard and Virginia) but that is all for another post.

I am the luckiest girl in the world to have been sent a review copy of Iris Murdoch: A Writer at War from Melanie Paget at Short Books. Edited and introduced by Murdoch biographer Peter J Conradi, this collection of letters is absolutely fascinating.

The book opens with extracts from the journal that Murdoch kept when she was part of a travelling dramatic society during the university summer holiday 0f 1939 - when she was 20 years old. This candid yet reflective journal charts the goings on of a group of students during a heady summer with the shadow of a world war casting its uncertainty over them all.

What struck me most about reading this section of the book is how energetic Murdoch was - she threw herself into any challenge, adventure or experience with barely a backward glance which at times made her seem naive in the face of the political situation at the time. The youthful Iris did not share the memories of her elders for whom the first world war took its toll. She is jovial when she recounts the reason why no tickets have been sold for the Northleach show, ".. as we came into the hall we saw one reason - the place was stacked with gas masks. Apparently Northleach is scared stiff & in an appalling state of nerves. [...] they are now in a panic & imagining slaughter and sudden death".

The extracts from her journal show a fun and intelligent young woman who is enjoying herself. Her summer seems idyllic and the reader is swept along with all her boundless joy that she finds in her friendships and experiences.

The middle and last section of the book are the letters that Iris wrote to Frank Thompson between 1940-44 and David Hicks between 1938-46. I couldn't stop reading and re-reading these. Not only do you read a young woman's correspondence to her close male friends during the second world war but you get to dip your toe into her literary mind. She shares with both men her ideas for novels, her ideas about life, about what she is reading and how she is feeling about herself as she questions and ponders upon what to 'do' with her life.

Murdoch exposes in herself that universal uncertainty that people experience in their early to mid-twenties, "Altogether gloom & obscurity prevails about the future. I might try to get some academic job - but that mightn't be too easy & anyway would I make the grade? Heigh ho." At times I want to jump in and tell her not to worry - that all will be well. But, she knows this herself, "Lately various problems have become clear to me - I don't mean the answers - that's too much to expect at 22 (probably at 40 one realises there aren't any answers) - but just the problems themselves."

Her uncertainty and vulnerability are further exposed through her letters to David Hicks - towards the end of their correspondence (once they are engaged) his letters start to dwindle and then cease. Her pleading with him and constant craving for his affection is difficult to read at times - she relinquished power to him and he abused it. Ultimately, he became frightened of her, of her potential, vigour and ambition so he married someone else and Iris flew. He stated as much in his final letter to her "Brain, will and womb, you are formidable".

This book also highlights just how funny Murdoch was - I absolutely love her exclamations and turns of phrase, a favourite was 'Gentle gloom and bloody hell.' Essentially, this book is an interesting read for anyone who wants an enjoyable insight into the workings of the young mind of a brilliant philosopher and author. You don't need to be familiar with her work to appreciate the musings, wit and philosophical ponderings of a budding author in these letters.

I no longer have to memorise facts about Oxbow lakes (which really are fascinating and lovely see here) so I didn't have to read Iris Murdoch: A Writer at War in secret but I did have to re-read it and thumb through the pages like an obsessive. Perhaps I should soothe myself with some light reading on meanders.