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A Fairly Honourable Defeat

3.94  ·  Rating details ·  1,697 ratings  ·  162 reviews
In a dark comedy of errors, Iris Murdoch portrays the mischief wrought by Julius, a cynical intellectual who decides to demonstrate through a Machiavellian experiment how easily loving couples, caring friends, and devoted siblings can betray their loyalties. As puppet master, Julius artfully plays on the human tendency to embrace drama and intrigue and to prefer the distra ...more
Paperback, 432 pages
Published March 1st 2001 by Penguin Classics (first published 1970)
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Average rating 3.94  · 
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Algernon (Darth Anyan)
Aug 01, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2013

Relationships : It's Complicated!
Tallis loves Morgan but Morgan loves Julius, Julius woos Simon but Simon loves Axel, Hilda loves Rupert but Rupert covets Morgan, Julius wants Hilda but Hilda loves Peter, Peter loves Morgan but Morgan loves Rupert. Leonard loves nobody because he's an old grinch and the exception to the rule of musical chairs deployed by Murdoch here in her study of love, morality and fidelity. If the tune sounds familiar, it's because I've spent half an hour on Google trying to
Nov 20, 2008 rated it really liked it
OK, it's not really the great novel it sets out to be, but it's very entertaining. Julius King is one of my all-time favorite bad guys. Go Julius! Destroy that relationship! Drive that man to madness and despair! Cut up that dress! Do the washing-up! Sort of a high-brow Hannibal Lecter-lite, as it were. Though I was rather shocked to discover the explanation for his lack of affect.

Here's the bit I liked best. The woman is very taken with him, and hangs on his every word. He tells her that Turner
Sep 01, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: big-white-square
I read Iris Murdoch and then I wonder why I ever read anything else. Brilliant characters, fabulous set pieces. It should be an opera. The dialogue, the philosophy and the plot can be a bit clunky, but everything is forgiven because it is so dramatic and the characters so charming.

I've decided that, with Iris Murdoch, I know I’m going to love it when a) it is set in London and / or b) I have to write my own list of characters inside the front cover to keep a track of everyone.

"'Your letters were
Feb 07, 2013 rated it really liked it
I first read this book in graduate school in the 70's and I've re-read it several times over the years. It may or may not be one of the best books I've ever read, but in some ways it is probably the most powerful.

For many years, it was the only Murdoch book I'd read, but over the past five years I've picked up others and that altered my reading experience this time. I still felt the chilly dread of what the characters were going to encounter next, but I was also hit over the head with Murdoch's
Mar 12, 2016 rated it it was amazing
So my review disappeared. That's been happening to a lot of friends lately but this is the first time I'm certain it's happened to one of mine.

Despite being populated only by a host of white London luvvies, this is my favourite Murdoch by far. It's clever, beautifully written and Simon is to die for.

All I'll repeat from my review is DO NOT read the introduction by Philip Henscher before reading this novel. It's a complete spoiler zone. Read it afterwards though, it's almost as good as the book.
Jul 09, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: save-for-winter
This paragraph at the beginning of the novel, after the first few lines of dialogue, captures why I love Iris Murdoch so much:

"Hilda and Rupert Foster, celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary with a bottle of rather dry champagne, were sitting in the evening sun in the garden of their house in Priory Grove, London. S.W.10. Hilda, a plumper angel now, reclined limply, exhibiting shiny burnished knees below a short shrift dress of orangey yellow. Her feet were bare. Her undulating dark hair
This is a tangled web set in the late 60s, concerning Rupert and Hilda; their 20 year old drop-out son Peter; Rupert’s younger brother Simon and his boyfriend Axel; Hilda’s unstable younger sister Morgan and her estranged husband Tallis and her former lover (and college friend of Rupert and Axel), Julius.

Things are intertwined from the start, but later there are strong echoes of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream when the stage is set for a (non magical) enchantment, leading to illusions of l
Oct 28, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
It's been a very long time since I read any Iris Murdoch. When you've been much attached to an author in the past, there is always the fear that a later reread will reveal you've grown out of that author and that then you will lose your happy memories. Not so here. I think, too, that I am better able to articulate what I like about her: I've been carrying around memories not of my own impressions, but rather my impressions of secondary criticism, my memories of my impressions of others' impressi ...more
Nov 27, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
3.5 stars

Iris Murdoch’s thirteenth novel is a surprisingly quick read despite the fact it’s the longest out of the initial thirteen. This is probably in part to the fact that a large part of it is dialogue and partly because there is a morbid desire to keep reading as events play out. I say morbid as the plot is a spiral into which there seems nothing good can happen and leaves you eagerly waiting to see if secrets are revealed and everyone ends up where they deserve.

The novel has the usual, sli
Mar 24, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: anyone who wants something different from the New York Times best seller list
Recommended to Jana by: I found it unread on my shelf
What an amazing classic! Murdock was a brilliant woman and her writing and philosophizing is proof of that. This book is an amazing look at dialogue and character development almost totally through dialogue. I've been reading so many modern books that it was a treat to read a classic again. The characters in this book are not worthy of our admiration or sympathy and yet I really did not want the "Iago" character to destroy everyone. I can see how she is credited with giving new life to the novel ...more
Poornima Vijayan
Dec 03, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: booker, 2019
Reading Iris Murdoch is like being in the company of a very intelligent friend. Feels warm, exciting and productive!

A Fairly Honorable Defeat is brilliant. Only Murdoch can come up with truly despicable characters who are dignified.

Rupert and Hilda are happily married. The only blip in their happiness is their intelligent son Peter who has withdrawn from academics and society. For a change of air, he is sent to Tallis', the husband of Hilda's sister Morgan. Morgan is all over the place. She has
Oct 10, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Iris Murdoch is my favorite writer. I have been saving this, the last one I hadn't read. And it is, in a word, magnificent. Of course I've never not liked one of her books, but this one ranks near the top. About Murdoch, John Updike said, “Our actions, our decisions, our vows do matter; what can fiction tell us more important than that?” I love her complicated plots, her mysterious characters, her oftentimes outrageous interaction, and, most of all, her dialog. She uses dialog to delineate her c ...more
Apr 03, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 20th-c-fiction
I love Iris Murdoch. This is not my favorite, but I do like it a good deal. I would have given this three and half stars if I could; since I wasn't able to, I let my adoration for Tallis and Simon determine my decision. In many Iris Murdoch books you kind of dislike most of the characters. This was one of the few where I really thought some of them were decent people. The title was pretty dead-on, and I felt strangely better at the end of this one than I often do with some her books. She's great ...more
Andrew Fairweather
Aug 30, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: fiction, limey-lit
God damn, Julius is a DICK! The straight-up bleakness of 'A Fairly Honorable Defeat' was immensely disappointing. For so many high-minded characters and turns of phrases, this story is pretty straight forward—evil begets evil, and excessive pride is foolish.

Yet, I was *absolutely* willing to follow along. Murdoch's writing is very engaging. I found myself daydreaming about Tallis, Simon and Axel and other characters in this dark web, and I resumed the story at just about any moment I could spare
Soumen Daschoudhury
Goodness is a virtue. And Iris Murdoch seems to be possessed with it. Be it this particular book or ‘The Nice and the Good’, she seems to be amazed and possibly irritated by the varieties of it. Her characters drip of this disparateness as her brush strokes the story. But goodness cannot exist by itself, it inevitably co-exists; with love, friendship, innocence, sacrifice and more importantly power.

There’s a strong connection between goodness and power and most of the times we don’t realize we’r
Jun 09, 2019 rated it it was ok
Murdoch is one of my favorite writers, but this book failed to impress me.
Oct 30, 2019 rated it liked it
3.5 stars

I'm not sure what to say about this book. I want to say it was interesting, but I don't know if I'd mean it.
Mar 24, 2008 rated it really liked it
I am through Part One of this novel and am not afraid to admit-- without having read the introduction -- being currently infatuated with a character in the book, Julius.

O Julius! I swoon each time you diagnose humanity as being filled with self serving illusions! I adore Iris' manner of describing you with Elizabethan (that's Taylor not some useless queen) Violet eyes that gleam with irrepressible delight. (well I'm mashing things together but that's my privilege. She is dead.)

As usual Lady Iris
Jun 03, 2008 rated it really liked it
It’s so dark it makes me uncomfortable. Julius, an evil intellectual, finds humanity deplorable. He thinks people idiotic to cherish their beloved “relationships” when they can so easily be dismantled. To amuse himself he decides to demonstrate how fragile relationships are within his group of high society “friends” by setting up traps of misunderstanding which result in countless betrayals. He proves that given the right circumstances most will selfishly act outside of their lover’s interest so ...more
Aug 15, 2011 rated it really liked it
Cynical intellectual, Julius masterminds a real life drama between friends, siblings, lovers and spouses in an effort to illustrate his beliefs in the ease in which people fall in and out of love, the inability of people to communicate openly and honestly due to their own ego, and in man's misunderstanding of goodness and evil. His insensitive manipulation of people's emotions has profound implications.

Murdoch has masterfully woven philosophical elements into this dark comedy, highlighting human
Sep 14, 2012 rated it really liked it
Still getting accustomed to Murdoch's writing, I found this book compelling and hard to put down. I read until 2 in the morning because I needed to know what would finally happen to the characters. I felt like I knew the gay couple already, and related to the married couple until they got into philosophical trouble. Her prose is seamless, characters well developed yet unusual. Her philosophical perspective is intriguing to me. This is mature, thoughtful reading.
Jul 14, 2011 rated it it was amazing
As always, Iris is great. This book is about a middle class family and how they deal with each other. A bit fanciful, but that's what fiction is. I especially liked the gay couple (men). She made them seem real and not the least bit different from heterosexual couples. The ending was really good, too.
Jun 27, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: novel
You could read it again and again and again, yet never get tired of it, you're always hungry for the next line, next page. The characterization is the ideal, perfect characterization. The plot is awfully innovative, intelligent and captivating. One of the best novels ever.
Stephen Brody
Aug 03, 2017 rated it it was amazing
“Moralists are far too timid, especially now when they feel they have to placate the logical positivists and the psychologists and the sociologists and the computerologists and God knows who else. They fill their pages with apologies and write everybody’s language but their own.”

“She poured out a little whisky and sipped it. She felt an instance of false comfort. The whisky did not know of her troubles.”

“Cynicism? Why use that nasty word? Let us say a sensible acceptance of the second rate.”

* *
Brandy Sharpe
Apr 05, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I enjoyed this.

Fairly certain Tallis Browne might be my first literary crush, though I couldn't tell you for the life of me what it is that I like so much about him.

As mentioned in other reviews- or at least one- there does seem to be a connection to A Midsummer Night's Dream- and I'm not just talking about the allusion. Julius strikes as a demonic Puck that gets in way over his head, with a touch of Oberon. The crossing of lovers and the "spell" cast on them is all very reminiscent of a Midsum
Anindita Chatterjee
Excellent analysis of virtues, flaws, kindness & cruelty, and the fact that humans are flawed by nature. ...more
Helen McClory
I love Iris Murdoch, but this just kind of...went on. Long dialogues are not my cup of tea.
Alex Ankarr
Mar 28, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Truly one of her greatest, full of wisdom and light. Good and evil battle it out in Hampstead: after all, the bourgeoisie have feelings and moral struggles, same as the red-blooded working man or woman. Honest! The background gay romance is melancholy, and a little bit heartbreaking.
Apr 22, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This is the first Iris Murdoch novel I've read, and what a revelation. It's 50 years old and sparkles with wit, erudition, energy. Although the world it depicts feels of its time, and the characters are unapologetically middle class, Murdoch's ingenious plot carried me along on a wave as the central conceit--the Machiavellian Julius King conspires to expose the fallacies of love by breaking couples apart--rolls inexorably to its climax. Murdoch is especially good at illuminating the conflicts an ...more
Kristy Alley
Apr 16, 2008 rated it liked it
Recommended to Kristy by: Andria
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Dame Jean Iris Murdoch

Irish-born British writer, university lecturer and prolific and highly professional novelist, Iris Murdoch dealt with everyday ethical or moral issues, sometimes in the light of myths. As a writer, she was a perfectionist who did not allow editors to change her text. Murdoch produced 26 novels in 40 years, the last written while she was suffering from Alzheimer disease.


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“Human beings crave for novelty and welcome even wars. Who opens the morning papers without the wild hope of huge headlines announcing another great disaster? Provided of course that it affects other people and not oneself. Rupert liked order. But there is no man who likes order who does not give houseroom to a man who dreams of disorder. The sudden wrecking of the accustomed scenery, so long as one can be fairly sure of a ringside seat, stimulates the bloodstream. And the instinctive need to feel protected and superior ensures, for most of the catastrophes of mankind, the shedding by those not immediately involved of but the most crocodile of tears.” 7 likes
“—La gente no suele saber aplicar la filosofía. Dudo de que ni siquiera los filósofos sepan hacerlo.

—La gente puede usar conceptos morales lo mismo que tú has usado ahora el concepto de la verdad para convencerme. Cualquiera puede hacerlo.

—Quizá. Pero creo que la filosofía moral es algo que resulta desesperanzadamente personal. No puede ser comunicado. «Si un león hablase, no podríamos comprenderlo», ha dicho Wittgenstein.”
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