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The Puppetmaster

I picked up Iris Murdoch’s A Fairly Honourable Defeat two weeks ago on the way to the Symphony because it fit in my purse, I’d been meaning to read it, and it was much lighter (physically, topically) than A.N. Wilson’s Victorians.

In the novel, Murdoch creates a closely connected cast of characters who are destined to become even more entangled as the drama ensues. Rupert and Hilda have just celebrated their wedding anniversary; Hilda’s sister Morgan is coming back from the States in a fragile emotional state following the dissolution of her marriage with Tallis and her affair with a scientist, Julius King. Peter, son of Rupert and Hilda, is a college dropout living with Tallis. Simon, Rupert’s younger brother, lives with an older man (and Rupert’s colleague), Axel. When Machiavellian Julius arrives in town and, certain of his power to disprove Rupert’s theory of goodness and love as moral absolutes, decides to play puppet master with the people around him, confusion follows.

It was an absolute page-turner, but not without a beauty of phrase, fiendish plot construction, and the posing of serious ethical questions. I recommend anything she’s written, but found this better than Jackson’s Dilemma (her last novel, generally acknowledged to be average) and tighter than the Green Knight.

Iris Murdoch works on my mind the way that A.S. Byatt does, though differently. They are both intellectuals, both academics, but Byatt is clearly a student of literature and Murdoch a student of logic and philosophy. Both are fearless plumbers of human consciousness and sharp thinkers, with the ability to make me very nervous about my own intellectual abilities.

In Murdoch’s novels, the worst that can be said about one is that one is “muddled.” The biggest sins belong to those who are convinced of their intellectual superiority, but in life are resigned to petty sentimentalism, dramatics, and shoddy dabbling in various occupations.

This causes me to fly everywhere at once thinking “She’s right; muddling about is awful; sloppy thinking and poor reasoning is awful” and then start thinking that I should clean the house again, and practice the piano for two hours, balance my checkbook, work on something concrete like languages or trying to read philosophy – and then I realize that what I am doing is muddled. It’s a conundrum. Best to just get on with living.

[I am so angry that this title was dropped from the Lost Booker Shortlist. Furious. Muriel Spark will have to get my vote.]

The letters of Iris Murdoch are being published later this year and I can’t wait to get my hands on them. For one, I would like to access her thoughts more directly and two, I have a sudden mania for reading letters.


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