A strange but very readable satire on who you’re supposed to love versus who you actually do. My sixth Murdoch novel, and a very good one for book clubs or for newcomers to start with, I think, given how much it tackles in its just over 200 pages.
As in Under the Net, we have a male narrator; here it’s Martin Lynch-Gibbon, 41, a wine merchant’s son who’s writing a work of military history. He’s been married to Antonia, five years his senior, for 11 years now. Martin also has a mistress, 26-year-old Georgie Hands. The thrill of the illicit, of possessing both these appealing women, is too much to resist, but he has a sense of being on the cusp – his delicately balanced life is about to go up in flames.
Antonia gets home from her psychoanalysis appointment and appears to be acting strangely. She soon confesses to Martin that she’s madly in love with her therapist, Palmer Anderson, who is half-American and has been Martin’s friend for years. They amicably agree to part. Martin goes to talk with Palmer, who lays on the Freudian patter and convinces Martin that Antonia is more of a mother figure for him because of their age gap. It’s all very civilized.
We meet Martin’s brother Alexander and sister Rosemary when he goes to Rembers, the family estate in the Cotswolds, for the Christmas holidays. It seems Alexander’s always been somewhat in love with Antonia – he even sculpted her head. After lovely scenes of the snow seen from the train via Reading and a Christmas spent en famille, another player comes onto the scene: Palmer’s sister, Honor Klein, whom Martin picks up from Liverpool Street station. She’s cool and a bit domineering, and a dab hand with a samurai sword. Martin is smitten. But just wait until he goes to visit her in Cambridge…
As the members of this small group fall in and then out of love with each other, Murdoch explores any number of weighty ideas and themes. With a samurai sword around (as pictured on a couple of more recent Penguin covers), you have to wonder if, like Chekhov’s gun, it’s bound to be used in a violent way. At the very least it’s a phallic symbol, turning up in dreams along with blood, which itself is symbolized by the red wine so frequently consumed and sometimes spilled in the novel. I thought of the title as asking what happens when the mind and body become detached from each other and want different things. There are also plentiful references to ancient superstitions and taboos: the cuckold’s horns, the Oedipal impulse, and the rituals surrounding the oracular voice.
What with all the scenes of people bursting into a room and declaring their love for someone else now, and Martin moving his belongings back and forth, this is something like a comic play. It’s one of the few Murdoch novels to have been adapted for the theatre or cinema (it has also been a radio play), and you can see why: it has a theatrical, quick-moving story line, and Murdoch even deliberately references “actors in a play” and “the drama.” Martin’s sense of helplessness is also likened to feeling destined to play one role in life, whether he likes it or not. It’s a very visual novel, too, with objects (like the Audubon prints and the Meissen cockatoos decorating the Lynch-Gibbons’ place, or “we sat enlaced like a beautiful netsuke”) and colors taking on significance in a way that I’m sure must have influenced A.S. Byatt.
A couple of small things bothered me: the overkill in describing Honor’s features as Jewish, and the overall short shrift given to Georgie. But on the whole I really enjoyed this one, especially Martin’s three (increasingly informal and defensive) versions of the same apology letter, and the fact that Palmer almost always appears in his dressing gown. In one 2017 year-end recommendation for Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, I saw it compared with A Severed Head, and I guess I can see why: the love quadrilateral, the blend of tragic and comic themes, and the perhaps recklessly optimistic ending. Both are well worth reading.
My favorite snippet of dialogue:
(Martin) “‘We’ve been happy. I want to go on being happy.’
‘Happy, yes,’ said Antonia. ‘But happiness is not the point. We aren’t getting anywhere. You know that as well as I do.’
‘One doesn’t have to get anywhere in a marriage. It’s not a public conveyance.’”
I’m participating on and off in Liz Dexter’s two-year Iris Murdoch readalong project to get through some of the paperbacks I already own. See also her very interesting introductory post on A Severed Head. I have several more of the readalong books lined up for later in the year: The Italian Girl in June, The Nice and the Good in September, and An Accidental Man in December. Join us for one or more!
Have you read this or anything else by Iris Murdoch?