I plan to dip in and out of Liz Dexter’s two-year Iris Murdoch readalong project to increase my familiarity with Murdoch and get through some of the paperbacks I happen to own. Even though I don’t own it, I decided to join in with Under the Net (1954) to see how her fiction career began. My university library copy is a rebound 1960s Penguin paperback, so – alas! – has a generic cover. See Liz’s introductory post for the different cover images and to get a peek at some of the recurring Murdochian themes that make their first appearance here.
Under the Net is narrated by Jake Donoghue, a translator who arrives back in London after a trip to France to find that he’s being kicked out of the flat where he’s been living for free with his friend Finn. In his desultory search for where to go next he takes readers along to Mrs Tinckham’s cat-filled shop, his Jewish philosopher friend Dave’s place, and the theatre where a former girlfriend, Anna Quentin, is in charge of props. (One of my favorite scenes has him accidentally locked into the theatre overnight; he has to sleep among the costumes.)
Anna’s sister Sadie, an actress, offers Jake a role as her bodyguard; she has a stalker of sorts, fireworks manufacturer and film studio owner Hugo Belfounder – whom, it turns out, Jake already knows. Together they were guinea pigs for an experiment on the common cold, and Jake secretly worked up Hugo’s conversations into a poorly received book called The Silencer. “Hugo was my destiny,” Jake muses; even though he’s embarrassed to see Hugo again, he gets drawn back into a connection with him.
One of the central themes of the novel, playing out with various characters, is the difficulty of seeing people clearly rather than resting with the image of them you’ve built up in your mind. I enjoyed Jake’s contrasting of physical and intellectual work, and his (sometimes contradictory) reflections on solitude and introversion:
I sometimes feel that Finn has very little inner life. I mean no disrespect to him in saying this; some have and some haven’t. I connect this too with his truthfulness. Subtle people, like myself, can see too much ever to give a straight answer.
I hate solitude, but I am afraid of intimacy. The substance of my life is a private conversation with myself which to turn into a dialogue would be equivalent to self-destruction. The company which I need is the company which a pub or a café will provide.
If like myself you are a connoisseur of solitude, I recommend to you the experience of being alone in Paris on the fourteenth of July.
Many readers probably expect Murdoch’s books to be dense and difficult, bogged down with philosophical ideas. But what I most noticed about this first novel is how humorous it is: it’s even madcap in places, with some coming and going via windows and Mister Mars, the film star dog, playing dead to get Jake out of a sticky situation. Over at Liz’s blog we’ve been discussing whether Murdoch is a typical ‘woman writer’; if her books had been published anonymously or under her initials, would it have been assumed that she was a man? I think so, given her success in creating a male narrator and her focus on the world of work and less traditional domestic arrangements.
This is my sixth Murdoch book. I didn’t enjoy Under the Net as much as the Booker Prize-winning The Sea, The Sea or The Bell (), but liked it more than The Black Prince and An Unofficial Rose () [I’ve also read one of her philosophy books, The Fire and the Sun (; I could make neither head nor tail of it)], so it falls in the middle for me so far at a solid . I’m looking forward to participating with several more of the readalong books next year, starting with A Severed Head in March.
Another favorite line, spoken by Hugo: “One must just blunder on. Truth lies in blundering on.”
Have you read anything by Iris Murdoch? Do you enjoy her work?
Join us for one or more of the readalong books!
I’ve long meant to read Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live, a biography of Montaigne that also promises to be a deep examination of philosophical and ethical issues. When I heard she had a new book out, I jumped at the chance to learn more about existentialism. I’ve come away from At the Existentialist Café with only a nebulous sense of what existentialism actually means (though Bakewell’s bullet-pointed list of points towards a definition on page 34 is helpful), but certainly with more knowledge about and appreciation for Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, two of her main subjects. This is appropriate given the shift in Bakewell’s thinking: “When I first read Sartre and Heidegger, I didn’t think the details of a philosopher’s personality or biography were important. … Thirty years later, I have come to the opposite conclusion. Ideas are interesting, but people are vastly more so.”
Some of the interesting characters herein, apart from Sartre and de Beauvoir (always referred to in these pages as “Beauvoir,” which irked me unduly), are Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, Hannah Arendt, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Albert Camus. It’s a large cast; you may well find yourself flipping back and forth to the helpful who’s who list in the back of the book. I was amused to see that Freiburg, Germany is the seat of phenomenology (which gave rise to existentialism) – I’m heading there in June to stay with friends at the start of a mini European tour. Husserl was the chair of philosophy at Freiburg, and Heidegger his colleague.
The best I can make out, Heidegger’s philosophy was about describing experience to get to the heart of things. Disregard peripherals and focus on the self’s knowledge of the world, he advised. His best known work, Being and Time, contrasted individual beings with Being itself (i.e. ontology). Think of him as an experimental, modernist novelist, Bakewell advises; understanding what he’s doing with his philosophy is difficult otherwise. Existentialism built on this framework but emphasized freedom and how it is exercised in particular situations.
World War II, especially the year 1945, was a turning point for many of the philosophers discussed. Sartre was held in a POW camp but his eye troubles gave him a way out. Many left Europe for America due to anti-Semitism, including Hannah Arendt and Bruno Bettelheim. Although Heidegger contrasted “the they” (das Man – more similar, perhaps, to the English phrase “the Man”) with the voice of conscience in such a way that suggested one should resist totalitarianism, he would later be exposed as a Nazi. In the following years, the United States became very popular culturally: jazz music, film noir, Hemingway. At the same time, the French were shocked at America’s racial inequality. Sartre believed that one should always take the opinion of the “least favored” or most oppressed party in any situation, which would lead him to speak out for minorities and the colonized, as in the Algerian liberation movement of the 1950s–60s. In the meantime, the rise of the Soviet Union and the development of the atom bomb would emerge as imminent societal threats.
Sartre and de Beauvoir had an open relationship but clearly relied on and felt deeply about each other, especially when it came to their writing. Bakewell convinced me of Sartre’s surprising sex appeal, despite his unprepossessing appearance: “down-turned grouper lips, a dented complexion, prominent ears, and eyes that pointed in different directions.” Apparently he had a silly side and would even do Donald Duck impressions. At the same time, he had rock-solid convictions, as evidenced by his refusal of the Légion d’Honneur and the Nobel Prize. I also learned that he was a biographer of Jean Genet and Gustave Flaubert; his biography of the latter, in three volumes, stretched to 2800 pages! Bakewell waxes anti-lyrical in her account of the disheartening experience of reading it: “Occasional lightning flashes strike the primordial soup, although they never quite spark it into life, and there is no way to find them except by dredging through the bog for as long as you can stand it.”
From the title and subtitle (“Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails”), I expected this book to be a bit more of a jolly narrative than it was. The frequent Left Bank Paris setting is atmospheric, but the tone is never as blithe as promised. I would also have liked some additional autobiographical material from Bakewell, who grew up in Reading, England (where I currently live) and met the existentialists through Sartre’s Nausea at age 16.
In the end the fault may not be her book’s but mine: I wasn’t up for fully engaging with a multi-subject biography packed with history and hard-to-grasp philosophical ideas. I’d recommend this to readers who long for bohemian Paris and have enjoyed either an existentialist work or a philosophical novel like Sophie’s World (Jostein Gaarder) or 36 Arguments for the Existence of God (Rebecca Goldstein).
With thanks to Chatto & Windus for the review copy.
Further reading: If anything, I think I’m likely to try de Beauvoir’s autobiographical works – the descriptive language Bakewell quotes from them sounds appealing, and of course she was fundamental in paving the way for modern feminism.
You can read an excerpt from At the Existentialist Café, about de Beauvoir’s composition of The Second Sex, at Flavorwire. See also Bakewell’s Guardian list of 10 reasons why we should still be reading the existentialists.
Have you read anything by the existentialists? What would you recommend?