A Severed Head – Iris Murdoch

9 June 2008
Chapters 1-17
I’m just over half-way through, and it’s a long time since I had such a sense of characters as puppets or chessmen, being moved around by a rather cynical author. The more I’ve read, the more I’ve realised that without Murdoch there would probably never have been Ian McEwan. Literate, educated people, usually comfortably off and living in nice houses, fuck things up for themselves and each other. And talk about it a lot. But this book is 47 years old and feels like a curiosity now. The attitudes – to feminism, to booze and fags, to just about everything in fact – seem like a throwback to the 30s. It feels like Waugh without the wit: some of the conduct is just as preposterous, but somehow, reader (and the narrator sometimes has to appeal to the reader in just this way to plead for the truthfulness of his bizarre behaviour), we’re left bemused and wondering why the people of Planet Murdoch are so weird.

What’s happened? The first-person narrator, smugmeister Martin Lynchbogget is blissful. He’s married to a handsome – if increasingly wrinkly and eccentric – older woman, and he’s shagging a shaggable younger woman with a brain the size of a house. She’s dry, and wry, and seems to be modelled on Murdoch herself. He has a job he can do in his sleep. (Or, more likely, in a drunken stupor. Murdoch can’t be bothered with describing people who have to work, for goodness’ sake, and his wine business seems to consist of him swigging from bottles of excellent claret. Or champagne. Or whiskey.) Anyway, he’s writing with hindsight and he warns us early on that his idyll is about to come crashing down. Cue first thunderbolt: wrinkly wife wants to marry Martin’s best friend and wifey’s analyst. Martin, who has always allowed himself to slip into a filial role with both these two, says… Fine, no worries. But he feels a bit funny about it and tells his ‘mistress’, Iris (or whatever she’s called). Nobody at this point actually says anything about the fact that he’s got about 25 years’ worth of growing up to do, but that’s the story we’re in now.

Enter another piece on to the board. (It’s chess, Jim, but not as we know it.) Iris’s former tutor at – where else? – Cambridge and wifey’s lover’s sister. Like a good boy Martin’s been to pick her up from the station, and from the start she seems to attain the status of a dark angel: black clothes, a habit of appearing as though from nowhere in the most unexpected places and the ability to bring things about that do Martin’s head in. Iconic scenes with her: her arrival in a smog-bound Liverpool Street; her arrival at the ex-marital home when Martin and Iris are there; her introduction of Iris to Martin’s brother, just to stir things up; her games with a samurai sword; her appearance at the top of the cellar steps as Martin is trying to drink himself out of his misery. It’s enough to make anybody want to smack her in the mouth. So he does, three times.

Next day, it seems that Martin’s cure for hangovers is writing letters. And here we get a literary interlude – in fact, it’s the first thing that has made me begin to think it might even be quite modern. After writing to his parent substitutes about this and that, he writes a hugely confessional letter to the A of D. Except for being written in the first person, it struck me as a fairly accurate critique of Martin’s character. But that’s not the literary trick. We get another letter, a more conventional apology, and then a third. Are these merely his thoughts? Are they Versions of Martin’s self-awareness (or otherwise)? Well – at a literal level anyway – no. They’re letters. He sends the second one, and the Interlude is over for now. But while it lasted it reminded me of what Fowles was doing far more theatrically in The French Lieutenant’s Woman at the other end of the decade. In that novel, different versions wrong-foot us in entertaining ways as the author reminds us that what he’s offering us is emphatically not reality.

Is this what Murdoch is telling us – that these characters really are just literary figments? Possibly, but I have my doubts. Do I believe any of it? Nope. Is the Angel of Death some kind of symbol, perhaps for Martin’s growing self-awareness? Dunno. Is Iris going to go off with Martin’s sculptor brother? Not bothered.

10 June
Chapter 18-19
A couple of chapters further on, Murdoch’s decided to get the box of fireworks out. First, in the least convincing chapter so far, she takes it upon herself to describe a grand passion from a middle-aged man’s point of view. It’s the Angel he’s fallen hopelessly for, and it reads more like courtly love than any male passion I’ve ever come across. As it were. It’s not even physical – and when he makes a joke to himself about how he’s never actually touched her apart from when he knocked her down, ho-ho, it just reads like bollocks. A sexually active man who’s been having an affair for nearly two years but doesn’t recognise raw animal passion when he falls over it? Nah.

But Murdoch’s only just started. Martin is now in Cambridge in pursuit of his dark lady. He finds her house, sees the bedroom light on – but can’t get an answer at the door. So he does what people do on Planet Murdoch: he finds a way in through a window, knocks on the bedroom door and, failing to get any response, goes in. Now, who should he find in her bed? If you’d asked me I would have said shaggable Iris. But barmy Iris, the one writing this stuff, tells us it’s a man. On planet Earth it would be some undergraduate or fellow academic. But on this planet it’s… her brother. Martin decides to close the door on the scene: time to leave.

11 June
Just over three-quarters of the way through
Martin’s no more sorted out after his little discovery than he was before it. He’s still obsessed with the Angel – but then wifey appears, looking haggard and ancient. She knows something’s happened, because lover-boy’s acting a bit strange. They see lover-boy (I think they invite him over for a friendly chat) and Martin does what he does: he bashes him. Men on Planet Murdoch are simple creatures and the encounter seems to clear the air for both of them. That’s the last we see of lover-boy for the time being… which leaves wifey with a problem. Then she has an idea: she and Martin can kiss and make up and life will be all lovely again. Ok, says Martin.

Poor Martin. He feels a bit tired, but he knocks out a letter to Iris: he hopes she doesn’t mind, but he just needs a bit of time to sort out his barmy wife. Wifey thinks she’ll go and stay with Martin’s brother – but he’s up in London. Alarm bells fail to ring: only the reader remembers that Iris is also in London with nothing to do. (As we know, real jobs don’t exist on this planet. She might be a lecturer, but she does absolutely nothing in that connection. In fact she seems to exist in a kind of man-centred limbo: without a man she seems to have no existence in the novel.) So when bro tells Martin he’s getting married we can guess the identity of the lucky bride. And I haven’t changed my mind: when I heard it confirmed that it’s Iris I wasn’t bothered. And the set-piece of the inevitable meeting – Martin, bro, wifey and Iris – feels like going through the motions. I get the impression that Murdoch sets herself little exercises: What if I…? I wish she’d stop it.

Meanwhile…. Am I bothered about meanwhile? Not really. But Martin obsesses about the Angel, muses about what she and her brother might be up to, reads mythological tales about sibling sex. Here be monsters (or, in the case of the Chinese stories he reads, dragons) and you wonder if Murdoch might be setting the bar a bit high for herself. These aren’t gods she’s dealing with – however hard she might try to crank up the mythic resonances – but clockwork zombies.

14 June
To the end…
…thank God. If Harold Macmillan ever did use that phrase about Events, dear boy, I bet it was after he’d just read Murdoch’s incident-strewn story.

In the last quarter of the book: wifey tells Martin she’s been having an affair with his brother more or less as long as they’ve been married (so news of the impending wedding to La Shag is not to be believed); La Shag cuts off all her hair, sends it to Martin and takes an overdose; in the hospital wifey’s ex- and the Angel’s current lover, (he’s an analyst, remember), takes La Shag under his wing; the Angel tells Martin he should forget all about her because she and the lover/brother are off to the States forever and ever; Martin waits in secret at the airport and watches for them in the departure lounge – and is more shocked than the reader is by the presence of La shag, who’s going with them; Martin goes home and tries to weep; the Angel arrives and tells him she’s not going after all, and should they see what happens…?

What doesn’t happen is anything remotely plausible. Murdoch heaps on more and more mythological significance: she appears to think that these are not members of the chattering classes, doing a lot of chattering and little else. For her, if not for anybody else, they represent something stupendous: there’s agony and despair and their struggles are titanic. Near the end, when the Angel has told Martin she’s up for grabs now that Bro’s decided to join Incestaholics Anonymous and go on the wagon, she reminds him of a story by Herodotus. He knows what she’s talking about – of course he does, he’s always got his nose in the classics when he hasn’t got it in a glass, or anywhere else – and he usefully reminds the reader: when the mythological king allowed his mythological friend to act the voyeur and see the mythological queen naked, the queen decided enough was enough. She told the friend to get rid of her husband, become king himself and marry her. So that’s all sorted out then: Martin saw her naked and now Bro’s gone to California he’s as good as dead anyway. When I am king, dilly-dilly….

And we find out the significance of the Severed Head. It’s nothing to do with the sculptor-brother, who likes doing heads. It’s what happens when people are offered the choice: read this to the end or pull your own head off. When she’s on the A-level syllabus you can’t move for heads.

The last Murdoch novel I read was 19 years ago. That’s about often enough, I reckon.

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