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To sever your head from your heart: Dangerous liaisons & Iris Murdoch

A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch

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A prolific, brilliant author, intellectual and philosopher, the remarkable Iris Murdoch wrote 26 novels.  The Severed Head was the second fiction of hers that I’d ever read (my first was the overwhelming Philosopher’s Pupil, also reviewed in this blog – click here).  More reviews of her terrific novels will follow (whether you like it or not – ahem).

Plot: Martin Lynch-Gibbon, established wine merchant, and happily dedicated two-timing sophisticate (he has betrayed his wife, Antonia, by having an affair for some time with Georgie, a friend, and LSE lecturer), tells you the story of the collapse of his marriage, his wife’s affair with no less than two men (one of which, with the manipulative, obnoxiously patronising, slimy psychoanalyst, Palmer Anderson, began even before Martin’s marriage with Antonia; the other with Martin’s sculptor brother, Alexander) and his stormy entanglement – and eventual (well, potential) resurrection, with the devilish, deeply disturbing brilliant academic Honor Klein (sister to Palmer).

So is it any good? God, yes. It is beautifully, compellingly written and from the viewpoint of Martin’s narration. (The notion that men can’t ‘write’ women characters, or vice versa, or one ethnicity can’t ‘write’ another, or sexuality, etc., I think is total nonsense.  Imagination has only the limit of one’s mind and preconceptions. Any other judgement is a prejudgment of the reader, surely?)

The author’s intelligence heats every page and the deft, brilliant drawings of her characters – she can do men and women with equal aplomb, by which I mean their psychology, self-deceptions, quirks, temperaments and dialogue – are always powerfully evoked, even – perhaps, especially – when their natures are most troubling.

Martin clearly finds himself falling into an almighty mess. Having thought he was the one in control of his life, it becomes clear he is the more easily duped – and cuckolded, while deceiving himself and others (as do the other characters). Murdoch understands the vicissitudes and muddle, confusion and self-deception of what it can often mean to be human.

Amazingly, while it is difficult to care for or certainly empathise with any of her characters (besides Georgie, who doesn’t display any of the obnoxious characteristics of the others), as a reader you are drawn in relentlessly, and you find from the outset that you just can’t wait to turn over each page, desperate to find out what other levels of hell will transpire in the telling of the tale (Murdoch is clearly a fan of Dante, and often evokes him, as she does in The Philosopher’s Pupil).

Besides Georgie, then, the characters to a tee are pretty much loathsome. Antonia is foul – full of meaningless platitudes, always insistently and with pressure pleading, demanding, coaxing that others comply with her notions of love and consideration (which prove to be more about pleasing herself, rather than others). She’s a true narcissist, with her monstrous need to be loved and loving; in her case, the latter experience is simply an opportunity to cement the prospect of her being loved.

What troubled me most in the novel was the portrayal of Honor Klein, because of Martin’s anti-Semitic, obsessively hateful – even on one occasion, violent (until towards the end of the narrative) way of describing her. While it is vital to keep in mind that this anti-Semitism is clearly Martin’s – he associates her `Jewish’ looks (the word is in single quotation marks to highlight the absurdity of this notion) with ugliness, and hardly a scene in which she is present takes place without the smell of sulphur in the atmosphere; never mind him literally describing her as a devil, as a demon, and the seeming cold, clinical, monstrous nature of her (compounded by Honor committing a taboo that still shocks, for any reader, to this day). But because the hatred is so absurdly over the top, as a reader you realise soon enough that Martin’s negative obsession with her, coupled with your knowing that his happy two-timing world has utterly collapsed, is a reflection of his deeply troubled self. This is confirmed when, regaining his sense of self and a more balanced view, Martin’s perception of Honor as ugly and demon-like transitions slowly but surely into a sort of moving beauty to him (like a ‘Hebrew angel’, he writes towards the end).  Anyway, if you read biographies of Murdoch, you’ll know  she was probably the least prejudiced (of any kind) person you could hope to have met and most definitely not anti-semitic.  (To learn more about her life, click Iris Murdoch – Biographical profile, which includes sources/resources, and is written by the estimable Peter J. Conradi, one of the authorities on her life, work and letters.)

Still, amid this awfulness, you are addicted to learning more about her; she is utterly fascinating and a force to be reckoned with. I loved, for example, the scene in which Martin – drunk, as usual – note: if you don’t appreciate your narrator being a relentless whisky and wine drinker, you will probably need to stay clear of this novel – sitting alone in a candle-lit drawing-room, asks Honor to show how to use the samurai sword she owns (she has trained with a master for several years in Japan, but states simply that she is only a `beginner’). She refuses to do so but then, moments later and in a flash, she slices in half two handkerchiefs with the blade, and so fast Martin doesn’t even see the blade as it whisks through the air.

A Severed Head is disturbing, nightmarish and brilliantly depicts the shenanigans, deceptions and self-deceptions of having an affair. It is also clever, compelling, thought-provoking, powerful and thoroughly entertaining fiction. Reader, be warned, but I have no doubt you will find plenty to sink your teeth into (even if on occasion you feel you are helplessly staring at a god-awful car crash).

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An appreciation of Iris Murdoch’s The Philosopher’s Pupil

This is a Dantesque tale of love: as in an Inferno of evil, not of Beatrice. Along the way, Murdoch introduces you to numerous sinners, from dishonest to honourable, self-defeating to masochistic, platonic to deviant, and never ever simply just one type at any one time.

Set in Ennistone, it’s a town renowned for natural hot water springs and baths, and is filled to the brim with the heat of gossip, anger, passions, and small-minded mischief makers.  

But this review is not about the plot, as that’s for you to enjoy in your own reading.

This is an homage to the vivid and remarkable characters that Murdoch’s genius has given life to in this novel.

She has a mature nineteenth century novelist’s depth to her characters; and is a match for Tolstoy, Trollope and Eliot, to name some of the giants of classic fiction.  

Her fictional beings are beautifully, fully realised in scope and complexity, and each draws you in with their own personal world view, reasoning as well as often troubled emotional life. You become captivated in observing and listening to them live and breathe and assert themselves in their muddled worlds.

Her dialogue alone is worth the price of the novel — and the prologue, relating the car ‘accident’ is by itself worth the price of the paperback.

(for it really isn’t one, but an incident resulting from a violent action), is a tour de force, introducing George, the novel’s devil in (barely) human form.  

He is scarily human: the most fully realised and horribly convincing, nightmarish psychopath and sociopath I have read in fiction. Far more disturbing than Hannibal Lecter as a fictional creation, and more believable than a real-life monster like Ed Gein.  

From the prologue on, you are witness To his extreme ranting and raving, his hatred and violent, misogynistic behaviour. He is apocalyptic in tone and revenge.  

Yet he could just as well be one of your neighbours who has by the by become utterly mad, while going through the motions of sanity

He is the strongest case and example — though there are several others in this novel — of Murdoch’s tremendous ability to create flesh-and-blood human beings that convey her passionate intellectual and creative interests, while never failing to be merely conduits or foils for her fictional plotting.  

There’s never any sense of novelistic Deus ex Machina at work, here — her creatures spring from the page, and are all tremendously personal in language, thought and action.

As if psychotic George wasn’t enough for one novel, there’s also the philosopher of the novel’s title as well, John Robert Rozanov (George was once one of John’s pupils). Manipulative, amoral, uncaring, soul-less, intellectual and emotionally moribund and, in many ways, he’s far more of a devil than George himself (though never committing physical acts of violence, or verbal, as George does with such relish and ease).

Then there are George’s brothers: Brian, who must be one of the most bloody miserable, whining sods in fiction but who, thanks to Murdoch’s scalpel humour, becomes a great doom and gloom comic character for our amusement.

And then there’s Tom: the youngest of the brothers, at university and who, to his teenage years, is naive, delightfully happy and at one with his world and his peers. That is, until he’s corrupted by a Faustian task that John compels him to take up.

Alongside them, you have Gabriel, Brian’s put-upon wife, poor, defeated, always tearful, troubled, and ready to blubber at the drop of the proverbial hat; and the intellectual, yet remote, and incredibly martyrish Stella, wife of the monstrous George.

And while George spews with murderous rage, violence and hatred if womankind, he also saves Zed.  

Now Zed is probably one of fiction’s most charming, delightful and convincing portraits of a clever little doggie. He’s Zen-like — “Zed” as a name is more than a hint, I think — and always understanding, even when he’s clueless; both part of the natural world, and yet connected with his human peers – including, most particularly, the other marvel in this novel: the boy Adam.

Adam is the offspring of Gabriel and Brian. Francis of Assisi-like, as well as Buddhist in his immediate and deep empathy with all living things. He is Schopenhauer’s ideal saint-artist, able to see beyond the veil of Maya.

Murdoch clearly knows her Varieties of Religious Experience, and if the Gabriel, Stella and Zed weren’t enough, you have Father Bernard.

An Anglican priest who’s also an atheist, he believes ultimately that the only hope and saviour for the world is religion without God. He ends up an ethereal ascetic-Russian hermit-ancient Desert Father-type, living on a remote Greek island with kindly peasants, birds, the sea and rocks.

This is a rare gem of a novel. It’s phwor and fab, funny and dark, with substance, yet as light as a perfect soufflé.

There’s also plenty here for lovers of Plato and Dante, yet such allusions are never done ostentatiously, but rather flow seamlessly within the events and thinking of the novel and her characters.  And all these riches are carried through with zest right to the end and beyond, with you being totally immersed in and absorbed by the mess and muddle of these human lives (a true Murdochian talent).

You are left joyous,  breathless and happy and utterly, utterly impressed by Murdoch for her philosophical wisdom, her mischievous wit, her darkness and light, her psychological insights and her innate appreciation of what it means to be human.  It is an extraordinary novel from a brilliant mind.

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