If only Iris had stuck to books of this length. Her baroque plotting, arcane philosophising, unlikely love tangles and coups-de-foudre play out beautifully in the 286 pages of her first book – by contrast, The Sea the Sea, her nineteenth, has 502 pages and could do with some severe editing. And Under The Net is very funny, with a slapstick silliness that I don’t remember in the later books. Here’s the narrator Jake squatting on a fire escape to eavesdrop, trying to allay the suspicions of two neighbours:
They consulted each other. Then the one in the hat called out, “Are you all right?”
This was very unnerving. It required an iron discipline to prevent myself from getting up and running. I prayed that Sammy and Sadie hadn’t heard. Meanwhile I nodded my head vigorously and directed a happy smile in the direction of the two ladies.
“Are you sure?” she asked again.
Almost in despair, I nodded, and added to my smile such gestures indicative of total well-being as it is possible to perform in a sitting position with one’s back against a door. I shook hands with myself, held up my thumb and index finger in the form of an O, and smiled even more emphatically.
“If you ask me, I think he’s an escaped loonie,” said the second woman. (131)
If you know and love London you should read this book just for the epic pub-crawl starting at Ludgate Hill and ending at St Andrew by the Wardrobe, after a midnight swim in the Thames:
The sky opened out above me like an unfurled banner, cascading with stars and blanched by the moon. The black hulls of barges darkened the water behind me and murky towers and pinnacles rose indistinctly on the other bank. I swam well out in to the river. It seemed enormously wide; and as I looked up and down stream I could see on one side the dark pools under Blackfriars Bridge, and on the other the pillars of Southwark Bridge glistening under the moon. The whole expanse of water was running with light. It was like swimming in quicksilver. (118)
It’s a book for anyone who knows and loves Paris too. Its brilliant, exhilarating particularity is only very slightly tinged by the characteristic Murdochian mysticism, without the portentousness that sludged up her later work. I liked it the first time I read it, but I liked it even better this time.
“I don’t know why it is,” I said, “It’s just one of the wonders of the world.” (286)
So ends Jake Donoghue’s sentimental education by way of actresses, singers, bookies, cab-drivers, socialist rabble-rousers, amateur and professional philosophers, the sage Mrs Tinckham with her innumerable cats, a stint as a hospital orderly, and a film-star dog. An ending worthy of Mozart. It’s an absolute treat.