Iris Murdoch: Under The Net


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.


22 thoughts on “Iris Murdoch: Under The Net

    1. This was her first book. Her second ‘The Bell’ is quite short too, and rather good (though not funny). As she went on the books got longer and longer and it’s said she refused to be edited, so there was no rein on her tendency to go on and on in a rather tiresome way. Her last book “Jackson’s Dilemma” was possibly affected by her dementia – at any rate the Gerts remember reading it and being unclear at the end what Jackson’s dilemma actually was.
      I do think you’d like this one.

        1. Oops, Leslie, I just realised I was thinking of another book that I was writing about at the same time, a crime novel by Louise Penny set in Canada. You probably know of her? She’s the one you’d like, not our friend Iris.

  1. Just as coincidence I too was re-reading this and was also taken by that very detailed pub crawl in lost London. I probably have more patience with Murdoch’s longer stuff but I agree in general “The Severed Head” was another shortie as I recall. And I do love the sly humour – which of course is often rather dark.

  2. In our time we read everything she wrote. But I do think the early work is perhaps more disciplined. When she had no editing things got a bit turgid. Although I do have a fondness for The Sea The Sea( which I don’t think Other Gert shares.)

  3. I think I need to put my preconceptions to one side and read something by Iris Murdoch. The early short ones definitely appeal to me more than her later books. Have you read the one Guy has just written about, A Severed Head? If so, how do you think they compare? (I’m also looking at The Sandcastle, just to further complicate things.)

    1. I find A Severed Head a lot blacker and more uncomfortable than Guy did. I have read The Sandcastle but don’t remember much about it. If you were going to start anywhere I think Under The Net would be the one.

  4. Just dropping back to read your take on this again. Yes! Slapstick silliness is a great way of describing the humour, particularly as the scenarios she creates are quite farcical at times. The scenes with the Marvellous Mister Mars are hilarious!

    It’s a pity the later novels have a tendency to be quite baggy. I definitely want to read more of her in the future, probably with The Bell as that’s one of the other Murdochs I have on my shelves – plus it’s short. Glad to see you are a fan.

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