A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch, book review

A severed head book coverThis novel, published in 1961, is largely about relationships between English academics in London. There is a mix of people, an American psychotherapist, a wealthy wine producer, Martin, who relates the story, his artistic brother, a London School of Economics lecturer, and the mysterious Honor Klein, half German and not to be trifled with.

Before long we find the characters in a turmoil of adultery, deception, and infidelity, which gets messier with every page.

A Severed Head, is interesting and worthwhile to read. Don’t be dissuaded by the title: the severed head in question is a metaphor, not real. The novel is basically about confused adultery between the seven characters, none of whom are truthful to anyone, least of all themselves. The protagonist, Martin, years into his affair with a much younger LSE lecturer, is shocked and disgusted to discover his wife has been having an affair with her psychiatrist for months. Martin does not even confess his affair after his wife tells him about her affair. He hides it, to make sure she feels guilt, and this allows him to hold onto hope that she might not leave him, which after all could be inconvenient. He doesn’t seem to be aware of his hypocrisy, or his avoidance of the truth. He sees everything from his own perspective, anything that goes wrong is someone else’s fault.

His mistress, Georgie, keeps asking to meet Martin’s brother, but he always finds an excuse — he tells her he always passed his girlfriends off to his brother, the truth is his brother always took his girlfriends away from him. Before long this happens again, with Georgie becoming infatuated with Martin’s brother.

Martin becomes infatuated — he says in love— with the psychiatrist’s German stepsister–it is not clear why. They hardly know each other, and have little in common, but Honor Klein exudes some sort of power, intellectual or emotional, that he feels, but does not understand. Oh but wait, it becomes more complicated when he discovers the psychiatrist in bed, incestuously, with his stepsister.

Can it get anymore complicated? Hmm. Yes! But you’ll have to read it to find out how.

Iris Murdoch

Iris Murdoch

It is a shorter novel than many of Murdoch’s other books, but reading this gives you the feeling that it was a forerunner for The Black Prince. Of course The Black Prince is much longer, more complicated, and on multiple levels, but the resemblance is there. If you are looking for erotic, A Severed Head is unlikely to be what you want. Written when censorship had not yet fully shipwrecked on Lady Chatterley’s Lover, it takes a more implied approach.There is a satirical sense to most of the novel, not laugh out loud, but enough to give you a smile.

The writing is descriptive, and the dialogue moves the story forward quite quickly.

“There were no traffic noises here. The place was sunk in the stricken silence of the gathering fog. The great London night contracted about me into a cold brown kernel, where the damp curled and crept, diminishing, and already too opaque to return an echo.”

It is a real “London book”. You get the feel of the place, rain, snow, fog, damp, the characters driving around at night, moving their possessions from house to house, as they try to come to terms with who it is they want to spend their lives with. Yes, it is somewhat amusing, not too deep, watching them muddle through their lives.

Perhaps the novel is a warning to all of us to take responsibility for our actions, think, and grow up.

Under the Net (Iris Murdoch) was chosen as one of Modern Library’s 100 best English-language novels. The Times placed Iris Murdoch as the twelfth greatest British writer since 1945. Murdoch wrote twenty-five more novels plus works of philosophy and drama. In 1995 she began to suffer the effects of Alzheimer’s disease.

After her death in 1999, a movie was made of her life: Iris. It describes, in particular, the debilitating effects of her memory loss. Kate Winslet played the young Iris, Hugh Bonneville, now well-known for his part in Downton Abbey, played her husband John Bayley. The aged Iris was played by Judi Dench, and the husband was played by Jim Broadbent.

 

 

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