A Severed Head, by Iris Murdoch

Martin Lynch Gibbon, married with a mistress, finds out that his wife has been having an affair, and his comfortable life crumbles. From feeling that he was in control, he finds himself at the mercy of others who seem to think they know what's best for him, while he himself doesn't know exactly what he wants any more.

Another book, like Under the Net and The Black Prince that's told by someone who appears to have an overwhelming sense of his own importance, and has little feeling or imagination about how others must be feeling. The emotions he feels are strong and definite, and he seems to think he has a sort of duty to go where they lead him, so you get a lot of stuff like "I simply knew I must have her". But, again like The Black Prince, his feelings vary wildly, so you can't really trust what he says.

There are a lot of factive statements in the book, which is one way Murdoch misleads you into thinking the plot will go one way or another. E.g. something like "I knew this was the last time I would ever see her" is followed (in some case in the next paragraph) with his meeting the person in question.

The book was written in 1961, and I think must reflect some of the "freedom" felt at the time about the flexibility of relationships: there is a lot of partner-swapping going on in this book, which is something that would be unimaginable in an earlier society (e.g. what you get in Middlemarch). I'm not sure if Murdoch's trying to convey a moral message here (which presumably would be that living in this way doesn't necessarily bring happiness to the people involved), since not everyone ends up unhappily. I suppose it all seems a bit meaningless though, maybe that's what she wants to say.

The other thing which is reminiscent of other books (e.g. The Flight from the Enchanter) is that there's a character in here who seems mysterious but powerful: Martin's friend (and his wife's lover) Palmer. Palmer is a psychoanalyst (I think this dates the book as well: I imagine psychoanalysis was a bit more revered then) who makes pronouncements about things which sound deeply significant and perceptive (and are factive). Although Palmer isn't himself completely immune from being damaged, he does seem to rise above it somehow.

Which reminds me of the other thing I felt when reading: all of the characters seem to behave as though the normal concerns of life are inconsequential. Work, sex, and affection are barely mentioned because they're preoccupied with something more deep and meaningful (although I'm not really sure what that is). So Martin will declare to us that he's passionately and irrevocably in love with someone, and he may tell that person so, but he never gives expression to that "love" apart from saying how it makes certain other things in his life impossible to do with/without.

Interesting, but I'm not sure I enjoyed the book that much. I read this (and a lot of other Murdoch) around twenty years ago, and have a feeling that she's a really good writer, but maybe that feeling was partly due to my not having read much else. I'd happily try some more though.

Completed : 05-Jun-2009 (audiobook)

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