Sunday, 31 January 2010

A Severed Head

Title: A Severed Head

Author: Iris Murdoch

Number of pages: 208

Started: 27 January 2010

Finished: 31 January 2010

Opening words:

'You're sure she doesn't know,' said Georgie.

‘Antonia? About us? Certain’

Georgie was silent for a moment and then said, 'Good.' That curt 'Good' was characteristic of her, typical of her toughness which had, to my mind, more to do with honesty than with ruthlessness. I liked the dry way in which she accepted our relationship. Only with a person so eminently sensible could I have deceived my wife.

We lay half embraced in front of Georgie's gas fire. She reclined against my shoulder while I examined a tress of her dark hair, surprised again to find in it so many threads of a pure reddish gold. Her hair was as straight as a horse's tail, almost as coarse, and very long. Georgie's room was obscure now except for the light of the fire and a trio of red candles burning upon the mantelpiece The candles, together with a few scraggy bits of holly dotted about at random, were as near as Georgie, whose 'effects' were always a little ramshackle, could get to Christmas decorations, yet the room had a glitter all the same as of some half desired treasure cavern. In front of the candles, as at an altar, stood one of my presents to her, a pair of Chinese incense holders in the form of little bronze warriors, who held aloft as spears the glowing sticks of incense. Their grey fumes drifted hazily to and fro until sent by the warmth of the candle flames to circle suddenly dervish-like upward to the darkness above. The room was heavy with a stifling smell of Kashmir poppy and sandalwood. Bright wrapping paper from our exchange of presents lay about, and pushed into a corner was the table which still bore the remains of our meal and the empty bottle of Chateau Sancy de Paraběre 1955. I had been with Georgie since lunchtime. Outside the window and curtained away was the end of the cold raw misty London afternoon now turned to an evening which still contained in a kind of faintly luminous haze what had never, even at midday, really been daylight.

Plot summary:

Martin Lynch-Gibbon believes he can possess both a beautiful wife and a delightful lover. But when his wife, Antonia, suddenly leaves him for her psychoanalyst, Martin is plunged into an intensive emotional re-education. He attempts to behave beautifully and sensibly. Then he meets a woman whose demonic splendour at first repels him and later arouses a consuming and monstrous passion. As his Medusa informs him, 'this is nothing to do with happiness'.

What I thought:

This is a book about self-deluded people who think that as long as you are “reasonable” that somehow everything is fine. This is despite some rather farce like bed-hopping, affairs and other such adverse circumstances. But as an outside observer you see how deluded the narrator and the other characters in the book truly are. It was a somewhat humorous read, but also one that did not show the middle-classes best possible light! I have never read any other books by Iris Murdoch, but my understanding is that this book is not ‘typical’. It is meant to be more humorous and more accessible, but it was an interesting introduction to her writing and I would be interested to see what sorts of themes she uses in her other novels and if they are as readable as this one because this was certainly a well written book.


silverseason said...

At one time I had an "Iris Murdoch" period and read several of her books. I can recall very little of the content of any of them, but I retain a mood and the memory of pleasure as I was reading. The one I remember the most about was (I believe her first novel) In the Net, about some rather eccentric young people running around London.

Sarah said...

I have never read any Iris Murdoch. There is a reference to her in Alan Bennett's An Uncommon Reader, which intrigued me, but also suggested that her books are quite hard to read. Given that I am making a big push to read more women writers, this could be the year. Thanks for a great (and helpful) review.

Random Reflections said...

silverseason - this is the first of her books that I have read. I might try and track down the one you mention.

Sarah - I have that Alan Bennett book, but have never read it. I didn't think this Murdoch book was hard to read, but my understanding is that this one of her her lighter books and not entirely typical.