Monday, May 24, 2010

A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch

This novel puts me at half way through reading all of Iris Murdoch’s 26 novels. All of her characters are complex and interesting. Her stories are interesting, serious (mostly), poignant, unusual. A Severed Head adds to the mix with brilliant comedy at its drollest. Many times I actually laughed out loud to the consternation of the inevitable cat on my lap.

Martin Lynch-Gibbon runs a successful wine-merchant business. He married a beautiful, charming, sexy woman, Antonia, and he maintains a beautiful, charming, sexy mistress, Georgie. Add to this his best friend, an American psychiatrist, Palmer Anderson and his sister, Honor Klein. Martin’s sister Rosemary plays the role of mother to Martin. I understand Murdoch’s casts of characters much better now that I have read Conradi’s excellent biography.

What could possibly go wrong with this tangled gaggle of free spirits? Everything!

While the novel starts out with a “stiff-upper-lip” British tone, things do fall apart. As we top the hill, and the roller coaster rushes down, shocking and funny events made me read faster and faster all the way to the surprising ending – like the zigzags of the roller coaster for one last thrill as it pulls into the station.

Martin thinks he can have it all without consequences, but demons shadow him at every turn. While her style takes some getting used to, stay with it. Sometimes the beginnings do get confusing, but Murdoch’s marvelous prose will draw the reader deeper and deeper into the plot. Here Martin describes his wife, Antonia:

“Antonia has great tawny-colored intelligent searching eyes and a mobile expressive mouth which is usually twisted into some pout of amusement or tender interest. She is a tall woman; and although always a little inclined to plumpness has been called ‘willowy’, which I take as a reference to her characteristic twisted and unsymmetrical poses. Her face and body are never to be discovered quite in repose.” (17)

If you do not know Iris Murdoch, begin with The Bell, or her Booker Prize winner, The Sea, the Sea, or as I did with one of her last novels, The Book and the Brotherhood. You are in for hundreds of hours of delightful reading.

--Chiron, 5/23/10

1 comment:

Steve Reed said...

I just finished this book and went online to see what others had to say about it. I was initially unsure whether I was supposed to take it seriously, but as it progressed it became more and more obviously a satire on relationships, fidelity and morality. Like you, I found myself laughing at the unbelievable twists. A very strange book! Murdoch is a great writer, isn't she?