What I discovered on reacquaintance is that, if anything, I underestimated Under the Net's lightness. Its protagonist, Jake Donaghue, a translator and would-be writer who is primarily a layabout and sponge, is like nothing so much as a penniless Bertie Wooster, and his feckless, solipsistic bobbing through postwar London gives the whole novel a Wodehousian verve. There's a ridiculous dog-napping (temporarily interrupted for a spot of whiskey), a socialist riot on a film set of ancient Rome, and a drunken revel to rival any of Bertie and Catsmeat's Race Night escapades. That particular incident ends with a drunken swim in the Thames:
A moment later we were climbing the wall.I also really enjoyed this silly rumination, which gives a good sense of the not-always sensible way that Donaghue's mind works:
"Watch out for police," said Lefty. "They'll think we're going to rob a warehouse. If you see one, pretend to be drunk,"
This was rather superfluous advice.
There are some parts of London which are necessary and some parts which are contingent. Everywhere west of Earl's Court is contingent, except for a few places along the river. I hate contingency. I want everything in my life to have a sufficient reason.What I find particularly interesting about that passage is that Murdoch's husband, John Bayley, talking with her in an interview I've cited before, specifically praised its air of contingency:
Curiously I think Under the Net is the only one of your novels where you can feel that the novelist doesn't know how it's going to end, if you see what I mean. . . . I may be quite wrong about Under the Net; you probably did know how it was going to end, but it has a kind of freshness that is very mysterious, and that we strangely associate with something that is not planned.If anything, Under the Net goes too far in that direction; at time it verges on being a picaresque. But its comic joy and its gentle handling of themes (responsibility, self-deception, illusion, and the transformative magic of erotic and romantic love) that would obsess Murdoch for the next forty-plus years, make it a remarkable, charming novel, and a great way for a reader new to Murdoch to make her acquaintance.