Monday, July 11, 2011

Under the Net

Spending time with the young Iris Murdoch last week--in the form of her letters--sent me back to her first novel, long a favorite, Under the Net (1954). It had been years since I'd read the book, and I remembered it as having a freshness, a fundamental lightness of spirit that, for all the comedy that her later books would retain, she never came close to replicating.

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.

"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.
I also really enjoyed this silly rumination, which gives a good sense of the not-always sensible way that Donaghue's mind works:
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.


  1. I always filed Under the Net with The Horses Mouth. Ex pats in London. Must read them both again to see if there is any substance in it as I find it hard to remember much about either.
    Your post makes me want to pick up Under the Net -Thanks.

  2. I haven't read The Horse's Mouth in years and years, but from what I remember I can see the similarity. The love of London is palpable, which in Murdoch's book is particularly interesting because it's still pretty war-damaged and still laboring under the austerity regime; it seems like the sort of city at that time that would be a lot easier for a feckless 25-year-old like Jake Donoghue to love than for someone with responsibilities and plans.

    The really striking thing about Under the Net is the suggestion it gives, however slight, of a different Murdoch we might have had, someone for whom comedy was the point and intellect a sideline, instead of the other way around.

  3. I love Under the Net so much and wish everyone who is remotely considering reading it would do so. The thing I like that Murdoch said about it is that she consciously and explicitly tried to put in, as in Shakespeare, something for everyone (love and philosophy and gambling and moviemaking and drinking and dogs [best dog character in all of literature, including Ackerley's dog Tulip, you heard it here first] and etc.).

  4. I don't know, Damion: Asta, and the dog in Anna Karenina through whose eyes Tolstoy briefly narrates both have pretty strong claims on the title of best literary dog. But you're right: the dog in Under the Net is amazingly fun, and he's part of some wonderfully ridiculous and funny set pieces.

    The question I have (which, I realize, I could resolve for myself) is whether Under the Net owes a substantial debt to Queneau. Despite my love of the OuLiPo, I've never read Queneau, but the cover designs of the Dalkey editions of the Hortense books make me think they may be kin to Under the Net.