Sunday, August 14, 2016

A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch

I felt this: but felt it in the midst of a considerable and more immediate pain at seeing, in the circumstances of a sort of treachery, the well-loved room again.  To lose somebody is to lose not only their person but all those modes and manifestations into which their person has flowed outwards; so that in losing a beloved one may find so many things, pictures, poems, melodies, places lost too: Dante, Avignon, a song of Shakespeare's, the Cornish sea.  The room was Antonia.  It breathed the rich emphasis of her personality... It was a new and fierce pain to look on all this and see it as something mortal, indeed as something already perished, disintegrated, meaningless, and waiting to be taken away.

Martin Lynch-Gibbon has a good life: a wife, Antonia, he adores, and a mistress, Georgie... whom he also adores.  That is, until the day that his wife confesses that she is leaving him for her therapist, a mutual friend named Palmer Anderson.  She encourages Martin to be supportive: after all, they are all three of them friends, and they feel a duty to "look after" him and make sure that he is taken care of.  This development sends Martin into a psychological tailspin; not only robbed of his wife, but unable even to enjoy the cathartic release of anger or resentment.  At the margins of this story are Martin's aloof brother, Alexander, and Palmer's sister, a severe Jewish woman named Honor who encourages Martin to man up and demand that his wife return to him.

A Severed Head is a strange book.  Little happens beside conversation; it's very much in the mode of Edith Wharton or Henry James.  I'm beginning to think that some of the charm of Under the Net was that its protagonist was a middle-class writer, living not in an isolated manor house but a bustling, urban London; the well-to-do characters of this book and The Unicorn have less appeal. 

But it does, in a sense, have some of the wild energy that made Under the Net so good.  The plot really centers on a confusing domino-collapse of shifting allegiances: First, Martin falls in love with Honor, then walks in on Honor and Palmer (brother and sister!) in flagrante delicto.  Georgie accepts Alexander's proposal; Antonia leaves Palmer; Alexander dumps Georgia; Antonia declares that she's in love with Alexander--it's like a strange reality show, but with incest.  Presumably all this adds up to some interesting statement on the psyche, or on psychotherapy, or on human sexuality.  I'm not quite sure.  At the end, it seemed more silly to me than anything.

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