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Under the Net – Andy gets reacquainted with Auntie Iris

March 17, 2014

“I’ll certainly be snuffling out a bit more of Auntie Iris.” So wrote I in 2008, Year Zero of the Reading Challenge, after Netty and I had read The Black Prince. Six years later I’ve finally got around to snuffling. And I’ll be snuffling all year. I’ll be reading six of Iris Murdoch’s novels, along with the 12 novels Netty and I read together, while Netty will be reading six Don Delillo books.

under-the-net-2I started with Murdoch’s first published novel. Under the Net came out in 1954. She shares my surname, and she’s from Ireland, like my predecessors. And so allow me a little self-indulgence. Twice – in short succession, around the middle of this novel, its writer-narrator, Jake, said things that I felt applied to me in alarmingly accurate ways. The first requires significant ego on my part: “…you are a talented man who is too lazy to work, and … you hold left-wing opinions but take no active part in politics,” is what Lefty, a slightly crazed Socialist activist, says he’s heard about Jake. “You were not misinformed,” Jake tells Lefty. “Talented” is a stretch, on my part. Later Jake says of himself: “I am the sort of man who will prefer to walk for twenty minutes rather than wait five minutes at a bus stop for a five-minute bus ride.” That is totally me. Totally. Totally me.

Although there are loads of people, like that, I guess.

Jake wants to be a writer, but not that hard to make a serious effort. Instead he translates rubbish French novels into English, and makes enough money to get by (though barely). The novel opens with his return from Paris and his booting from his current lodging. What follows isn’t exactly disjointed, but it is too bizarre to describe briefly. Jake is noncommittal in almost every sense, except when his male associates, and alcohol, are concerned. His exploits entail an avant-garde mime theatre, a stay at a pharmaceutical company’s cold-cure farm, a swim in the Thames, police brutality at a union protest at a film studio, the theft of a film-star dog, crossed wires over a film script, crossed wires over romance – actually crossed wires over pretty much everything, really.

The title refers to the “net” of language, and the suggestion – by Jake’s mate Hugo – that language cannot express anything genuine about existence or experience, and that we are forever caught in the dishonesty of what we say, and how we say it. It also, I think, suggests Jake’s escape from that net, at novel’s end. Murdoch was a philosopher as well as a novelist and she used her novels to explore and expound her take on philosophy. Under the Net is her rejection of the idea that language is a trap. It can be a trap, she seems to say, but it can be used to explore and reveal the truth as well.

Although that’s what everybody else says about it. I thought the philosophical stuff wasn’t that well done – the recreation of the philosophical dialogues between Jake and Hugo is easily the novel’s weakest element. It works best as a highly intelligent, witty, political romp. Philosophy might be  driving that romp, to be sure, but the romp is the thing. Perhaps not in Murdoch’s eyes, but certainly in mine.

In hindsight, what did my head in a bit about The Black Prince was that it wasn’t just a novel written in the voice of an unreliable narrator, but an unconsciously ironic narrator. Bradley did manage to hold the reader’s sympathy for the most part, but he was full of shit and a lot of the humour was at his expense – which is hard for a novelist, given that the story’s written from his perspective, in the first person. I suspect rereading The Black Prince with that in mind would make the first half much funnier – it’s only later that I (and I think Netty) got the joke. In her first novel Murdoch uses a similar technique – Jake doesn’t really know what’s going on around him, and he gets a lot of it wrong, and he cares about the things he thinks – which he’s got wrong. And this is the source of some of the humour – although not the majority of it. The majority of the humour is so … I don’t know, it makes me wonder if the Python band did their Masters in Murdoch. Murdoch may, as some analysis notes, have taken her philosophical influence from the French, but the humour in Under the Net often seems very British, and very fifties. Which makes sense, I guess.

Under the Net gets a big thumbs up, and leaves me looking forward to reading more Murdoch. It’s also the first book I’ve read in its entirety electronically. I am a reluctant convert to the iPad Mini, but if you saw my bookshelves you’d know it makes sense. I’ll be reading most if not all of Murdoch’s books on the iPad this year, and possibly quite a bit more. The reading experience itself is not that much different to a book, although the “flicking back” element is obviously quite problematic – and I am an inveterate flicker-back. That said, I found the two quotes I wanted to use early in this post within minutes. It might’ve been a bit quicker with an actual book, but not much.

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