A Severed Head – Andy and Aunty Iris have a naughty night inJuly 14, 2014
A Severed Head, published in 1961, is one of Iris Murdoch’s most popular novels – understandably. It’s about sex, it’s very funny, it’s clever, it’s about sex, it’s satirical and farcical and very funny, it’s brilliantly constructed… did I mention it’s about sex?
Martin Lynch-Gibbon (snorkle), 41, is married to the slightly older Antonia, and having an apparently carefree affair with the much younger Georgie. Antonia is in therapy with the slightly older (than her) American, Palmer Anderson, a very good friend of Martin’s. Martin finds the whole therapy thing slightly frivolous, but accepts his wife seems to find some benefit in it. Martin heads home from a pre-Christmas romp with Georgie, expecting to spend a perfectly average evening with Antonia, only to be told – by Antonia – that she is in love with Palmer, has been having an affair with Palmer for some time, and wants a divorce.
I won’t give much more away that that. There are a couple of other characters in the mix – Martin’s brother Alexander, a sculptor, whose studio features a likeness of Antonia as well as an unfinished head – and Palmer’s half-sister Honor. Between them, these six characters – Martin, Georgie, Antonia, Palmer, Honor and Alexander – weave a wondrous, ridiculous erotic pastiche. While these six do not partake of same-sex activities among themselves they do talk about it a bit, and Martin’s two lesbian secretaries are probably in the only stable relationship in the entire book.
A Severed Head is widely regarded as a “harbinger” of the sexual revolution of the 60s. I’m not convinced by this. Most of the novel’s characters are middle-aged, for a start, while the supposed revolution of the 60s was driven by “the youth”. They’re mostly also terribly middle-class, and terribly fond of the trappings of a middle-class existence; these are exactly the things the 60s – supposedly – rejected.
One aspect, and a hilarious one, that perhaps does presage the sexual revolution is the insistence, on Antonia and Palmer’s part, that Martin be, not only not angry with them, but happy that they have found happiness, and continue to be a part of their lives. And they, of course, will be happy for him, whenever he finds happiness … Wherever he finds it. This fuggly cuddly nonsense does strike me as terribly 60s, and it is terribly, hysterically well done. Antonia and Palmer are at their obnoxious best in these scenes.
The “severed head” of the novel’s title is referenced a couple of times in the book – Alexander has a couple of heads in his studio, and towards the novel’s end Honor – a professor of anthropology – discusses the severed heads of “savage” tribes around the world. Perhaps I’m a bit obsessed, but the only severed head I could think of as I read this book was the severed head of the cuckolded husband – Martin, who, psychically at least, has had his dick cut off.
This leads me to one of the few aspects of the novel that bothered me. Martin is described early on, by Honor, as a violent man. Martin doesn’t seem too unhappy about this. While there are far too many violent men around in 2014 I’m not sure there are that many educated, middle-class, middle-aged run-of-the-mill chaps out there who’d be happy to hear a woman tell them they are violent. Before Honor says this to Martin he has already threatened to break his wife’s neck. After she says it he violently assaults three people – two of them women. There is no suggestion the last three events deserve the attention of the police, and as Martin threatens to break Antonia’s neck he jokes he’d probably only get a few years in jail for it if he did. The women take Martin’s violence in their stride, although both are obviously unimpressed. I think Murdoch is probably very subtly critiquing this behaviour; it’s kind of tragic that, at the beginning of the decade that supposedly liberated us all (ha, ha ha…) she felt the need to be so subtle.
This is a weakness, for me. The other is that, towards the end, the bed-jumping becomes too ridiculous. And that’s me, talking in 2014, about a novel that was published in 1961. It works as comedy, but it doesn’t work as literature, and Murdoch was writing a comic, literary novel. She succeeds on one level, and fails – though only just – on another, The Bell is definitely a superior novel, as possibly is Under the Net, and certainly The Black Prince,
A Severed Head is hugely enjoyable, and you should totally read it, but – despite what they say – it’s not Murdoch’s best novel.