Iris Murdoch is one of the handful of writers who I return to with regular irregularity. Like Graham Greene, Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, Cormac McCarthy and, once upon on a time (his small output exhausted years ago) F. Scott Fitzgerald, Murdoch is a novelist whose work I very much enjoy, but not – unlike Malcolm Lowry, Isabel Allende and David Foster Wallace now and Ernest Hemingway and John Fowles when I was an undergraduate – a novelist who I feel compelled to read something by every eight weeks or so. Oh, and Knausgaard, of course.
Under the Net was Murdoch’s first published novel, released way back in 1954. A reassuring fact (for damned, confidence-shitting, failed wannabe novelists like myself) was that it was a) the sixth one she wrote and b) far weaker than those she would go on to produce. Actually, I don’t know if that is reassuring. I’ve written two novels, one novel-length travel journal*, quite a lot of trite short fiction** and enough material on this blog to rival Ulysses in length, but does this mean my 10,000 hours are nearly up or that I have to write four more novels before I’m nearly ready? Sorry, almost all of that paragraph should have been a footnote.
Under the Net (back to the subject at hand) was Murdoch’s first novel, and it is an odd, hydra-like piece. It reflects some of her later, more successful, fiction in its preoccupations with philosophy, politics and writing, and includes a similarly male-centric protagonist to her excellent The Sea, The Sea***. There is a hint of homosexuality, too, but this is never really allowed to develop – not as it would in The Bell, which I believe is her earliest novel to be is considered truly part of the literary canon. Under the Net is about Jake Donaghue, a short Englishman who lives off his lovers (or companions – it is never clear if he’s fucking any of his patrons, be they male or female) and his occasional translations of French trash fiction. He has an Irish cousin, Finn, who he returns to whenever abandoned by his (possible) paramours, and is haunted by the loss of his greatest ever friendship, which was with Hugo Belfounder, a fireworks and cinema magnate. When Belfounder and Donaghue were true friends (possible lovers), they had a great intellectual and emotional bond, discussing various topics for many, many hours for many years. Donaghue secretly kept notes of these conversations and then – late in their relationship – rewrote their words as a Grecian dialogue, had the text published and then felt so much guilt at betraying the sanctity of his and Hugo’s privacy that he never spoke to the man again. Donaghue is plagued with guilt and regret, as well as confused relief at the book’s commercial (though not critical) failure. He takes solace in the fact that Hugo may never have seen it, but avoids him through shame anyway.
The novel follows Jake as, after being thrown out by a woman, he pursues new accommodation and money. He meets left-wing political leaders, a high-flying bookmaker, glamorous actresses, mime artists, he kidnaps a retired dog actor****, he visits Paris, skinny-dips in the filthy Thames, goes on pub-crawls, breaks into a hospital and sleeps inside the skin of a bear. Under the Net is, really, a serious of anecdotes – often pretty silly – occasionally interspersed with some gorgeous descriptions of place, impressive impressions of regret, a bit of cod philosophy and some imprecise dialogue. This is far from Murdoch’s finest work, but it is witty and the central relationship – that of Jake and Hugo – swims around the full exploration it needs due to the mores of the time.
The book is, alas, somewhat repressed. Is it the tale of a perfect love affair ruined by convention and miscommunication (for Hugo did read Jake’s book, and felt pleased by what it showed about how important he was to the writer)? Or is it an episodic farce that toys with profundity only to pull it away? There is the germ of something spectacular here – there are moments that shocked me, moved me, wowed me, but there was also a lot of juvenilia-like bathos – a regular weakness of young writers. Under the Net spends too much time trying to be funny, when what it needs to be is sad. There is something haunting here, and the passages of greatness evidence a potential that would one day be reached – they are not idle promises.
I enjoyed this, and there were pages that made me cry and made me think and made me feel. But there were also chapters that, in my opinion, achieved absolutely nothing.
By no means avoid, if you’re a Murdoch fan, but do not start here if you’re not.
Under the Net is a good little novel. But in a few years’ time Murdoch would be consistently producing greatness for a couple of decades.
Look up one of those.
* Which is categorically unpublishable until I WANT TO destroy every personal relationship I’ve ever had, or can AFFORD TO destroy every personal relationship I’ve ever had.
** Everything dating from before I settled in London available in a rashly-produced ebook here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Tell-About-Love-Vomit-Splattered-ebook/dp/B00CVFKY58/ref=sr_1_1?qid=1368995811&sr=8-1&keywords=s.+manley+hadley – Please download!!!
*** My review here
**** Does that make sense? An actor that is a dog. Like a dog that plays dogs with a different name in films.