Saturday 14 September 2013

Under the Net

Following yesterday's blog here's a recommendation. Iris Murdoch's first novel may not be her best but it's always remained my favourite. Dedicated to Raymond Queneau and published in 1954, Under the Net is the most rewarding and exhilarating of all modern-day London novels, set largely in and around Earl's Court, Fitzrovia, Clerkenwell, Marylebone and the Goldhawk Road, with a quick trip to Paris and a farcical episode in a suburban film studio thrown in. It's a very funny, picaresque story, featuring a footloose expatriate Irishman (Jake Donaghue), his morose sidekick Finn and a cast of marvellously odd characters including the millionaire firework designer Hugo Belfounder.

Belfounder is based on Murdoch's friend Yorick Smythies, Ludwig Wittgenstein's star pupil from 1937, who was often the only person allowed to take notes in Wittgenstein's lectures. A first edition of Under the Net, inscribed by Murdoch to Smythies, is currently offered for sale by Sevin Seydi Rare Books, and their website offers a cherishable background note:

Murdoch's friendship with Smythies prospered after her return to teach at St Anne's College in 1948. “What a poor image of Yorick Hugo Belfounder is! But this is unkind to Hugo. The fault is mine”, Iris noted in her journal. Smythies resembled a cross between Hamlet and the grave-digger, thin, stooped, myopic, tall, pure-of-heart, given to the slow catechising that Wittgenstein favoured as a method of investigation, and to strange abstinences. At the age of five he put a sign on his door reading, “Do not disturb: reading Plotinus”. Close friends use of him the same phrase as Iris of Hugo: he was “totally truthful”, to the point of wild eccentricity. Like Hugo, Yorick in real life was divided between two women-loves. Like Hugo, who ends apprenticed to a Nottingham watch-maker, Yorick wished to become a bus conductor but, Iris noted, was the only person in the history of the bus company to fail the theory test." - Peter Conradi, "Did Iris Murdoch Draw from Life ?",  Iris Murdoch Newsletter 15 (2001).

Other delights in Under the Net are a hectic pub crawl around the empty City one summer night culminating in a boozy moonlit swim in the motionless Thames (and the transformative effect of swimming would in time become a Murdoch motif), the psychic Charlotte Street cafe proprietress Mrs Tinckham, the political firebrand Lefty Todd ('Why have you left politics? Left Politics needs you!') and a movie star dog called Mr Mars. 

What's most impressive about it is the way the author creates in Jake Donaghue a completely plausible male narrator. I can't think of a more convincing portrayal of male psychology by any female writer - the fears and insecurities, the boasting, the cocksureness, the romantic yearning and the disorganised intellectual arrogance are all spot-on. It's a wonderful novel. Look out for an early Chatto and Windus edition, with its beautiful cover: (below). The Penguin paperback (further below) has a cover design  by Len Deighton, of all people.

Chatto and Windus edition

Penguin edition (with cover by Len Deighton)

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