Like a fish which swims calmly in deep water, I felt all about me the secure supporting pressure of my own life. Ragged, inglorious, and apparently purposeless, but my own.
In the very last chapter of Under the Net, I finally arrived at a passage that was the kind of writing I’d expected from Iris Murdoch:
Events stream past us like these crowds and the face of each is seen only for a minute. What is urgent is not urgent forever but only ephemerally. All work and all love, the search for wealth and fame, the search for truth, life itself, are made up of moments which pass and become nothing. Yet through this shaft of nothings we drive onward with that miraculous vitality that creates our precarious habitations in the past and the future. So we live; a spirit that broods and hovers over the continual death of time, the lost meaning, the unrecaptured moment, the unremembered face, until the final chop chop that ends all our moments and plunges that spirit back into the void from which it came.
OK, “the final chop chop” is unexpectedly colloquial, but overall this is more or less what I thought a “philosophical novelist” would sound like, or write about.
I’m not sorry Under the Net was not like that all the way through. In fact, I’m thrilled and relieved that it wasn’t, because imagine how dreary and pretentious it would have been! I am sorry, though, that I had so little understanding in advance of what Under the Net actually is like, or is about, because most of the time while I was reading it I felt quite adrift — not in an angrily puzzled way, but in an off-balance, faintly delirious way. I could tell that the novel was some kind of kunstlerroman — that Jake was somehow becoming something more or other, especially as a writer, than he was at the start. It felt like a quest plot, too, though a strangely erratic one, as Jake rushed off in one direction and then another, each time quite sure of what he was doing but rarely of exactly why or to what larger end. “There was a path which awaited me,” Jake says at one point, “and which if I failed to take it would lie untrodden forever.” His challenge, and thus our challenge, is first to discern it, and then to follow it.
For a while I concluded that the aimlessness, the fits and starts, were themselves the point: that Jake’s peripatetic misadventures stood in for a vision of life as itself without direction or purpose. I’m still not entirely sure that’s not the point — but at the end of the novel there’s a sense, not of everything coming together into a shapely unity, but of Jake gathering up the loose ends and preparing to make something more out of them. If I’d read the Introduction first, rather than last, I would have seen this coming. Instead, the Introduction confirmed it for me: “In a nutshell,” says Kiernan Ryan helpfully, “Under the Net is Jake Donaghue’s account of how he became the writer who wrote Under the Net.” Aha! Although where, in Under the Net itself, qua novel, is the evidence of that slow-growing self-awareness and control? Maybe that’s to imagine Jake becoming a different kind of writer — the kind Pip is, for instance, in Great Expectations, one who infuses the story of his past inadequacies with the wisdom they helped him acquire. Maybe Jake has not acquired any wisdom, or maybe he doesn’t believe in art with such a moralizing bent. Ryan notes the novel’s affinity with a literary tradition I don’t know well at all: “the French surrealist Raymond Queneau, to whom the novel is dedicated, and the novels of Samel Beckett,” for instance. My disorientation arose, that suggests, from my associating the idea of a “philosophical novelist” with a different tradition — with George Eliot and Henry James, for instance, not just in their realism and moral seriousness but in their overt designs on their readers. What in either of them could have prepared me for the Marvellous Mister Mars?
Ryan’s introduction points out a whole range of things that I really didn’t grasp about Under the Net and philosophy — or as philosophy. If I reread Under the Net, I would try to focus on the meanings he sets out for its motley array of characters and its bizarre, seemingly haphazard events. That would be the way to a good reading of the novel, or at least a better one than I managed this time. In my defense, though, I don’t think that happy confusion is an illegitimate first response to Under the Net. Murdoch’s choice of an unaware first-person narrator means that we are necessarily in a different position than we are with Eliot or James: short-sighted or deluded where he is, hampered by his limitations of perception and insight. This doesn’t mean we can’t tell when he’s screwing up, but it does make it more of a pleasant surprise when he arrives at some self-knowledge, as when it occurs to him that his former lover Anna “really existed now as a separate being and not as part of myself”:
Anna was something which had to be learnt afresh. When does one ever know a human being? Perhaps only after one has realized the impossibility of knowledge and renounced the desire for it and finally ceased to feel even the need of it. But then what one achieves is no longer knowledge, it is simply a kind of co-existence; and this too is one of the guises of love.
There he goes again, being philosohical! And this, too, is near the end of the book, so it feels like somewhere Jake has arrived after some effort. The puzzle of Under the Net is how exactly he figured this out — and also how seriously we are supposed to take it, given how bad Jake’s understanding of himself, of others, of life, has been up to this point. It feels more like a revelation than like any form of Bildung, and simply happening upon a significant idea is not a particularly philosophical method.
I could quote more of the introduction about how this all actual reflects “the fundamental wisdom that suffuses Iris Murdoch’s fiction,” and how the novel is “the imaginative embodiment of Murdoch’s artistic creed,” but that would be to borrow someone else’s comprehension as a mask for my own ongoing bemusement. Under the Net is the first Murdoch I’ve read. Maybe the pieces will fall into place as I read more! In the meantime, I look forward to my book club’s discussion tomorrow.
We have followed Murdoch throughout her writing life and have come to regard her as Enid Blyton for grown-ups. It is always puzzling to read things like ‘the fundamental wisdom that suffuses Iris Murdoch’s fiction.’ Under the Net is a very early work and none the worse for that. Later works tend to have two main themes, the coup de foudre, ‘Theodora suddenly realized she had always loved Freddie,’ and detailed descriptions of food. Annoyingly quirky holy men also frequently feature. The Sea The Sea uses most of themes, but is quite an engaging read in that it is almost sending itself up. Charles Arrowby is monstrously egotistical and deluded and he eats and gives the details of most unpleasant food. His cousin James is the holy person. I think you could enjoy it in a comfy chair over a wet weekend. Just don’t expect enlightenment.
I think Harold Bloom argued that he went to Irish Murdoch expecting sameness rather than novelty. In other words, if I understand Bloom, Murdoch’s philosophical novels tend to be redundant. True? False? If I were to read Murdoch, where would I begin?
Under The Net was the first Murdoch I read and I was pretty indifferent to it – a year or two after, however, I read some of her later novels and she quickly became one of my favorite writers (I’m not sure there’s any writer I’ve read more books by). I haven’t revisited Under The Net, but my memory is that the plotting and the characters are less strong than in later novels.
There are certainly links between her fiction and her philosophy, but they’re not as clear as what one might expect. Certainly some of the themes you mention – characters being “hampered by his limitations of perception and insight” and the difficulty of knowing another human being – are discussed in her philosophical works and crop up over and over again in her fiction. The plot twists mentioned by jdkerr above (“Theodora suddenly realized she had always loved Freddie”) are also important in her stressing of the autonomy of the mind, independent of the outside world – which I suppose can result in fiction that looks random when compared with realist novels with more clear causation.
For a next, or a first, Murdoch novel, I’d probably recommend either The Black Prince (her most postmodern, playing as it does with Hamlet), The Bell (maybe her most conventional), or A Severed Head (maybe her most fun). The Sea, The Sea is my favorite of hers but takes some working up to in my opinion – it is a deeply multilayered work.