Under the Net by Iris Murdoch

My first experience of Iris Murdoch’s fiction but hopefully not my last. Under the Net – Murdoch’s debut novel, first published in 1954 – is a subtly clever blend of the picaresque and the philosophical, all set within the bohemian milieu of London and Paris in the early 1950s.

The novel is narrated by Jake Donaghue, an impoverished hack writer who scrapes a living by translating mediocre French novels into English when in need of some ready cash. As the story opens, Jake arrives back in London following a trip to France only to discover that he is being thrown out of the flat where he has been living virtually rent-free for the past couple of years. The flat in question is owned by Jake’s friend, Magdalen, who is worried that her new fiancé – a wealthy bookmaker and businessman known as Sacred Sammy – might not like the idea of Jake being back on the scene.

As a consequence, Jake – accompanied by his accommodating assistant, Finn – must find a new place to live, a quest that sets off a sequence of misadventures, chance encounters and close shaves, all of which shape his outlook on life in subtly different ways.

There are some wonderful characters in this novel from the talented Anna Quentin, a folk singer with a stake in an experimental theatre, to her sister, Sadie, a glamorous actress whose motives may not be quite as innocent as they initially seem. Perhaps the most notable of all is the kindly Mrs Tinckham, a rather eccentric lady who runs a newsagent’s shop near Charlotte Street – a dusty, higgledy-piggledy kind of place that is always full of cats.

In the midst sits Mrs Tinckham herself, smoking a cigarette. She is the only person I know who is literally a chain-smoker. She lights each one from the butt of the last; how she lights the first one of the day remains to me a mystery, for she never seems to have any matches in the house when I ask her for one. I once arrived to find her in great distress because her current cigarette had fallen into a cup of coffee and she had no fire to light another. Perhaps she smokes all night, or perhaps there is an undying cigarette which burns eternally in her bedroom. An enamel basin at her feet is filled, usually to overflowing, with cigarette ends; and beside her on the counter is a little wireless which is always on, very softly and inaudibly, so that a sort of murmurous music accompanies Mrs Tinckham as she sits, wreathed in cigarette smoke, among the cats. (p. 12)

This novel is witty, engaging and fast-paced, much more so than I expected – the humour in particular comes as a complete surprise. Along the way, the action takes in various scuffles, the theft of a manuscript, a break-in, a kidnap, and a spontaneous night-time dip in the Thames. (There is some glorious writing about London here, really atmospheric and evocative.) On one level it’s all tremendous fun.

Nevertheless, there is room for some debate and self-reflection too. Central to the novel is the exploration of one of Wittgenstein’s theories, the idea that our deepest emotions remain trapped ‘under the net’ of language, inaccessible to others in spite of our best efforts to express them through dialogue or the written word. Jake’s philosopher friend, Hugo, acts as a conduit for Murdoch’s exploration of philosophical themes – discussions that Jake has knowingly appropriated to write a book of his own, The Silencer, a past transgression which he now regrets.

The novel is also an exploration of the fickle nature of love – the kind of story where A loves B, B loves C, C loves D, and D loves A. Everyone seems to be in love with the wrong person; if only Anna could feel differently about Jake, perhaps everything would be okay.

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 coexistence; and this too is one of the guises of love. (p.277)

As the novel draws to a close, we find Jake in a better place, more at ease with himself than at the outset. In short, he is optimistic, eager to find regular work and open to the experiences of life, complete with its various ups and downs.

All in all, this feels like an excellent, lively introduction to Iris Murdoch’s work. I haven’t even had time to mention the Marvellous Mister Mars, a performing Alsatian who manages to get Jake out of the trickiest of situations in the nick of time…he’s almost certainly worth the entry price alone.

Under the Net is published by Vintage Books; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

45 thoughts on “Under the Net by Iris Murdoch

  1. Brona

    I’ve only read 5 IM’s and they were all unforgettable experiences! Are you planning on reading in order. Lyzzy has been gusting an IM read along for the past 2 yearS. I just joined in for the ones I had. But she would be delighted to have any latecomers jump in with their thoughts and reviews. And you might find it interesting to see what others thought about the book you.
    https://librofulltime.wordpress.com/the-great-iris-murdoch-readalong-november-2017-december-2019/

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ooh, thank you for that. I will definitely take a look at Liz’s Murdoch readalong. IM is still very much a new experience for me, so I doubt whether I will read all of her work in order. That said, I do have another couple of Murdochs in the TBR — The Bell and A Fairly Honourable Defeat — so I really ought to read those two first before buying any more. Hopefully they’ll be just as enjoyable as the first!

      Reply
      1. Liz Dexter

        They’re both good ones! And there’s no compulsion to make yourself read all of them (although one lady, Jo, has been reading along brand new for all the books and really enjoying the process!) you can dip in and out, but I look out for reviews and link them in and love reading them, too. Those two are great ones and I’m sure you will enjoy them.

        Reply
  2. Pingback: “Under the Net” round-up and “The Flight From the Enchanter” preview #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch | Adventures in reading, running and working from home

  3. Liz Dexter

    How wonderful that you were tempted into the world of Murdoch by a review copy! I have added your review to my round-up on this book in my Iris Murdoch readalong https://librofulltime.wordpress.com/2017/11/30/under-the-net-round-up-and-the-flight-from-the-enchanter-preview-imreadalong-irismurdoch/ there’s a link to my review and the discussion that ensued in that post. I am glad you found it funny (the cold institute is one of my favourite bits) and maybe more enjoyable than you expected, and hope this opens you up to a world of new and enjoyable reading with Iris!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, thank you for adding my piece to your round-up, that’s very kind! I’ll definitely take a look at your posts for more insights on this novel (and Iris Murdoch in general). Oddly enough, a close friend of mine had been trying to get me to read Murdoch for many years, but until recently I had always resisted. Not sure why, possibly because I had the impression that she would be too ‘difficult’ or intellectually challenging for my tastes. But then I succumbed, partly because of these gorgeous reissues from Vintage Books.

      She’s actually much funnier than I expected her to be – well, in this book at least. Would you say Under the Net is fairly typical of Murdoch in general or somewhat different to her later work? It would be great to hear your perspective on this as you’re clearly a Murdoch aficionado. Also, which book would you suggest I read next? I have copies of the Bell and A Fairly Honourable Defeat in my TBR, so hopefully one of these might be a suitable follow-on read.

      Reply
      1. Liz Dexter

        Both of those are good ones, and I would read The Bell, then Fairly Honourable Defeat. Under the Net is typical in that it encapsulates many of the themes she uses throughout the works – that’s why when people are fans they tend to be fans of the whole oeuvre, as you see the same ideas and things (curly red hair, stones, dogs) recurring throughout the novels. Most of them indeed have scenes of light-heartedness and farce, sometimes the humour is more heavily ironic. When I did my study of IM and book groups, most people who attempted her for the first time had been put off by the intellectual or heavy reputation she has now – yet lots of ordinary people read her in droves as the novels came out! But you’re not alone in those feelings, which might help. The reissues are nice, just a pity they only did a few of them.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Oh, I’m glad to hear that the humour is a recurring feature, albeit in different shades and tones. That’s good to know. I’m rather partial to a spot of irony as well as farce, so the more slyly humorous brand of comedy definitely appeals. And thanks for the advice on the order of reading; I’ll definitely try The Bell next, hopefully sometime early next year. (I tend to leave a decent break between books by the same author, just to give myself a bit of breathing space between reads.)

          It’s interesting to hear about that gap in the perception of Murdoch between people who read the novels as they were published and those who came to her late. Do you have a view on what led to that impression of her books as very intellectual? Was it driven by any one book in particular or maybe even her public persona or reputation in the literary world?

          Reply
          1. Liz Dexter

            I think it was her public persona and then the books written about her and the film swung it again to being the sad woman with Alzheimer’s – scary intellectual and Alzheimer’s were the two things my reading groups said about her in terms of their initial impressions of her. I suppose the one making the other some kind of greater tragedy.

            Reply
            1. JacquiWine Post author

              Ah yes, the Judi Dench film. You’re right, that must have been very influential in shaping people’s impressions of Murdoch as a writer and an individual. I’d like to watch it again at some point, maybe once I’ve read a little more of her work.

              Reply
  4. Brian Joseph

    Murdoch has been on my radar for a long time but I have not read any of her books. This sounds like something that I would like. The psychological theories underlying the plot sound interesting.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Even though I’ve just come to Murdoch fresh, so to speak, I get the sense that this is a good one to start with, partly because it was her first. The philosophical aspects add another dimension, for sure, and luckily they seem relatively accessible and possible to follow. I’d definitely recommend it if you’re thinking of trying her.

      Reply
  5. madamebibilophile

    This sounds so enjoyable! The only Murdoch I’ve read is The Sea, The Sea which was really impressive but the narrator was so unlikable – this sounds much warmer. I was wondering where to go next with Murdoch and this sounds a good bet.

    Reply
    1. Liz Dexter

      Although this has got another unreliable male narrator, he is nicer than Charles Arrowby, that’s for sure. The two mentioned here, The Bell and Fairly Honourable Defeat, are also warm and inclusive novels, although Defeat has a very wicked villain!

      Reply
    2. JacquiWine Post author

      Warm is a good word for it. I found it very engaging; much more accessible than I had expected it to be. Based on my knowledge of your tastes, I’d say there’s a very good chance that you would enjoy this. I can’t recall if you’ve read Brigid Brophy’s The King of a Rainy Country, but there were times when I couldn’t help but be reminded of it here…

      Reply
  6. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Great review Jacqui, and you make the book sound so tempting! I have tried and failed twice to gel with Under the Net and I really don’t know where the problem is, as the quotes you share are marvellous and I *should* love it. I may have to try one of her others and see if I can break my Murdoch duck!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, that’s a pity…but then again, we’re never going to click with every book or writer we attempt to read. It sounds as if you’ve given this more than a fair chance, so it’s probably not your book. Maybe The Bell would be worth a try, particularly as it seems to be something of a favourite? (Quite a few readers recommended it to me when I was looking at these Vintage reissues.)

      Reply
  7. heavenali

    Great review Jacqui. Iris Murdoch is great at writing these kinds of eccentric characters and her London is always brilliant. It feels like a long time since I read this one with Liz’s readalong, must be about seven years ago.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah…thanks, Ali. It came as a very pleasant surprise, I must admit. Somehow I had got it into my head that I wouldn’t like this author, that her books would be cerebral or intellectually challenging for my tastes. However, she wears her philosophical themes quite lightly, certainly in this one. I loved her portrayal of Bohemian London. Not million miles away from Brigid Brophy’s King of a Rainy Country at times; I couldn’t help but think of it as I was reading the Murdoch.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I recall your review of A Severed Head (great title). Sadly, it’s not one of the novels included in these Vintage reissues, otherwise I might have been tempted to snap it up! I think you’ll enjoy this one. It’s a lot of fun but thoughtful too.

      Reply
  8. gertloveday

    One of my favourite Irises. “Everyone seems to be in love with the wrong person” is more or less a given in her books, as is the unworldly but all-knowing Hugo character. It has a kind of dash she never achieved again.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Guy just mentioned that you’d read it. I knew I’d seen a post on it at some point but couldn’t remember where. I shall head over to yours later and take a look. It’s interesting to hear that mismatched affections seems to be a recurring theme in Murdoch’s work – plenty of potential for good fiction there, especially given the era and cultural setting. I was very pleasantly surprised by this – definitely a writer I’d like to return to in the future.

      Reply
  9. Scott W.

    I’ve yet to read Murdoch, though I even have a couple of her novels sitting on the shelves, both highly recommended by readers whose tastes I admire. And now here’s another strong recommendation.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Now might be a good time to start as it’s her centenary this year. I think that’s one of the reasons why I finally decided to give her a try, particularly as these new reissues from Vintage are so appealing!

      Reply
  10. Nat

    You have a great knack for reviewing books that are already on my TBR and making me want to move them up the list. I’ve not yet read any Murdoch, (although I have started stockpiling a number of them) so it’s good to hear that this would be a good one to start with.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! That’s definitely the idea. Seriously though, it’s a real delight, so much more engaging and entertaining than I expected it to be. I think it would make a great entry point, particularly as it seems to lay the groundwork for some of Murdoch’s recurring themes (mismatched affections, philosophical debate, elements of symbolism etc.). And yet, on another level it reads like a caper. A very impressive debut indeed!

      Reply
  11. Radz Pandit

    Lovely review as ever Jacqui, the book does sound really good. I loved the ‘Mrs Tinckham smoking her cigarettes’ passage, it is hilarious!

    Iris Murdoch is one of those authors whose novels I have, but somehow I have been too daunted to actually read them. But Under the Net seems like a perfect place to start.

    My husband has read The Sea, The Sea and rates it quite highly.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Mrs Tinck is a wonderful creation, lovingly portrayed in all her glory surrounded by those cats. (It’s a great image, very visual.)

      I too had a similar perception of Murdoch for many years, but this novel has challenged that for sure. It’s nowhere near as daunting or challenging as I feared it might be. Quite the reverse in fact as it’s actually very entertaining. I would definitely recommend it as good one to try, just to see how you get on with her style.

      Reply
  12. Jane

    I very rarely re-read books because I’m such a slow reader and there’s always so many books I haven’t read, but when I saw these new editions of Iris Murdoch’s I thought that was a good enough reason to read her again and your review has just added encouragement, thank you!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, lovely! They are rather tempting, aren’t they? Too gorgeous to resist. Sometimes a ‘backlist’ author like Murdoch just needs a little extra inventive for readers to (re)discover their work, and I suspect the new editions have played their part here. I hope you mange to find the time to revisit her in the future; I’d love to hear what you think.

      Reply
  13. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

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