Sunday, 22 August 2010

"Under the Net" by Iris Murdoch

I found this book in a second-hand bookshop in Norfolk and it steadily worked its way to the top of my "TBR" pile. I must confess that I had never heard of it, and it was not until after I completed it that I found out it was in fact Murdoch's first published novel. When I did, the news did not surprise me, for it has a very different feel to it than all the Murdoch novels I have read before. It may be a very unfair thing to say of someone who has won both the Booker (for The Sea, The Sea) and the Black Tait (for The Black Prince), but I have always felt that this she was not someone who had written lots of different novels, but rather the same one many times. One always seems to encounter the same sorts of characters wrestling with the same sort of issues, but with different names and in different situations.

Under the Net is undeniably different, and it is interesting to conjecture what might have happened had her writing continued to develop in this way. It actually reminded me very much of John Braine, one of whose novels I reviewed on this blog recently. It is part picaresque, featuring a male protagonist, Jake, who is a shameless user, believing other people have been put on earth solely to assist him with finding somewhere to live (rent free), and incidental spending money along the way.

Jake is a translator of French writers, and an important part of the plot revolves around a novel which has been written by a writer he despises. Jake's translation goes missing, and it subsequently transpires that two of the other characters are planning to make an English language film of it, but cutting Jake out of any financial reward. The writer is later surprisingly (as far as Jake is concerned) awarded the Prix Goncourt, thus shaking Jake's faith in his own literary judgement. However, it all sparks a hilarious and somewhat anarchic sub-plot whereby Jake kidnaps the German Shepherd dog belonging to one of these two characters and holds it to ransom. Leftist political claptrap, rants and riots also feature heavily.

First novels are often interesting, as setting the groundwork for the writer's later endeavours (think Under the Greenwood Tree), but not particularly enjoyable or gripping, yet none of this is true in this case. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, which I must confess is not something which I can say about all Murdoch's works. At the same time, her later writing seems to have developed in very different directions. Perhaps along with her own development as a writer went an awareness of cultural change, however. There is a lot of intellectual content which would probably be unacceptable to a publisher today (Under the Net was published nearly sixty years ago) and would require substantial dumbing down.

Perhaps surprisingly for such a good book, Under the Net is still in print (in a 2002 publication by Vintage Classics), so there is no excuse for not getting hold of it.

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