Wednesday, November 23, 2011

London, necessary and contingent

Under the Net 

“I hate solitude, but i'm afraid of intimacy. The substance of my life is a private conversation with myself which to turn into a dialogue would be equivalent to self-destruction. The company which I need is the company which a pub or a cafe will provide. I have never wanted a communion of souls. It's already hard enough to tell the truth to oneself.”  ― Iris Murdoch, Under the Net

Iris Murdoch's first novel, Under the Net, has wonderful characters, including writers, eccentrics and a glamorous actress; but the character that imbues the novel as no other is London itself. The novel follows a picaresque structure, recounting a series of episodes narrated in the first person by James Donaghue, known as Jake. Moreover, London becomes the central setting of the main character’s adventures (particularly Holborn and the financial districts), together with brief but important scenes that take place in another great and enigmatic city, Paris. 

 London appears in many other ways, even philosophically. She wrote "There are some parts of London which are necessary and others which are contingent". But for Murdoch, in her novel, all of London is part of the story she weaves around her writer-hero, Jake Donaghue. It was dedicated to Raymond Queneau. When Jake leaves Madge's flat in Chapter 1, two of the books he mentions taking are Murphy by Samuel Beckett, and Pierrot mon Ami by Queneau, both of which are echoed in this story. Another character, Hugo Belfounder, is mainly based on Yorick Smythies, a student of Wittgenstein's.  It seems that literary references abound as in this example:
"...I like the women in novels by James and Conrad who are so peculiarly flower-like and who are described as 'guileless, profound, confident, and trustful'. That 'profound' is good: fluttering white hands and as deep as the sea..." (p 28)

 The epigraph for the novel, from John Dryden's Secular Masque, refers to the way in which the main character is driven from place to place by his misunderstandings. Angus Wilson summed it up as "wine, women, and Wittgenstein". Overall the novel is an exciting beginning to what would become a brilliant writing career.

Under the Net by Iris Murdoch. Penguin Books, 1977 (1954)

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