Saturday, October 10, 2015

A Severed Head, by Iris Murdoch

If you want a dark, ironic, insightful novel about infidelity, this is your book. Martin's wife has left him for her American psychoanalyst, Palmer. Given that he's having an affair with a younger, free-spirited academic, Georgie, one wouldn't think he would mind so much, but Palmer is more than a little aggrieved. Add to this Palmer's "demonic" sister, named Honor (of all things) and you've got a real mess.

London just seems to lend itself to these gloomy tales of doomed, illicit love.  (I'm thinking of Graham Greene's The End of the Affair, which was also mired in fog, mist, rain and sleet, except Graham one-upped Iris Murdoch by adding war to the mix.)
Outside the window and curtained away was the end of the cold raw misty London afternoon now turned to an evening which still contained in a kind of faintly luminous haze what had never, even at midday, really been daylight.
Ah, poor Martin. He's genuinely distraught when his wife rejects him in favour of her shrink, though not for the reasons one might assume.
I possessed Antonia in a way not totally unlike the way in which I possessed the magnificent set of original prints by Audubon which adorned our staircase at home. I did not possess Georgie. Georgie was simply there.
To make matters worse, Antonia and Palmer have connived to ensure that Martin cope with his loss in the best possible manner.
Palmer stood looking at me for a while, serene and detached and tender with only a very little anxiety in his look. He pulled at the top of his dressing-gown where a snowy white shirt emerged, and bared a little more of his long neck. Then he resumed his pacing. He said, as if confidently testing something out, 'I knew you'd take it well, I knew you'd take it splendidly.'
'I'm not aware that I've yet revealed how I'm taking it!' I said. But as I said this I realized with a bitter clarity that I had already fallen into my role, my role of 'taking it well', which had been prepared for me by Palmer and Antonia. I had put my head straight into the halter which with care and concern and even affection was being held out. It was important to them that I should let them off morally, that I should spare them the necessity of being ruthless. But if I had power, I was already surrendering it. It was already too late for violence. I was indeed facing something big and formidably well organized.
Georgie, for one, questions how well Martin's really managing after the split from his wife. He points out that Palmer was, and still is, one of his friends. In this passage, Murdoch makes plain how badly Martin reads others (and himself). Georgie points out his lack of self-awareness to him, his vulnerability in letting others make his decisions for him, but he only laughs.
'Knowing him has made a lot of difference to me.'
'In what way?'
'I can't say exactly. Perhaps he has made me worry less about the rules!'
'The rules!' Georgie laughed. 'Darling, surely you became indifferent to the rules long ago.'
'Good heavens, no!' I said. 'I'm not indifferent to them now. I'm not a Child of Nature like you. No, it's not exactly that. But Palmer is good at setting people free.'
'If you think I don't worry - but never mind. As for setting people free, I don't trust these professional liberators. Anyone who is good at setting people free is also good at enslaving them, if we are to believe Plato. The trouble with you, Martin, is that you are always looking for a master.'
I laughed.
Felicity. There's a word that's evocative and happily under-used.  (Martin is speaking of Palmer, convincing himself that he wishes his rival no ill.)
He worked hard; and as I saw him, he was and deserved to be a being of an exceptional felicity. 
Honor, Palmer's sister, is fierce, blunt, intellectual. She sounds like a bit of a beast, and she appears to have no use for Martin whatever, yet he develops  bizarre obsession with her. Slinking into a room to be in Honor's presence sounds like textbook Martin-think. Slinking is his nature; can one slink into honour's presence?
In any case I did not relish a head thrust from a window, a confused encounter at a street doorway. What I really wanted was to slink quietly into some room and find myself at once in Honor's presence.
Selfish. Self-serving. Self-absorbed. That's our Martin.
There is a time limit to how long a spirited young person can be kept in cold storage. Georgie's time must be approaching the end. But there was nothing I could do, I could not face seeing Georgie just now. If I saw her I could not tell her the truth -- and neither could I bear to lie to her face-to-face. It was true that I didn't want to lose her. I wanted her love. I was not so flush with love that I could afford to dispense with it. But I did not yet want to make the effort required to decide that I could not merit, and therefore could not ask for, that love. I wanted, frankly, not to have to think about Georgie at all for the present. 
Need I mention that the novel does not have a happy ending?

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