A Severed Head

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A Severed Head

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Redigeret: feb 11, 2013, 5:52 pm

I thought I'd made a thread already, but apparently not. In any event, I have begun...... I had a bit of an uh-oh response as I read this at the beginning of chapter 2: In almost every marriage there is a selfish and an unselfish partner. A pattern is set up and soon becomes inflexible, of one person always making the demands and one person always giving way. In my own marriage I early established myself as the one who took rather than gave." Ow ow ow ow ow. In short another bastard (pardon me) like ole Charles, undoubtedly going to get a bit of a shock somewhere in the next couple hundred pages.

On another thread a IM reader talks about knowing that IM is being humorous, but not finding it all that humorous herself, and I can relate to that. While I read and had to quell an indignant response, I wouldn't be surprised if IM wrote that with glee in her heart - Martin may, in fact, only believe this to be so..... Ah well, I am just speculating. I am making slow progress as I have had many distractions of late.

feb 12, 2013, 2:43 am

Ha - I read this book for the first time when I was FOURTEEN. I was a protected only child at a single-sex school (we should do a "How I Discovered Murdoch" thread as I have a lovely story about that. I'm not sure I understood a word of it - but I felt terribly sophisticated reading it!

Redigeret: feb 12, 2013, 5:59 am

I loved this one precisely because of what Murdoch did to Martin. And he deserved it.

Redigeret: feb 13, 2013, 12:17 pm

One thing IM does is, just when you are fed up with a character, she has them say something that makes you reconsider or relent.
End of Ch 4 Martin is talking to the equally repellant Palmer and says, ""It's all wrapping. You're too clever for me. No wonder Antonia wants you. She's probably too clever for me too, only I never realized it." This remark didn't come across as the least bit flippant but is in fact poignant, as it is undoubtedly true. Charles did the same thing in The Sea, The Sea - something would happen, and he would deflate, cease being a pompous ass, and say something moving.

After his wife's announcement Martin looks around his house and says, '...our lovely house had put on suddenly the air of a superior antique shop. The things in it no longer cohered together. It was odd that the pain worked first and most immediately through things as if they had at once become the sad symbols of a loss....." And this is no doubt why people have bitter inheritance fights about very stupid little things, sometimes it is greed, sometimes this kind of thing. Anyhow, I love that insight, and it also makes it hard to totally hate Martin.

Martin's brother: "The trouble with people nowadays is that they don't know how to do nothing."
That had me laughing.

Otherwise, Iris mentions things to do with heads constantly - in this last chapter Martin gets a tour of his sculptor brother's sculpted head collection, including one that is not modeled on a real person, but is springing out of Alexander's imagination. It makes Martin queasy.

feb 13, 2013, 9:10 am

>4 sibylline:. Sib, I love your insight into the reasons for bitter inheritance fights over things--"the sad symbols of loss." That's really good.

feb 13, 2013, 12:18 pm

Thank you so much Becky. It just popped into my head as I was writing it out. We had some rellies who had an unbelievable family falling out over a red velvet sofa. I should say, a very worn red velvet sofa. All of them could have afforded to have it copied.

feb 13, 2013, 5:53 pm

14! Yoicks. I read some strange things too, though, books my parents had around, so I should talk. Couples for example, that was an eye-opener.

So I managed to read a few chapters last night and at lunchtime. What an unbelievable dweeb Martin is: I do know, in fact, that there are people who do try to be 'gentle and understanding' and I am loving Honor Klein (what a fabulous name!) coming in and stomping all over everybody. Martin's affair has just been outed and Anderson and Antonia are gloating over their new hold on him. Ugh! I still don't feel sorry for him, but I do pity him. Does Iris like any of these characters --- Georgie maybe, and Honor most likely, too soon to tell.

feb 13, 2013, 5:57 pm

Holey moley - I had no idea there was a movie and look at the line-up of actors. This is a must see I think!

severed head movie

feb 15, 2013, 5:32 pm

I'm done here is what I wrote in my review:

I seem to be in a pattern of reading spoofs of a rare breed, really smart ones. In this, the bedroom farce is pushed to the limit..... partners shift with lightning speed as in a Virginia Reel and it is always 'the real thing this time' until one sits back and lets it all happen....Stylistically, the book, which is short at 200 pages, almost reads like a play. Most of the action takes place in various drawing rooms or places that feel like 'sets'. Do I care who ends up with whom? Not really. The enjoyment here for the reader is more intellectual than emotional, as in feeling involved or invested in any of the characters, rather the pleasure is in feeling one's own allegiances and empathies (such as they are) shift from character to character as the latest permutation emerges. Here and there a frisson, can it get any worse? Most of the now recognizable Murdoch elements are here: pride goeth..... the fall is hard and gets harder. Possessions get moved about and disrupted, flats are rented but then left half-empty. Here the mysterious and beautiful house, Rembers, is more of a suggestion or a memory (as suggested by its name, in fact) off stage rather than front and center, and there is no swimming as it is winter. There are secrets, and even a slight suggestion of the supernatural, although less than in the other two, this time entwined around an actual character who seems to act as a catalyst. Anyhow, everyone ends up with someone at the end, there is no sense at all that this IS the end for any of them. ****

"There is no substitute for the comfort of the utterly taken-for-granted relationship...." Murdoch means this with the usual double-edged irony, but it is a characteristic remark in this novel.....

"You're sort of a vacuum into which interference rushes...." says his mistress, Georgie, to Martin, the very passive first-person narrator.

What I did not write in my review:

I do feel I am getting the 'hang' of Murdoch, she's definitely a writer that it would be a mistake to read (that is, a committed reader of a certain sort) only one unless one had a viscerally negative reaction, of course. That happens.

Redigeret: feb 16, 2013, 4:48 pm

Reading all of these posts I think I was right to take the advice of beginning Murdoch with Henry and Cato. Some of these I know will boggle my mind but perhaps introducing myself to her more easily, I will be able to enjoy them and learn something of 'herself'.

Interesting review Lucy. I enjoyed it.

feb 16, 2013, 6:48 am

Love your review Lucy and glad you liked it so much. And reading #9 I just realized that The Severed Head was when I got the hang of Murdoch as well -- I think that's why I remember the book so fondly.

feb 16, 2013, 7:45 am

I may have liked The Bell better, but the spareness of this one stripped away all illusions and makes IM's 'aims' clearer, maybe?

feb 18, 2013, 4:41 am

I loved this novel. Like all of us, I loathed the especially foul Martin. FYI, I wrote this review of it after reading it. (I'm afraid the links are only available on my blog version of the review, at bobbygw.com. Apologies.) ...

A prolific, brilliant author, intellectual and philosopher, the remarkable Iris Murdoch wrote 26 novels. The Severed Head was the second fiction of hers that I’d ever read (my first was overwhelming Philosopher’s Pupil, which I have also reviewed on this blog – click here). More reviews of her terrific novels will follow (whether you like it or not – eek!).

Plot: Martin Lynch-Gibbon, established wine merchant, and happily dedicated two-timing sophisticate (he has betrayed his wife, Antonia, by having an affair for some time with Georgie, a friend, and LSE lecturer), tells you the story of the collapse of his marriage, his wife’s affair with no less than two men (one of which, with the manipulative, obnoxiously patronising, slimy psychoanalyst, Palmer Anderson, began even before Martin’s marriage with Antonia; the other with Martin’s sculptor brother, Alexander) and his stormy entanglement – and eventual (well, potential) resurrection, with the devilish, deeply disturbing brilliant academic Honor Klein (sister to Palmer).

So is it any good? God, yes. It is beautifully, compellingly written and from the viewpoint of Martin’s narration. (The notion that men can’t ‘write’ women characters, or vice versa, or one ethnicity can’t ‘write’ another, or sexuality, etc., I think is total nonsense. Imagination has only the limit of one’s mind and preconceptions. Any other judgement is a prejudgment of the reader, surely?)

The author’s intelligence heats every page and the deft, brilliant drawings of her characters – she can do men and women with equal aplomb, by which I mean their psychology, self-deceptions, quirks, temperaments and dialogue – are always powerfully evoked, even – perhaps, especially – when their natures are most troubling.

Martin clearly finds himself falling into an almighty mess. Having thought he was the one in control of his life, it becomes clear he is the more easily duped – and cuckolded, while deceiving himself and others (as do the other characters). Murdoch understands the vicissitudes and muddle, confusion and self-deception of what it can often mean to be human.

Amazingly, while it is difficult to care for or certainly empathise with any of her characters (besides Georgie, who doesn’t display any of the obnoxious characteristics of the others), as a reader you are drawn in relentlessly, and you find from the outset that you just can’t wait to turn over each page, desperate to find out what other levels of hell will transpire in the telling of the tale (Murdoch is clearly a fan of Dante, and often evokes him, as she does in The Philosopher’s Pupil).

Besides Georgie, then, the characters to a tee are pretty much loathsome. Antonia is foul – full of meaningless platitudes, always insistently and with pressure pleading, demanding, coaxing that others comply with her notions of love and consideration (which prove to be more about pleasing herself, rather than others). She’s a true narcissist, with her monstrous need to be loved and loving; in her case, the latter experience is simply an opportunity to cement the prospect of her being loved.

What troubled me most in the novel was the portrayal of Honor Klein, because of Martin’s anti-Semitic, obsessively hateful – even on one occasion, violent (until towards the end of the narrative) way of describing her. While it is vital to keep in mind that this anti-Semitism is clearly Martin’s – he associates her `Jewish’ looks (the word is in single quotation marks to highlight the absurdity of this notion) with ugliness, and hardly a scene in which she is present takes place without the smell of sulphur in the atmosphere; never mind him literally describing her as a devil, as a demon, and the seeming cold, clinical, monstrous nature of her (compounded by Honor committing a taboo that still shocks, for any reader, to this day). But because the hatred is so absurdly over the top, as a reader you realise soon enough that Martin’s negative obsession with her, coupled with your knowing that his happy two-timing world has utterly collapsed, is a reflection of his deeply troubled self. This is confirmed when, regaining his sense of self and a more balanced view, Martin’s perception of Honor as ugly and demon-like transitions slowly but surely into a sort of moving beauty to him (like a ‘Hebrew angel’, he writes towards the end). Anyway, if you read biographies of Murdoch, you’ll know she was probably the least prejudiced (of any kind) person you could hope to have met and most definitely not anti-semitic. (To learn more about her life, click here for a biographical profile, including all sorts of sources/resources, written by Peter J. Conradi, one of the authorities on her life, work and letters.)

Still, amid this awfulness, you are addicted to learning more about her; she is utterly fascinating and a force to be reckoned with. I loved, for example, the scene in which Martin – drunk, as usual – note: if you don’t appreciate your narrator being a relentless whisky and wine drinker, you will probably need to stay clear of this novel – sitting alone in a candle-lit drawing-room, asks Honor to show how to use the samurai sword she owns (she has trained with a master for several years in Japan, but states simply that she is only a `beginner’). She refuses to do so but then, moments later and in a flash, she slices in half two handkerchiefs with the blade, and so fast Martin doesn’t even see the blade as it whisks through the air.

A Severed Head is disturbing, nightmarish and brilliantly depicts the shenanigans, deceptions and self-deceptions of having an affair. It is also clever, compelling, thought-provoking, powerful and thoroughly entertaining fiction. Reader, be warned, but I have no doubt you will find plenty to sink your teeth into (even if on occasion you feel you are helplessly staring at a god-awful car crash). Recommended? MURDOCH-YEH!

maj 19, 2013, 5:22 pm

I've started this book. In order to avoid spoilers, I have only read the first seven posts. Obviously I'm still trying to work out the whole group read/spoilers thing. Sorry if I'm repeating anything but I wanted to know if anyone else was reading this just now. There is a stage version of A Severed Head. The first half seems like a play with people sitting around a London drawing room talking and realizing who's slept with whom. Unfortunately my taste in theater runs more towards Les Miz. So I am very happy that Martin has finally started making delightfully bad decisions. I did love Iris's writing in Chapter 8 though. It felt like I had ridden along with Martin on his trip to the train station in the fog.
At the moment, I am also reading The Color Purple and The Fountainhead. They weirdly connect to A Severed Head. Alice Walker's characters are a world away and they're the other end of sophistication but they are still pairing off in irrational ways and frustrated men are hitting women. Ayn Rand's musings on selfishness connects to poor Martin, who is so self-centered he expects his mistress to feel sorry for him when his wife leaves him.

maj 21, 2013, 1:29 pm

Don't you love the way books intertwine and inter-relate?

maj 21, 2013, 2:57 pm

Yes and it always seems to be happening.

maj 22, 2013, 7:57 am

Yes - it's one of the reasons I like reading several books at a time, to see what alchemical thing will happen.

maj 28, 2013, 8:05 pm

I finished A Severed Head. I didn't like it as well as Bruno's Dream. I decided that my main problem was that I didn't like following Martin around. I wanted to go find out more about Georgie or Palmer. The characters are all pursuing their own happiness. Antonia is wonderfully revealed as a person who puts a great importance on looking like a nice person but doesn't care if she really is nice. All of the relationships in the book seem to support my theory of the world that people bruise each other through indifference not malice. The blurbs called it a comedy. I wouldn't call the book funny but I can see how the film version must be funny. I will keep my eyes open for more of Iris Murdoch.

maj 29, 2013, 2:04 pm

That is so well put Bonnie June, indifference not malice.

maj 29, 2013, 10:04 pm

People who get road rage seem to take everything so personal. I really think the crazy drivers around me are concentrating entirely on themselves and not giving me a thought good or bad.