The Modern Library List of Books

AvatarThoughts on reading the top 100 English-language books of the 20th century

95. Under the Net, by Iris Murdoch

Everyone knows a thing or two about Iris Murdoch: she was promiscuous, bisexual, and sharp; she was the better-more-talented-half of a literary marriage born at Oxford (to John Bayley); in 1978, The Sea, The Sea won her a Booker and in 1987, she was named a Dame of The Order of the British Empire; she was partially deaf and suffered from extreme arthritis. And, of course – she died of Alzheimer's. 

 In much the same way that people seem to be casually acquainted with the odd fact or two about Dame Iris' life, most people are able to name at least one of the 26 novels she wrote.

Under the Net, published in 1954, was her first. While it has been said to be her only derivative work (she dedicates the book to Raymond Queneau and has openly acknowledged Queneau and Samuel Beckett as influences), in places, her prose strikes me as startlingly original. Her desciptive language is lively; with metaphors that are as inventive as they are apt, Murdoch manages to sneak up on (and capture) the essence of her object. This is especially interesting when taken together with the underlying philosophy of the book.

Don't get me wrong. Under the Net is more sprightly comedy-of-errors than weighty philosophical novel, in part, because our clueless hero, Jake Donaghue, is so affable. But Jake – a talented writer – is lazy. He is perfectly happy getting by on translations of junky bestsellers by Jean-Pierre Breteuil, rather than writing novels of his own. But as a Golden Goose, Breteuil's eggs are often more tin than gold. Fortunately for Jake, his insouciant nature is appealing, and there's always someone around willing to help out with room and board. 
However, the book opens as Jake's current welcome has run out. Having just returned from Paris, Jake learns his girlfriend, Madge, took up with the big-shot bookie, Sammy Starfield, when he was gone. An aspiring starlet, Madge knows a golden opportunity when she sees one (Sammy is a big investor in films) and she wants Jake and Finn (Jake's sidekick) out. Jake's not too cut up about Madge; while he liked her well-enough, they were never in love. 

Now faced with the unpleasant task of procuring digs, Finn suggests that Jake contact his old flame, Anne Quentin. That is when this story really starts. 
It has been years since Jake has seen Anne, and tracking her down brings back slew of baggage and a bunch of old friends. Problem is, Jake has grown none the wiser in the years since he has last seen Anne and Co., and his foolish presumptions take him from a Mime Theatre to a starlet's house (Anne's sister, Sadie) to pub-after-pub searching for Hugo (one of his aforementioned former friends) to swimming in the Thames to Sammy Starfield's flat to stealing a showdog to an on-set riot to Paris back to London to Hugo's hospital bed. 
It is here, on the floor, beside Hugo's hospital bed that Jake realizes how wrong he was about what has really been going on. That Hugo should be the one to enlighten Jake is fitting. Their relationship has always been one of mutual enlightenment; they spent hours discussing everything from politics to sex during a residential cold-cure experiment. Jake was so impressed with Hugo's philosophical manner (an objective, ego-less approach) and his lack of theoretical allegiance that he tried to capture Hugo's ideas in a fictional dialogue called The Silencer.
It is Jake's embarrassment at having written the homage and his conviction that Hugo would disapprove that lead him to blow Hugo off. However, Hugo, having read The Silencer didn't recognize the philosophy as his own. Or at the very least, he liked Jake's version much better.

It is this philosophy – on the inadequacy of language and theories to accurately describe the world – that, so favourably, influences Murdoch's prose (remember, that inventive, apt metaphor). Murdoch, heavily influenced by Wittgenstein, wants to explore the inability of human language (and by extension, our theoretical systems) to describe the nature of the world. While language might enable some level of communication about the world (for example, all English speakers have some idea about what I talk about when I say the word 'apple'), it is ill-equipped to accurately encompass the nature of the apple-in-itself. That is, what the apple is in its entirety, not just what it is for me (or any other human observer). We can't help but 'lie' when we speak about the world because we do not have the psychological tools to be completely 'honest'.

And because our language is a by-product of reasoning capacity, our theories (born of both our language and our reasoning capacity) fail to capture the essence of the world. The best we can do is approach the apple-in-itself through metaphor. We can speak of molecules and atoms, of nuclei and electrons, of bosons and quarks, but these are just theoretical constructs, models, metaphors, to wrap our mind around what we can not directly experience or understand. In a way, we are all Jake; we can't help but be mistaken – seduced by the ingenuity of our own theories – into thinking we have an accurate understanding of the world. This is the eponymous net – the limits of language, of our reasoning capacity – that we are all trying to get under. 
But like I said, this novel is deceivingly light; there are many scenes that are simply funny (Jake 'stuck' outside Sadie's apartment on the fire escape; Parisian booksellers readying their windows for the winner of the Prix Goncourt winner) or magical (Jake in Bastille Day Paris; his trailing 'Anne' through the Jardin des Tuileries; Jake, Finn and Lefty's late-night swim in the Thames) In this book – like in life – the philosophy is inessential; one can ignore it and still enjoy herself.


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