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Under the Net by Iris Murdoch
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Under the Net (original 1954; edition 1971)

by Iris Murdoch

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1,311275,938 (3.61)96
Member:Robertgreaves
Title:Under the Net
Authors:Iris Murdoch
Info:Penguin Books Ltd (1971), Edition: New impression, Paperback, 256 pages
Collections:Your library, ebooks and online books
Rating:****
Tags:contemporary, novel, british author, ebook

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Under the Net by Iris Murdoch (1954)

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Let’s imagine we are at one of those raucous, intellectual cocktail parties where certain stimulating conversations pierce one’s cerebral cocoon, to bury and linger for years, periodically calling out to be resolved somehow. Suddenly, in the middle of the room, a glittering gauntlet is thrown down:

“Can you name a living American philosopher?”

Silence.

The centathlete was about to blurt out, “Rick Roderick,” a charismatic professor from his college days. A self-described revolutionary materialist, Roderick idiosyncratically engaged the classroom, and even participated in a national “superstar” lecturer video series. In parsing Plato, Nietzche or Kierkegaard, he would draw analogies to Blade Runner, Neuromancer and Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. He was unpredictable in thought and deed: he cut short certain classes in order to make it home in time for Star Trek reruns; and he mentioned how as a younger man he had injected psychedelics into his optic nerve for ostensibly faster and more intense results (the benefits have been debunked by various scientist friends in conversation). An authentic provocateur who was denied tenure and then fired from Duke University, he wanted people to think critically and flourish.

But Rick Roderick died in 2002 in his early 50’s of heart disease, so while his name was not mentioned at our party, it is set down here. His insights and legacy are preserved at www.rickroderick.org and at this fine site, which feature his lectures, interviews, and more...

Then, in this odoriferous salon, one luminary—hey, it’s actor and model Lauren Hutton!—proclaims that Camille Paglia, the author, columnist and professor, is “the greatest thinker of our time.” Paglia, an adept, compulsive self-promoter, has echoed Hutton's assessment.

Another shadow utters, “Noam Chomsky is America’s greatest intellectual.” It’s Chris Hedges, the celebrated journalist and activist. He’s seconded by two rock ‘n’ rollers: Zack de la Rocha and Tom Morello of Rage against the Machine. They assert, “Noam Chomsky books are the ones most prominently featured on the 'Rage' tour bus.”

Paglia and Chomsky were generally welcomed, although the centathlete may have detected scattered, derisive coughing when the former was announced. Someone muttered that Paglia had a crush on Madonna, dressed it up as post-feminist aesthetic, and has been essentially recycling the work she published 25 years ago…

In any case, Philosophy Now recently asked accredited philosophers the following: “Please name the five living philosophers you consider the most interesting or important.”

For those disinclined to click through for the results, Saul Kripke came out on top. Unsurprisingly, the centathlete had not heard of this esteemed thinker, who has on at least one occasion contemplated the importance of first-hand experience in a genuine moral life.

This ground has also been trod by another philosopher, neither American nor living, one Iris Murdoch. She published on metaphysics and morals, and taught at St. Anne’s College at Oxford University.

Murdoch is known to pedestrians on account of her novels, such as her first, Under the Net from 1954, not her Neoplatonic endeavors. Cinema furthered her celebrity through the posthumous 2001 biopic Iris. Early in that movie, the young Iris, played by Kate Winslet, says her first novel is about, “How to be free, how to be good, how to love.” For the centathlete, that statement expressed the theme of Richard Eyre’s film, rather than that of Murdoch’s Under the Net. We’re concerned here, allegedly, with the novel.

Under the Net is a funny, picaresque romp whose star is Jake Donaghue, a bumbling, harmless boozer and author. His antagonist is Hugo Belfounder; their love interests are two sisters, Anna and Sadie Quentin. Murdoch liked her pairs for drama and dialectics. She included a nested, platonic dialogue between Tamarus and Annandine--the centathlete thought of “timorous and anodyne" and how those adjectives might fit Jake and Hugo, respectively.

But Murdoch didn't get too heavy. "My novels are not 'philosophical novels,'" she told The Paris Review. In Under the Net, thought and philosophy emerge sporadically and immediately attract our admiration, like the spray from a surfacing whale. At one point, Jake describes how, in meeting Anna, “...in the intense equilibrium of the meeting we both experienced almost a moment of contemplation.”

Jake does manage to reflect on various occasions. For example, he tells us, “In my experience the spider is the smallest creature whose gaze can be felt.” This was no idle observation: 36 years after Under the Net was published, Murdoch confessed, "I’m very interested in spiders. I like spiders. Spiders are my friends, and I have read books about spiders."

Donahue's claim can be tested first-hand by readers of all ages inclined to creep around a porch, backyard or park. The centathlete succumbed to the contemporary preference to ask a specialist, and sent a Facebook message to a coleopterist friend. She answered:

“Most of the beetles I studied are basically hidden until you find them and then are killed shortly after to become a specimen, so there's very little time for gazing. One exception is the tiger beetle. They are super hard to catch. They can go 5.5 mph, so if they were our size that'd be equivalent to about 450 mph. Anyway, you definitely get the sense they are watching you and messing with you as they continually elude capture.”

Though concerned with a different branch of arthropods, Miss Murdoch, it seems, was on to something as she sat beside a spider. Regarding the defiant, elusive tiger beetle, this video shows it is too speedy for eyesight to be its sole information gatherer. The creature doesn’t run continuously full-bore; it practices stop-and-start running, which lets it periodically register and process what lies ahead before advancing. For those of us racing, often thoughtlessly, through our workdays and posting impetuously on social media, this behavior seems worth emulating. Jake himself writes, “All one can do is first reflect and then act.”

However, reflection, when overwrought, can misguide us. Hugo tells Jake, “You’re always expecting something,” a critique that goes a long way toward explaining the hero’s recurring disappointment in his quest for meaning. He should expect less, and he ultimately concludes, “One must just blunder on. Truth lies in blundering on.”

At one point, when Jake is over thinking things, he says he undergoes, a “dérèglement de tous les sens.” This is a reference to Arthur Rimbaud’s credo: the poet must make himself a seer through a rational derangement of all the senses. The quotation is a comic step from the ridiculous to the sublime, as Jake was prompted to the Frenchman during a rambling monologue that included ferry and train smells on his way to Paris.

Sadly, Iris Murdoch suffered a form of derangement. Her struggle with Alzheimer’s was played out sensitively by Judi Dench in Iris. Such performances have helped make Dench the second-most admired English woman today.

The centathlete was reminded of his late relative Y., who similarly capitulated. Long ago, Y. secured job interviews for an unformed centathlete who had studied Liberal Arts and was rather uncertain about how to identify and pursue a line of work. One of those interviews resulted in a job and a career began. We look back and recognize how many people helped us on our way, and some acts become in hindsight even more magnanimous and pivotal. Much gratitude and respect owed to Y, and much love: the centathlete relished conversations with him over three decades.

Y. was an erudite, successful and portly man with a mordant sense of humor. He did not suffer those he perceived as fools and consequently could seem imperious. He would offhandedly praise or, more frequently, dismiss select works by his rough contemporaries: Vidal, Mailer, Capote, Cheever, Updike and others. During the Mad Men era, Y. was a senior executive at J. Walter Thompson and other public relations agencies; his duties included traveling the world buying and launching satellite offices. He helped people whom he liked, and he liked many, to advance their careers through heightened introductions.

Y. was a member of The Princeton Club in Manhattan by affinity, not schooling: he’d actually attended Brooklyn College. He dined regularly at the club, where he preferred shrimp cocktail for his belly and sundry cocktails for his significant intellect. His eyes sparkled with both mischief and the calculating regard of someone who has used and hustled others—the same gleam one sees in many photos of Vidal, Mailer and Capote.

The last two conversations with Y. stand out in part because his Alzheimer’s arose during the time between. During the last call, after Y. had been moved to a facility, Y. repeated how glad he was for the call and he asked about the centathlete’s grandmother’s well-being. Other topics were beyond his reach; no literature was discussed. The voice was thin and trebly, and all mischief had been flushed out by the disease or the medication. The man was nearly gone.

Several years earlier, the previous chat was lengthy, probably an hour long. Y. asked the centathlete for help in writing a philosophical novel in a sort of Ayn Rand style. It would be a book about ideas, aliens and atheism, Y. said—he was a devout, vocal non-believer dating back to his college days. The clincher of this book, Y. emphasized with relish several times, would be that, “in the end the bad guys win.” Mischief and calculation emanated from the phone.

Y.’s cynical stance would have placed him at odds with Iris Murdoch. “She had such a sweet nature,” said her widower, John Bayley. Indeed, Under the Net advocates hope. The novelist herself said more broadly, "A readable novel is a gift to humanity. It provides an innocent occupation. Any novel takes people away from their troubles and the television set; it may even stir them to reflect about human life, characters, morals."

A noble, generous thinker and a larger-than-life person, Iris Murdoch inspired much admiration, and some damning praise. A.N. Wilson wrote, “[Murdoch] had all the qualities of greatness except greatness. She seemed like a great woman when one was in her presence, and her novels have a compelling quality of almost-greatness.”

We might rise to Murdoch’s defense by observing that if one’s few detractors are especially eloquent, then one has done something right.

In an earlier interview with The Guardian, Bayley said about his remarkable, prolific wife, “I used to think the attitude she took to her books rather splendid: she'd be in the middle of a novel and she'd say, “Oh I don't think this one is much good, but better luck next time!” She was like a gambler, you know, there was always another roll of the dice.'”

The centathlete relates to the gambler’s mentality: some posts outshine others. In this running of the centathlon, 29 rolls are now completed and the pace has lagged. 71 to go…
  MichaelMenche | Apr 30, 2015 |
Murdoch’s first novel is an irresistible mixture of philosophy and farce and with London and Paris as essential backdrops to all the crazy happenings I could not help but be bowled along by Jake Donague (Murdoch’s central character) as he searches for something, anything that will make sense to him.

Jake’s only connection with reality is the city of London, we first meet him on a return trip from Paris struggling down the Earls Court road with a heavy suitcase full of books. His friend Finn is waiting for him and his first words to Jake are “She’s thrown us out”. It transpires that their landlady has a new fiance and she wants rid of her two tenants. Jake is taken completely by surprise and we soon learn that most things and certainly all other people are a mystery to him. Jake is a very self absorbed individual; an intellectual who scrapes together a living by translating novels from French into English. His work makes few demands on him and this is just how he likes it, but his unexpected eviction sets him in motion, to find somewhere for him and Finn to live. His first port of call is Dave a teacher of philosophy who is far more grounded in the real world than Jake will ever be and after being asked some searching questions Jake realises he must find himself somewhere else to live. This enforced journey takes him to revisit old girlfriends and he soon gets involved in a web of intrigue involving stolen manuscripts, a canine film star, a revolutionary socialist, a firework making film director and sisters Anne and Sadie both of whom might be in love with him. He breaks into houses, gets locked into houses, breaks into and out of hospital, goes on drunken binges through London, gets caught up in Bastille day celebrations in Paris, kidnaps a dog and holds it to ransom and even gets a job.

Jake’s journey is a journey of self discovery, but of course he does not realise this and what he learns by the end of the novel is far less than what we as readers learn about him. It is written in the first person from Jake’s point of view, which in the 1950’s was a brave step for its female author to take for her first novel. Especially when her protagonist Jake has such a clouded view of all the characters around him, especially the female ones, for the most part she pulls this off with wit and understanding only occasionally giving the game away; for example when she has Madge one of the female characters say:

“You don’t understand Sammy” said Madge (to Jake), This is a standard remark made by women about men who have left them.

Jake has difficulty understanding anything about people to the extent that his old friend Hugo who Jake thought was totally out of touch with everyday life has to explain to him who is in love with whom. In the end this is why Murdoch can make her readers sympathise and empathise with Jake, for all his self absorption and all his laziness, his predicament has forced him to take stock and his actions however silly and fruitless make sense on some sort of level and one can understand why other characters in the novel can warm to him.

Murdoch’s novel at times threatens to spiral out of control, when the farcical elements take over and she goes for laughs, but it is grounded by its attention to detail and it’s depiction of life in London in the 1950’s. I was a teenager in the 1960’s and the feeling that you could live just under the net was just starting to be realised. It was a time of more freedom of thought, prosperity seemed just round the corner, jobs were easy to come by and just as easy to let go, there were milk bars and coffee shops, there was always someone who would let you a room that you could afford, there were shops like the one owned and run by Mrs Tinckham where you could leave your possessions for safe keeping and where you could go for a sympathetic ear. Smoke filled rooms, tops of buses, taxi rides, pub opening times, empty city streets in the early hours of the morning and the freedom to get drunk and blunder your way down to the River Thames in the Docklands through narrow dark alleyways to the foreshore for a dip. London and to a lesser extent Paris becomes almost as bigger character as Jake. Murdoch describes in detail routes from one section of the city to another. I know many of those trails and would have had no qualms about long hikes from Hammersmith in the West of London to Soho near the centre. I found myself walking along with Jake in a time that no longer exists but is vivid in my memory. Paris sounds just as gorgeous then as it is today.

There is hardly a dull moment in the book even when Murdoch is intent on raising philosophical questions, as for the most part they are handled with a lightness of touch that push the reader into thoughts about Jake and his world. I am sure there are characters like Jake around today, but they will have lost their innocence and this is the essential quality that shines out from this book and perhaps it is no longer there, in the meaner streets of todays world. This is a stunning first novel that I enjoyed immensely, but it is very much of it’s time and while issues raised are still relevant today I feel that those issues have moved on. Murdoch does not always get the balance right, but I would take her mixture of philosophy and storytelling over much that has been published recently and so a four star read. ( )
3 vote baswood | Dec 6, 2014 |
I confess that I liked it after putting it down. But now, less than two years later, I cannot recall a single thing about this novel. Obviously, not comparable with a host of other works I've read. So, it appears to be a good book - just not memorable (despite the accolades from the critics). So why waster your time? ( )
  JVioland | Jul 14, 2014 |
Mildly funny and entertaining, without much substance, though. ( )
  thatotter | Feb 4, 2014 |
"Under the Net" was my third time reading an Iris Murdoch novel. While this was probably my least favorite of the three, it clearly demonstrates why she is such a terrific author -- all of her books have been very different in terms of style and story.

In this novel, the narrator, Jake Donaghue is a translator who basically runs about London and Paris, all because he is completely inferring all the wrong things from every communication he has. The book is really about the little lies that crisscross in language (as no one every truly speaks their entire mind.) The philosphy never gets particularly heady here-- it's more a madcap story for the most part.

I don't think this is Murdoch's best work (thus far I liked "The Sea, The Sea" best) but overall I did enjoy this book. ( )
  amerynth | Sep 3, 2013 |
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All, all of a piece throughout:
Thy Chase had a Beast in view:
Thy Wars brought nothing about;
Thy Lovers were all untrue,
'Tis well an old Age is out,
And time to begin a New.


DRYDEN: THE SECULAR MASQUE
Dedication
To: RAYMOND QUENEAU
First words
When I saw Finn waiting for me at the corner of the street I knew at once that something had gone wrong. Finn usually waits for me in bed, or leaning up against the side of the door with his eyes closed.
Quotations
Hugo noticed only details. He never classified. It was as if his vision were sharpened to the point where even classification was impossible, for each thing was seen as absolutely unique. I had the feeling that I was meeting for the first time an almost completely truthful man ...

Starting a novel is like opening a door on a misty landscape; you can still see very little but you can smell the earth and feel the wind blowing.
After the dignity of silence and absence, the vulgarity of speech.
If one has good reasons for an action one should not be deterred from doing it because one may also have bad reasons.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140014454, Paperback)

A comic novel about work and love, wealth and fame

Jake Donaghue, garrulous artist, meets Hugo Bellfounder, silent philosopher.

Jake, hack writer and sponger, now penniless flat-hunter, seeks out an old girlfriend, Anna Quentin, and her glamorous actress sister, Sadie. He resumes acquaintance with the formidable Hugo, whose ‘philosophy’ he once presumptuously dared to interpret. These meetings involve Jake and his eccentric servant-companion, Finn, in a series of adventures that include the kidnapping of a film-star dog and a political riot on a film set of ancient Rome. Jake, fascinated, longs to learn Hugo’s secret. Perhaps Hugo’s secret is Hugo himself? Admonished, enlightened, Jake hopes at last to become a real writer.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:47 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

"Jake, hack writer and sponger, now penniless flat-hunter, seeks out an old girlfriend, Anna Quentin, and her glamorous actress sister, Sadie. He resumes acquaintance with formidable Hugo, whose 'philosophy' he once presumptuously dared to interpret. These meetings involve Jake and his eccentric servent-companion, Finn, in a series of adventures that include the kidnapping of a film-star dog and a political riot in a film-set of ancient Rome"--Cover.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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