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Under the Net (1954)

by Iris Murdoch

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1,881476,808 (3.64)149
Iris Murdoch's first novel is set in a part of London where struggling writers rub shoulders with successful bookies, and film starlets with frantic philosophers. Its hero, Jake Donaghue, is a drifting, clever likeable young man, who makes a living out of translation work and sponging off his friends. However, a meeting with Anna, an old flame, leads him into a series of fantastic adventures.… (more)

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English (43)  Dutch (1)  Danish (1)  Hebrew (1)  All languages (46)
Showing 1-5 of 43 (next | show all)
One of the queerest, most manic, most wonderful books I have read in a long time.

Iris Murdoch's debut novel is a disconcerting, shabby picaresque novel following the young hack writer Jake Donahue through a series of adventures. For the most part, it falls into my particular favourite type of picaresque: the adventure novel largely set over a few days. Murdoch is already comfortably inhabiting the body of a downtrodden, almost-broken, deeply strange protagonist, whose voice we can never entirely trust (Jake is keen to narrate his own story - a little too keen), and whose world seems to be a series of set-pieces that emerge out of otherwise ordinary life.

What is the plot? This is the kind of novel where certain literary snobs would say "the plot doesn't matter" but, reader, do not listen to them. In this case, the plot is precisely point. In a nutshell: Jake is kicked out by a woman, goes fawning back to two actress sisters from his past, uncovers a potential conspiracy involving a screenplay secretly adapted from a translation of a French novel he wrote some time ago, goes on a mad pub crawl with his gadabout mates, steals a film star dog who subsequently saves him from a police raid in the aftermath of a socialist party riot amidst an Ancient Roman film set in the middle of London, is mistaken for an escaped mental patient by an alley full of suburban gossips, pursues his lady love through Paris on Bastille Day, takes an unexpected job as a hospital orderly where his doubts and concerns come back to haunt him during a daring midnight visit to an incapacitated friend, and must consider whether he will position himself high(brow) or low on the unsteady rope ladder that is a literary career - or whether he even has the chops to climb the ladder at all. Throw in some Plato and a dash of Wittgenstein, a starling invasion straight out of Hitchcock's The Birds, and an avant-garde mime theatre, and you have Under the Net.

Murdoch's novel, first published in 1957, seems to sit quite comfortably within the (poorly named) 'Angry Young Man' cultural epoch - although Jake is not so much a victim of society as a personal exploration of those who exist comfortably in the margins. He has never held a job aside from writing until he signs up as an orderly, and is impressed by how easily he gets this one given how much his friends complain about the process. ("You will point out, and quite rightly", Jake says in one of Murdoch's moments of wry hilarity, that hospital orderly is perhaps a job where supply eclipses demand, "whereas what my friends were finding it so difficult to become was higher civil servants, columnists of the London dailies, officials of the British Council, fellows of colleges, or governors of the BBC. That is true.") Whereas her fellow novelists were interested in the temporal, Murdoch constantly allows us to see the metaphysical moments, the sublime and the ridiculous. But she is not writing, contrary to the philosophers who want to claim this text as their own, about what lies beyond the plot; Murdoch is finding the sublime within what is taking place, within human interaction and yearning.

And there is so much yearning. Although we have reason to doubt some of Jake's suspicions very early, he is a man easily compelled to new feeling: sudden love, sudden self-doubt, convinced he has destroyed a friendship or is under attack from the slightest of impulses. He is a fascinating character and, while I might concede that I'm not sure Murdoch entirely captures what it is like to be a male, the fulcrum around which her fairytale-like world rotates. (On a more terrestrial note, how times have changed - Jake tells us on the first page that his friend-cum-assistant Finn usually waits for him in bed, and later spends much of the book deeply pining for an old friend named Hugo. I had to separate myself entirely from 2020 to see these as the perfectly normal actions of a sensitive and impoverished heterosexual man!)

It is clear that one of my great projects for the 2020s will be to read all twenty-six of Murdoch's novels in order. I listened to the audiobook narrated by the pitch-perfect Samuel West, and I heartily recommend it for the way that West teases out both the uproarious comedy and the more delicate variety, yet I found myself returning to my copy of the book often to reread paragraphs or phrases just to let the author wash over me. I suspect that, structurally, or literarily, Under the Net is not one of Murdoch's greatest novels. (As her debut, it hardly could be!) But clearly from the Top 100 lists it frequently appears on, the novel has a place in the heart of many writers, and is perhaps an easier access point to her oeuvre than most.

Such fun. ( )
  therebelprince | Oct 5, 2021 |
Iris Murdoch manages to cram the most of profound meanings into a sentence, or a paragraph. I can see how this will frustrate readers, but Under The Net is one of those books where you have to read bits of it, close the book and drown in it for a while. ( )
  georgeybataille | Jun 1, 2021 |
holy crap, that was wonderful.

I felt physically sick several times due to the sheer amount of booze they were drinking and how wonderfully precisely the feeling of extreme drunkenness was written.

will read again. ( )
  mjhunt | Jan 22, 2021 |
The plot is from "Wacky Racers", but none the less Murdoch's characters do the usual thing of going through the tumble-dryer and emerging as clearer headed and wiser.
  ivanfranko | Sep 13, 2020 |
I enjoyed this so much more the second time around. And I use the word enjoyed, rather than liked, on purpose—it was a thoroughly fun read and I did like it, but I'm also fascinated by Murdoch's talents for: plotting (especially set pieces), description, evoking characters (I won't say character development because most of them don't develop anywhere, but she certainly can set them up), and one of the best dog/human relationships I've read in a while. You could say that's actually the central love story, since Murdoch's human affairs aren't particularly touching—think Shakespeare's characters all running around in the woods hooking up with the wrong people (thanks, Iris Murdoch Fan Girls Book Club, for that image). And the nominal sex is awful. But everything else is pretty wonderful, and it's interesting to see how Murdoch pieces all together. The ending is more uplifting than I remembered, too, and sweeter in general.

Though speaking of pacing, one thing that I get a kick out of is the way she interjects these little philosophical treatises into the narrative. It reminds me, if Ms. Murdoch will beg my pardon, of the way middling erotica is set up: you have the story line, and then the doorbell rings and it's the plumber, which sets the scene so everyone can have sex, and then they're done and the rest of the story goes ahead until there's another bit set up for the express purpose of more sex—or in Murdoch's case, more philosophical discussion—etc. It's quite charming. ( )
4 vote lisapeet | Jun 10, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 43 (next | show all)
One feels uneasily that any analytic explanation of the book weighs it down, adds a portentousness to what is in fact, light, amusing and rapid. I would plead in extenuation that this, of all the books [ASB covers only the first seven novels of IM], is the most philosophic, the one where analysis of ideas, such as Miss Murdoch herself applies to Sartre's novels is the most apposite technique of understanding the action, and not illegitimate, Since every sentence, as is not always true in the later books, has a sense of being carefully written, 'placed'.... Relationships between characters, although they *exist*, are worked round ideas, and are in very large part relationships of ideas.
added by KayCliff | editDegrees of Freedom, A. S. Byatt (May 29, 1970)

» Add other authors (10 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Murdoch, Irisprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Abelló, MontserratTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Eggink, ClaraTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Krämer, IlseTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Peccinotti, HarriCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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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.

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.
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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Iris Murdoch's first novel is set in a part of London where struggling writers rub shoulders with successful bookies, and film starlets with frantic philosophers. Its hero, Jake Donaghue, is a drifting, clever likeable young man, who makes a living out of translation work and sponging off his friends. However, a meeting with Anna, an old flame, leads him into a series of fantastic adventures.

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