Book #95-Under the Net by Iris Murdoch

I approached Under the Net with trepidation, mostly concerned with the knowledge of its author, Iris Murdoch, as a philosopher.  I need not have worried as this literary journey was well worthwhile.

Set in London and France, we join a wandering writer as he begs, borrows and steals his way into and out of the lives of an interesting supporting cast.

Jake Donoghue is a 30-something translator of French works who lives hand to mouth, relying on the kindness of friends and shopkeepers.  Drawn to philosophers and communists, he nonetheless is unable to plant his feet on the ground in order to get down to the business of writing, so carries on springing from one adventure to the next.  There’s something about this guy that makes you want to root for him.

Jake’s sidekick, Peter O’Finney, aka Finn, is his Irish equivalent.  He is unquestionably devoted to Jake, who he puts before himself.  He is also, stereotypically, quite devoted to alcohol which he consumes with Jake in vast quantities.  Finn was the kind of guy everyone likes, but probably couldn’t explain why.

The enigmatic Hugo Belfounder captures Jake’s attention when they meet at a drug testing center where both have agreed to be subjected to cold germs (repeatedly, by the way so they can continue their talks).  Hugo finds financial success without effort and seems daunted by it all.  Hugo and Jake part company following what turns out to be a misunderstanding only to find that the women they each long for long for each other’s attentions.  Another easy man to like.


What is more tormenting than a meeting after a long time, when all the words fall to the ground like dead things, and the spirit that should animate them floats disembodied in the air?

Daytime sleep is a cursed slumber from which one wakes in despair.  The sun will not tolerate it.  If he can he will pry under your eyelids and prise them apart; and if you hang black curtains at your windows he will lay siege to your room until it is so stifling that at last you you stagger with staring eyes to the window and tear back the curtains to see that most terrible of sights, the broad daylight outside a room where you have been sleeping.  There are special nightmares for the daytime sleeper:  little nervous dreams tossed into some brief restless moments of unconsciousness and breaking through the surface of the mind to become confused at once with the horrors of some waking vision.  Such are these awakenings, like an awakening in the grave, when one opens one’s eyes, stretched out rigid with clenched hands, waiting for some misery to declare itself; but for a long time it lies to suffocation upon the chest and utters no word.  

Starting a novel is opening a door on a misty landscape; you can still see very little but you can smell the earth and feel the wind blowing.  

Having led such an interesting life, I’m sure  any conversation with Iris Murdoch would be enlightening.  Perhaps she’d share some tales of her involvement with the Communist Party or help me appreciate philosophical doctrines.  Such a prolific writer would surely have some insights to share with me over a nice lunch.

My rating for Under the Net  is a 9 out of 10.

To see the entire list, visit Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels.

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Next up, William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice…


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