This is my third read by author Iris Murdoch, and I have to say–what a versatile writer she is! From the poetic and dramatic ‘The Sea, The Sea‘ to the dark and disturbing ‘The Time of the Angels’ to this quirky comedy (actually her first novel, published in 1954), she runs the gamut with impressive skill. I loved this book–it has an entirely unique humor with rollicking amounts of wit. I laughed out loud at least 3 times in the course of an hour on the couch with this book. Not little giggles–actual, loud ‘hahas.’ Or ‘hree hrees’ as the case may be.
The main character is Jake Donaghue, a slightly lazy young writer and translator of novels who lives in London mooching off his artistic friends and engaging in various . . . capers. Because they can only be called capers. Madcap capers, if you will. From the kidnapping of a movie star dog to a midnight swim in the garbage-strewn Thames to breaking out of a movie actress’s house with a pocket full of crackers and paté, life is never dull, but the amounts of energy that Jake puts into each little adventure are out of proportion with the results–he seems to be scurrying around in a frenzy of activity but not really going anywhere or accomplishing anything of value.
Narrated in the first person, Jake navigates the London scene trying to reconnect with Hugo, an old friend he betrayed, and resume his attachment with his long-lost love, singer Anna Quentin. He is shadowed by his Irish friend and accomplice Finn (who has a knack for jimmying locks with a hairpin and acts as Jake’s unofficial manservant), a charismatic politician called Lefty, and the famous dog Mr. Mars.
Philosophical at times, silly at others, this book is the work of a truly gifted writer. As he sits on a bus on his way to reclaim a sheaf of manuscripts, Jake muses “I felt neither happy nor sad, only rather unreal, like a man shut in a glass. Events stream past us like these crowds, and the face of each is seen only for a minute. What is urgent is not urgent forever but only ephemerally. All work and love, the search for wealth and fame, the search for truth, life itself, are made up of moments which pass and become nothing. Yet through this shaft of nothings we drive onwards with that miraculous vitality that creates our precarious habitations in the past and the future. So we live–a spirit that broods and hovers over the continual death of time, the lost meaning, the unrecaptured moment, the unremembered face, until the final chop-chop that ends all our moments and plunges that spirit back into the void from which it came. So I reflected . . .”
This excerpt for me perfectly encapsulates the book: a character jumping from moment to moment and adventure to adventure with this ‘miraculous vitality,’ but after pursuing a task with frantic urgency–it comes to nothing.
And just in case you’re still doubting the awesomeness of this book, I should add that a few years ago, Time magazine chose ‘Under the Net’ as one of the top 100 English-language books written from 1923 to 2005, and the Modern Library chose it in 2001 as one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. The conclusion is clear: make a date with your library!