A severed head

by Iris Murdoch

Paper Book, 1961





[New York] : Penguin Books in association with Chatto & Windus, [c1961]


Martin Lynch-Gibbon believes he can possess both a beautiful wife and a delightful lover. But when his wife, Antonia, suddenly leaves him for her psychoanalyst, Martin is plunged into an intensive emotional re-education. He attempts to behave beautifully and sensibly. Then he meets a woman whose demonic splendour at first repels him and later arouses a consuming and monstrous passion. As his Medusa informs him, 'this is nothing to do with happiness'.

User reviews

LibraryThing member PrueGallagher
Well this was a weird one! Now see if you can keep up (massive spoilers)....Martin is a wine merchant, happily married to Antonia, and has a young mistress, Georgie, on the side. All is bliss until Antonia announces she is leaving him for her shrink, Palmer, on whom Martin shares a bit of a man crush. Being British, they are terribly civilised and drink lots of wine together, while Martin plays the Wronged Man. Martin seeks comfort from Georgie and takes her home for the first time, where they are discovered together by Honor (Palmer's sister). Honor finds out the whole story from Georgie, including the abortion that Martin forced her to have. Honor tells Palmer and Antonia everything. No more Wronged Man, but being British they are terribly civilised and all sit around and drink wine together. Georgie is introduced to them all and they all sit around and drink wine together. One night Martin comes to deliver some wine to Antonia and Palmer and when storing the wine in the cellar, is surprised by Honor, who he attacks in a lustful frenzy. Martin realises he is not in love with Antonia or with Georgie but with Honor. He follows her back to Cambridge and surprises her in bed with another man, Palmer! (Keeping up?). Martin agrees not to tell Antonia. Antonia returns to Martin saying she doesn't understand Palmer, but he is suddenly cold towards her, she has been a fool, they return to each other and drink lots of wine. Alexander, Martin's sculptor brother, announces that he and Georgie have fallen in love and are engaged to be married (I know!!). Being British, they are terribly civilised and drink lots of wine together. Georgie cuts off her glorious hair and sends it to Martin, who suddenly fearful for her safety, races to her bedsit and finds she has overdosed but is still alive. Honor turns up and they call the ambulance. So, Antonia, Martin, Palmer, Honor and Alexander are all by her bedside being terribly civilised and solicitous. Palmer writes to Martin and tells him that he and Honor are going to America together forever. Antonia returns home and tells Martin she is leaving him for Alexander with whom she has been having a long affair beginning while engaged to Martin. Being British, they are terribly civilised and drink lots of wine together. Martin, who has professed his undying love to Honor but was rejected, has to have one last look and waits at the airport to see her leave with Palmer. But there are three of them leaving - you guessed? - Georgie is going with them. Martin returns home alone to his empty house. Honor turns up at the door. They fall into each other's arms. The end.

Well, it was quite hilarious to me, but a bit dated in style - it was written in the very early sixties - and, I think, in its depiction of the upper middle class in Britain. I guess it was
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LibraryThing member Crazymamie
A Severed Head was written in 1961 and it is a farce - a satire set in "keep a stiff upper lip" England during the sexual revolution. When Martin Lynch-Gibbons is calmly told by his wife, Antonia, that she is divorcing him in order to marry Martin's psychoanalyst friend, Palmer Anderson, both Palmer and Antonia expect Martin to be reasonable, even happy for them. They see no barrier to all of them continuing to be friends, and in light of their mild-mannered, civilized approach, Martin acquiesces to their request. Although Martin has his own mistress, Georgie, he feels betrayed and set adrift by his new circumstances. And that is just the beginning - Murdoch upsets Martin's world over and over again as the lines between relationships become blurred and disoriented. The wit and humor captured in the face of serious subject matter such as abortion, infidelity, and even incest, is insolent and unrelenting. An unqualified romp in every sense of the word, this is a dignified Monty Python.… (more)
LibraryThing member atheist_goat
This was the first Murdoch I've read and will probably also be the last. The blurbs all said this was a comedy of manners, funny, witty, etc. Maybe I'm the only one who doesn't find a man slapping his women around and having them fall in love with him because of it utterly hilarious. It was neither funny nor particularly interesting, unless you find middle-aged Brits acting out a violent drunken precursor to polyamory fascinating.… (more)
LibraryThing member lauralkeet
It was later that the pain came, a pain unutterably obscure and confused like that induced by some deprivation in childhood. The familiar world of ways and objects within which I had lived for so long received me no more; and our lovely house had put on suddenly the air of a superior antique shop. The things in it no longer cohered together. It was odd that the pain worked first and most immediately through things, as if they had at once become the sad symbols of a loss which in its entirety I could not yet face. (p. 33)

In the first pages of A Severed Head, Martin Lynch-Gibbon is lying in the arms of his mistress, basking both in her beauty and affection, and in the belief that he has both a young attractive lover and a strong marriage. Later that evening his wife Antonia returns home and announces she is leaving him for her psychoanalyst, Palmer. Martin is outraged, while still holding fast to the "correctness" of his own infidelity. He maintains a stiff upper lip with Antonia and Palmer, who seem to delight in his continued friendship. Martin hangs on his much younger mistress, Georgie, expecting her continued adoration without commitment. Then Palmer's half sister, Honor Klein, comes on the scene and Martin finds himself alternately repulsed by and attracted to her. Here is a man completely destroyed and terribly confused.

As in her other novels, Murdoch seems to enjoy giving the arrogant male his comeuppance, and playing with him as a cat plays with a mouse. I found it difficult to like Martin or, for that matter, any of the characters, but enjoyed the way Murdoch tore down Martin's defenses, exposed his arrogance and weakness, and revealed the soft vulnerable center inside. A Severed Head is both painful and fascinating reading.… (more)
LibraryThing member Smiler69
Martin is quite pleased with his situation: a beautiful wife, Antonia, whom he adores and a much younger mistress, Georgie, to keep things that much more interesting and make him feel like a "real" man. But when his wife announces that she's leaving him for her psychoanalyst who also happens to be Martin's friend, Palmer Anderson, his perfect world suddenly collapses; only things are about to get messier and messier. Because both Antonia and Palmer fully intend to keep Martin in their lives, whether he likes it or not, and it soon becomes quite clear that Martin is probably the least deviant individual in what turns out to be a very amusing comedy of the absurd. Will definitely be reading more of Murdoch's work, something I look forward to with relish. Oh yes, the cherry on the sundae was that this audiobook was narrated by the brilliant Derek Jacobi. What more could you ask for?… (more)
LibraryThing member janeajones
A quick read -- I finished it in an evening. A Severed Head is a wickedly funny satire of marriage, romance, psychiatry and inflated egos. I'd love to see Hugh Grant play Martin Lynch-Gibbon in a filmed version.
LibraryThing member jtho
Why do I love Iris Murdoch? So many people tell me they read to visit worlds they could never experience themselves; reading Murdoch is the opposite. The characters are quite ordinary people in fairly ordinary situations, and we get to read pages and pages about their rationalization of their actions, suspicions about others, and all of the other thoughts that would only warrant a paragraph in any other novel. You get to be inside the mind of another person, completely. We end up meeting flawed characters that make silly decisions and that are influenced by others in ways that only an outsider can see as ridiculous. It's enjoyable, and funny, because it's true!

"The Severed Head" is no exception to the Iris Murdoch rule. The characters are well-developed, the plot simple but engaging, and the whole story just plain great. I laughed at the predicaments of the characters, their reactions and thoughts, and many clever lines about a character named Honor. The puns and deeper meaning were great.

I think this is my favourite of the Murdoch novels I have read so far (about 4 or 5 of them). Recommended!
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LibraryThing member nocto
I loved Iris Murdoch when I first read her, twenty years ago when I was about twenty years old. I loved all the clever characters and their academic musings on life, and everything (not so much the universe if my recall is correct). Now, not so much. This is pretty much a bedroom farce, it starts off silly and gets completely ludicrous towards the end. I ought to draw a diagram to work out which characters didn't end up in bed together, if any. It has lots of angst and clever veneer on top of the bed hopping of course but I found it more of a chore to read than a delight. Having read it as an ebook I'm surprised to see it's actually only around 200 pages, my perception is that it was much longer which might be why I'm so down on it.

I think I ought to reread one of the Murdoch's I loved when I first read it to see whether they still have the same magic, but on the other hand I don't want to find out if the answer is no.
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LibraryThing member ropie
I think it's quite funny that a writer like Iris Murdoch could possibly be 'awarded' three and a half points for one of her books; let alone this one which is as skilled a piece of novel writing as one could find in the 20th Century. The story is farce, the relationships are improbable and the characters are powerful in their simplicity, but the execution is razor sharp.… (more)
LibraryThing member HarryMacDonald
That this piece of fluff was ever considered a significant novel is a simultaneous damnation of the state of English-language fiction and of public taste.
LibraryThing member pingdjip
The characters in this novel inhabit the freudian universe. Their lovers tend to become a kind of parents while their siblings may turn into lovers. To me it was impossible to identify with them, they seemed hysterical and unreasonable. Actually i didn’t like the book up to two-third. Then i started seeing it as an intellectual game: what freudian variations are still possible within this group of people? Besides, Murdochs style is as always good, clever and efficient. She has a good eye for society-related things. And she can be very funny, for instance when she relates how it took protagonist martin some time to find out that his two supposedly spinster secretaries were actually a ‘happy lesbian couple’. But if i hadn’t allready read and enjoyed Murdoch’s "The bell" so much, i would have put this novel aside on page 60, i think. Now i kept waiting for it to get better.… (more)
LibraryThing member coffeezombie
A sly little dark psychodrama dealing with a self-satisfied husband receiving a brutal education in just how little he knows of his own life and relationships. Often clunky and only occasionally ham-fisted (the bedroom farce doesn't always mix so well with its darker elements) it's an engaging enough read with some grotesque entertainments.… (more)
LibraryThing member tzelman
Funny--everyone likes everyone else but noone really likes Martin Lynch-Gibbon, wine merchant and urbane lecher. Reread this recently and it mostly held up.
LibraryThing member xtien
This is a strange story. It is a love story, or not. When reading, I came to think that it's a surrealist story. Then, I started to think that the main character is mentally ill and the whole story is not really happening, it's just his twisted view of the world and the people around him. Then, after finishing it, I'm not sure.

It's a great book, well written, sometimes I skipped a few lines (I'm not very patient when reading a novel), but in general it's fun to read. What's interesting is that I found it very difficult to identify with the main character; the book is written from the character's perspective, normally I find it easy to identify, but here the man's decisions and actions are so different from what a person would do, I found it hard to identify. Still, this makes the book more interesting, I suppose.

This is the first book by Murdoch I've read, I'll have to read more in order to find out if this style is typical for her.
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LibraryThing member jeffome
Rather interesting romp of sorts revolving around some seemingly pathetic souls that seem to have no clue how to be genuine in their interpersonal relationships.....lots of bouncing back and forth and odd sibling-swapping(!!) It did keep my interest to a point...but the frequency of relationship startup and destruction flung it outside of my believability curve.....unless it is pure dragon-laced/vampire-laden fantasy or swash-buckling adventure spy-thriller, there ought to be some sense of probability of reality......but perhaps I'm being too harsh.....as i reflect on my own family and its history......hmmmmm.......ok, so maybe not as unbelievable as i thought.....a quick read...a solid 3.… (more)
LibraryThing member rmckeown
This novel puts me at half way through reading all of Iris Murdoch’s 26 novels. All of her characters are complex and interesting. Her stories are interesting, serious (mostly), poignant, unusual. A Severed Head adds to the mix with brilliant comedy at its drollest. Many times I actually laughed out loud to the consternation of the inevitable cat on my lap.

Martin Lynch-Gibbon runs a successful wine-merchant business. He married a beautiful, charming, sexy woman, Antonia, and he maintains a beautiful, charming, sexy mistress, Georgie. Add to this his best friend, an American psychiatrist, Palmer Anderson and his sister, Honor Klein. Martin’s sister Rosemary plays the role of mother to Martin. I understand Murdoch’s casts of characters much better now that I have read Conradi’s excellent biography.

What could possibly go wrong with this tangled gaggle of free spirits? Everything!

While the novel starts out with a “stiff-upper-lip” British tone, things do fall apart. As we top the hill, and the roller coaster rushes down, shocking and funny events made me read faster and faster all the way to the surprising ending – like the zigzags of the roller coaster for one last thrill as it pulls into the station.

Martin thinks he can have it all without consequences, but demons shadow him at every turn. While her style takes some getting used to, stay with it. Sometimes the beginnings do get confusing, but Murdoch’s marvelous prose will draw the reader deeper and deeper into the plot. Here Martin describes his wife, Antonia:

“Antonia has great tawny-colored intelligent searching eyes and a mobile expressive mouth which is usually twisted into some pout of amusement or tender interest. She is a tall woman; and although always a little inclined to plumpness has been called ‘willowy’, which I take as a reference to her characteristic twisted and unsymmetrical poses. Her face and body are never to be discovered quite in repose.” (17)

If you do not know Iris Murdoch, begin with The Bell, or her Booker Prize winner, The Sea, the Sea, or as I did with one of her last novels, The Book and the Brotherhood. You are in for hundreds of hours of delightful reading.

--Jim, 5/23/10
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LibraryThing member literarysarah
If you're reading the Penguin edition, you'll notice a description on the cover: "A Novel About the Frightfulness and Ruthlessness of Being in Love." That's certainly true. But one thing I find hard to explain is how Iris Murdoch can take a melodramatic story about a bunch of self-absorbed characters with largely self-created crises and make it so fun and escapist. Her narrative power is such that you're carried along with the emotional current without once thinking of the improbability of the plot. Not as good as The Sea, the Sea but worth a read.… (more)
LibraryThing member autumnesf
Crazy story about a wife and husband and their affairs. Hard to keep up! Still a good read because I just wanted to know how all of it was going to end up.
LibraryThing member ursula
A Severed Head is a book about relationships. Dysfunctional relationships, and the dysfunctional people who have them. And the dysfunctional psychologist who encourages everyone's dysfunctions (including his own) by overlaying it all with a veneer of rationalizations. Reading books like this makes me realize that the impact of psychoanalysis was pretty deep - it was parodied and poked and prodded from every angle in literature for quite a while. This particular version involves our narrator, a man named Martin, who is cheating on his wife with a young woman named Georgie. The wife, Antonia, in short order is revealed to be having an affair with her psychoanalyst, Palmer (this is widely hinted at from the first pages, so I don't consider it a spoiler). From that point, things just get stranger.

For a book so focused on romantic entanglements, the characters rarely seem to be in love. They are codependent, vengeful, distant, enigmatic, hurtful, obsessive about/to/with each other, but they don't seem to be in any form of love that would be recommended. It's an odd little story, and one where the writing kept me going more than the plot.

Recommended for: romantic cynics, bitter divorcees, people who suspect everyone is a little bit crazy.

Quote: "To lose somebody is to lose not only their person but all those modes and manifestations into which their person has flowed outwards; so that in losing a beloved one may find so many things, pictures, poems, melodies, places lost too: Dante, Avignon, a song of Shakespeare's, the Cornish sea."
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LibraryThing member Danielle23
A very strange book that centres around some very strange relationships and even includes incest. Still qiute enjoyable although perhaps a little obvious in places.
LibraryThing member datrappert
I really did not like this book when I was assigned it in college. Even now, thinking about the male protagonist makes me remember not liking the book. It probably deserves a more adult perspective on my part, but for now, I'm sticking with the assessment of my teenage self.
LibraryThing member Pauntley
The Severed Head was written before the 60's really gathered speed and it shows its age. In style it is a bedroom farce, a form dating back to the 18th century as Miriam Seymour notes in her introduction to the Vintage Classics edition (2001). Doors are constantly being opened to reveal the characters, an English intellectual coterie, in new permutations of infidelity. Much whisky is consumed, cigarettes are nervously smoked and stubbed to relieve tension as the revelations accumulate. And they talk and talk and talk. There are six protagonists: the brothers Alexander and Martin; brother and half sister, Palmer and Honor Klein; Antonia, married to Martin and Georgie, the youngest, who is Martin's mistress. Of the 18 possible sexual conjugations of these characters, 16 are accomplished by the end of the novel or foreshadowed in its fading aftermath. Martin, who is a silly fellow, is the narrator, Seymour calls the novel a 'souffle', in which Martin finally emerges from his prevailing fog of incomprehension into a final sunburst of lucidity when he hooks up with Honor Klein. Of the protagonists, Honor is the only one who engages one's interest. That is perhaps because Murdoch herself seems a little enchanted by her. She is an exotic among the others. She is the only one who is consistently introduced by her forename and surname as Honour Klein, presumably to signify her hieratic status. When she does makes her appearances, Martin consistently remarks her Jewish appearance - her 'waxen Jewish face' and 'curving Jewish mouth'. Perhaps Jewish faces were readily recognisable in the 1960's, among the pale English people of Murdoch's primary readership. The peculiarities of Murdoch's presentation of Honor Klein probably reflect some sedimentary traces of her earlier sexual relationship with Elias Canetti, which is the subject of recent literary gossip, following the posthumous publication of his diaries.

In summary, a period piece that will entertain if you are interested in Iris Murdoch, her life and and the English cultural milieu of the early sixties.
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LibraryThing member amerynth
I believe "A Severed Head" is the fourth Iris Murdoch book I've read. I have to say it doesn't rank up there as one of my favorites, but I found to be completely entertaining and fun.

The novel is the story of a disintegration of a marriage between Martin and Antonia, who are upper crust, hoity-toity folks, who have left morality at the back door. There are plenty of love triangles as Martin drifts along wihtout thinking too much about his feelings about everything.

I very much like Murdoch's writing style and her interesting characters. Parts of the plot were a bit predictable... while other parts happened for no real reason other than to move the story along. That said, I found the story interesting so I didn't mind all that much.
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LibraryThing member jonfaith
The third spin on the assignation wheel left growing considerably colder towards this farce, which began with acute lessons in uncertain passion and mild manners for really bad days. This may pause my Murdoch exploration for a while.
LibraryThing member TheEllieMo
Written in the 1960s, A Severed Head is a portrait of a marriage and relationships in an world where appearances are one of the most important thing.

Martin, child-like and selfish, strangely self-aware but lacking the conscience to wish to change, believes he has a perfect marriage, so perfect that he can get away with having a younger mistress. His world on turned upside down when his wife announces she is to leave him for his friend, and his therapist. Over the next few months, the lives of everyone involved are changed completely, and not necessarily in ways one might expect.

It is interesting that in this book, there is not a single likeable character. Martin is selfish, Antonia self-centred beyond belief, Palmer arrogant, Georgie too weak and forgiving.

Yet despite being unlikeable, in Murdoch's skilled hand, they are all engaging; as a reader you want to know what happens to them.

Murdoch's characterisations are skilful, while her descriptions of places and events conjure up atmospheres vividly: an airport announcement is described thus: 'in the warm lounge half-audible voices have singing instructions to people who seemed to understand them', while a piece of furniture 'retained a derelict temporary air as if it thought it was already at Sotheby's.'

I would not have thought I could enjoy a book with such a collection of dislike able characters, but the brilliant writing makes this a highly readable book, and one I would strongly recommend. I look forward to reading more Murdoch.
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