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'.
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
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.
"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!
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.