A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch: a Book Review

This last February was the tenth anniversary of Iris Murdoch’s death. I’ve enjoyed several of her novels and biographies of her by John Bayley, Peter Conradi (an official biography)and A N Wilson (this last one was rather controversial). Recently I’ve read A Severed Head, first published in 1961  and have been wondering what to write about it without giving away too much of the plot.  As I was reading it I thought it would make a good farce and then I discovered that Iris Murdoch had adapted her book for the stage.  

a-severed-headI felt I was looking into a different world and time. There are only a few characters – Martin, who is complacently happy with his mistress Georgie and his wife Antonia, Palmer who is Antonia’s analyst, Palmer’s half-sister, Honor, and Martin’s brother and sister Alexander and Rosemary. Iris Murdoch has made a tightly-structured novel, using Martin as the first-person narrator. Martin is shocked when his wife announces that she wants a divorce because she is deeply in love with Palmer. This sets in motion a sequence of events in which Martin’s weakness and need are clearly evident. Throughout the novel Murdoch uses the weather to indicate Martin’s mental and emotional state – the dense fog that covers the London streets and pervades his mind.

The novel depicts an amazing muddle and chaos ensues as Martin like a man possessed pursues Antonia, trying to keep Georgina at arms length whilst still not wanting to let her go.  He is a man in a mid-life crisis behaving like a teenager swept along by his emotions and falling in love at the drop of a hat.

There are some funny episodes as Martin moves his belongings out of his house into a flat and back again but set against that are serious issues such as abortion, marriage, incest and the struggle for power within relationships. Honor is one of the strangest characters. She is a powerful woman, an anthropologist who describes herself as

a severed head such as primitive tribes and old alchemists used to use anointing it with oil and putting a morsel of gold upon its tongue to make it utter prophecies.

She can wield a Japanese samurai sword like an expert, tossing a napkin  in the air she is able to slice it in half as it flutters to the floor. She has a pale sallow face with black gleaming hair, with “something animal-like and repellent in that glistening stare”. On her first appearance at Palmer’s house she appears to Martin like

some insolent and powerful captain, returning booted and spurred from a field of triumph, the dust of battle yet upon him, confronting the sovereign powers whom he was now ready if need be to bend to his will.

It’s not a novel I’d describe as comfortable reading, but it is entertaining.

(This is the 14th library book contributing to the Support Your Local Library Challenge.)

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