#18: Under the Net (1954), by Iris Murdoch

After the dignity of silence and absence, the vulgarity of speech.


under the net

Iris Murdoch’s first novel Under the Net is a perfectly charming, shambolic escapade filled with colorful characters, whimsical romantic entanglements, and all-around good cheer.

It is also a novel of serious ideas, written by an author who produced many volumes of hardcore philosophy, and a novel of influences, unabashedly putting its literary ancestry on display. Murdoch herself called Under the Net a blatant imitation of the works of French author Raymond Queneau, to whom she dedicated it, and Samuel Beckett.

It’s interesting, then, that Murdoch’s most famous novel — not only does the Time 100 include Under the Net on its official list, but the Modern Library also includes it (Murdoch is one of eight women to make the cut), as does the coffee table book 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die — might well be the least representative novel she ever wrote.

Under the Net, entertaining and thought-provoking as it is, feels too much like a tune-up to really succeed, a blend of comedy and drama that likely became more seamless in future novels.

The story revolves around Jake Donoghue, part-time literary translator and full-time leech, lousing around the apartments of London without commitment or money. His narration is a torrent of rationalizations and neuroses, always deferring on the side of caution rather than risk-taking action. “I hate contingency,” he whines early on. “I want everything in my life to have a sufficient reason.”

Full of opinions but too apathetic to commit to a political cause; full of talent but too lazy to write original work, instead getting by on translating the work of a disposable French writer.

The bulk of Under the Net is given to Jake’s madcap attempts to find his old friend Hugo Belfounder, a quest that includes multiple break-ins, a film shoot-turned-nationalist rally, and the theft of a famous movie dog, Mister Mars. It’s all very enjoyable and told with sharp wit and bonhomie, but the book got away from me for long stretches.

The problem, I readily confess, may lie with me. We all have our reading prejudices, and this one’s mine: I have a resistance for novels in which the protagonists wander aimlessly from scene to scene, getting into hijinks and coincidentally “running into” important characters along the way.*  I think that’s half the reason I didn’t like The Sun Also Rises, and it’s why I’m not looking terribly forward to a re-reading of Kerouac’s On the Road.

That’s not to say there aren’t ample rewards to be found in Under the Net, nor a hearty helping of the heavy philosophical musings her fiction is famous for.

The book gets down to business when Jake recalls his first introduction to Hugo, heir to a flourishing armaments manufacturer who converted the factory to make fireworks because of his pacifism. The two had roomed together during a cold-cure science experiment they’d signed up as guinea pigs for, where they engaged in a series of Platonic dialogues on the subject of Life. Jake is both impressed and maddened by Hugo’s need to investigate every human interaction to its core, though it does allow him to “see the whole world anew”:

‘There’s something fishy about describing people’s feelings,’ said Hugo. ‘All these descriptions are so dramatic.’
‘What’s wrong with that?’ I said.
‘Only,’ said Hugo, ‘that it means that things are falsified from the start. If I say afterwards that I felt such and such, say that I felt “apprehensive” — well, this just isn’t true.’
‘What do you mean?’ I asked.
‘I didn’t feel this,’ said Hugo. ‘I didn’t feel anything of that kind at the time at all. This is just something I say afterwards.’
‘But suppose I try hard to be accurate,’ I said.
‘One can’t be,’ said Hugo. ‘The only hope is to avoid saying it. As soon as I start to describe, I’m done for. Try describing anything, our conversation for instance, and see how absolutely instinctively you…’
‘Touch it up?’ I suggested.
‘It’s deeper than that,’ said Hugo. ‘The language just won’t let you present as it really was.’

Jake later takes what he remembers from these conversations and publishes a quickly-forgotten book, The Silencer, in the form of an embellished dialogue based around Hugo’s ideas:

Annandine: What I speak of is the real decision as we experience it; and here the movement away from theory and generality is the movement towards truth. All theorizing is flight. We must be ruled by the situation itself, and this is unutterably particular. Indeed it is something to which we can never get close enough, however hard we try, as it were, to crawl under the net.

We use the net of language to capture the messiness of life, to create a sense of order and foster connection, but language can only create an impression of life rather than life itself. How we truly feel about something is beyond its ability to properly communicate.

It is only when Jake, who has made his livelihood translating someone else’s words, begins to understand this, that his life cannot always be conceptualized and ordered to his satisfaction, that he can begin to grow and have genuine relationships with people instead of the transitory, parasitic ones he is used to.

Iris Murdoch was said to have found Under the Net “immature,” but I find Jake’s transformation from driftless ne’er-do-well to someone who might actually produce something rather poignant, not to mention timely. In fact, my appreciation for this book has increased as I’ve written this piece, something I suspect is part of the bargain when reading a Murdoch novel.

“The trouble with you,” Hugo tells Jake when they finally reunite, “is that you want to understand everything sympathetically. It can’t be done. One must just blunder on. Truth lies in blundering on.”

At the end of the book, Jake watches a neighborhood cat muzzle with her four kittens. How, his friend muses, could the cat have given birth to two pure Siamese cats and the other two different, instead of them all being half-tabby, half-Siamese? Jake begins to answer, then concedes, “It’s just one of the wonders of the world.”

After 250 pages of solipsistic rambling, a speechless Jake is as welcome a character development as one could hope for. Blunder on, I say.


 *There’s a word for this kind of story, picaresque, a term ostensibly created by a literary critic for literary critics. Bildungsroman is another.

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