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Under the Net ()

Modern Library Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century (95)

    All the time when I speak to you, even now, I'm saying not precisely what I think, but what I think
    will impress you and make you respond. That's so even between us --- and how much more it's so
    when there are stronger motives for deception. In fact, one's so used to this one hardly sees it. The
    whole language is a machine for making falsehoods.
        -Hugo Belfounder, Under the Net

In this uncomfortable blend of existentialism and the picaresque novel, James "Jake" Donaghue is an aspiring, though incorrigibly lazy, writer.  He makes a living, barely, by translating French works into English and he stays in the flats of friends.  As the novel opens Jake is informed that he, and his man Friday, Peter "Finn" O'Finney, must move out of their current address, because Madge, who has been letting them stay there, has found herself a fiancé.  Over the course of the rest of the book, the flat-broke Jake desperately seeks for ways to avoid having to do any work and for places to stay courtesy of his friends.  Much of the story is taken up with his broken friendship with Hugo Belfounder, a philosopher turned moviemaker (apparently based on Ludwig Wittgenstein), whose theories Jake presented in somewhat bastardized form in one of the few books he actually wrote himself.  Another subplot involves a dognapping of an animal which is an unlikely film-star.  The book ends, as it began, with Jake broke, not writing, and looking for a place to stay.

I suppose some of the scenarios in the book are amusing if you are British and are immersed in the works of philosophers like Wittgenstein.  For the rest of us, it's all rather tedious.  A picaresque where neither the central character nor any of the people he comes in contact with show any signs of personal growth and development seems an exercise in futility.  Personally, I agree with the friend of Jake's who suggests :

    Society should take you by the neck and shake you and make you do a sensible job.  Then in your
    evenings you would have the possibility to write a great book.

To the extent that Jake in this sense embodies all of England between the Wars and the rise of Margaret Thatcher, I suppose you could interpret the book as depicting the adverse effects of the dole mentality on British culture.

But Iris Murdoch apparently intends the book to convey a somewhat more existentialist message.  As she says :

    All work and all love, the search for wealth and fame, the search for truth, like itself, are made up
    of moments which pass and become nothing.  Yet through this shaft of nothings we drive onward
    with that miraculous vitality that creates our precarious habitations in the past and 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 that ends all our moments and
    plunges that spirit back into the void from which it came.

Here I come back to my eternal quarrel with existentialism : if it's all pointless anyway, then why in the name of God do you spend your time writing about it, and for what earthly reason should I waste my time reading what you write ?

I must admit myself to be at a complete loss to explain the presence of this novel on the Modern Library Top 100 list.  Luckily, we'll all be disappearing into the void soon, so we need not trouble ourselves over the matter.


Grade: (D+)


Iris Murdoch Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Iris Murdoch
    -ESSAY: Moral philosophy and the novel: The struggle between good and evil in Jane Austen’s “Mansfield Park” and Iris Murdoch’s “A Fairly Honourable Defeat” (Gillian Dooley, 11 Jul 2022, ABC: Religion & Ethics)
    -ESSAY: When Iris Murdoch Met Jean-Paul Sartre: Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman on a Chance Encounter Between a Young Novelist and an Aging Philosopher (Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman, May 11, 2022, LitHub)
    -REVIEW: of The Book and the Brotherhood by Iris Murdoch (Complete Refview)

Book-related and General Links:
-Iris Murdoch (1919-1999) - in full Dame Jean Iris Murdoch, married name Mrs. J.O. Bailey (kirjasto)
    -FEATURED AUTHOR : Iris Murdoch  (News and Reviews From the Archives of The New York Times)
    -FEATURED AUTHOR : Iris Murdoch (NY Times Book Review)
    -EXCERPT : Extract from Iris Murdoch's , Under the Net
    -OBIT : Iris Murdoch Remembered  (Roman Bonzon, Aesthetics Online)
    -OBIT : Novelist Iris Murdoch Dies Author Lauded for The Black Prince and The Sea, The Sea (Audrey Woods, The Associated Press)
    -OBIT : Dame Iris Murdoch, 1919-1999 (Internet Obituary Network)
    -OBIT : Iris Murdoch's different truths (Atul Chaturvedi, Indian Express)
    -TRIBUTE : Tribute to Iris Murdoch (Malcolm Bradbury, The British Council)
    -PROFILE : Under Iris Murdoch's Exact, Steady Gaze (JOHN RUSSELL, NY Times)
    -Iris Murdoch resources on the Web
    -ESSAY : The Quality of Iris Murdoch (Anthony Quinton, This is London)
    -ESSAY :  Go(o)d in Iris Murdoch (Alan Jacobs, First Things, February 1995)
    -ESSAY : Reflection in Iris Murdoch's Under the Net (Robert W. Wilson, The University of British Columbia)
    -REVIEW : of THE GOOD APPRENTICE. By Iris Murdoch (1986) (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Fire and the Sun Why Plato Banished the Artists By Iris Murdoch (1991) (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Green Knight By Iris Murdoch (1994)  (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Green Knight By Iris Murdoch (1994) (Linda Simon, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of A Word Child (DAVID BROMWICH, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Existentialists and Mystics by Iris Murdoch  (Elijah Millgram, Boston Review)
    -EXCERPT : from Iris Murdoch: A Life by Peter J  Conradi  (The Guardian)
    -REVIEW : of Iris Murdoch : A Life (William H. Pritchard, Boston Globe)
    -REVIEW : of Iris Murdoch: A Life by Peter Conradi (Anne Chisholm, booksonline)
    -REVIEW : of Iris Murdoch: A Life by Peter Conradi (Jackie Wullschlager, Financial Times)
    -REVIEW : of Iris Murdoch (Kathryn Hughes, Independent uk)
    -REVIEW : of Iris Murdoch: A Life by Peter J  Conradi  (DJ Taylor, Independent)
    -REVIEW : of Iris Murdoch : A Life by Peter Conradi (NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Iris Murdoch: A Life by Peter Conradi (Carey Seal, Yale Review of Books)
    -REVIEW : of Iris Murdoch: a life by Peter J Conradi  (Alex Clark, Mail and Guardian za)

    -Aesthetics Online