Under the Net by Iris Murdoch

This novel was Iris Murdoch’s first and I chose it as my contribution to the 1954 Club (see below). I was at first reluctant because I am more than a little intimidated by Iris Murdoch. I think it’s the words ‘moral philosopher’ that are often coupled with her name. I don’t know what that is. And when I began reading about this novel, Under the Net, I came across the name of Wittgenstein, and something about his lectures in Oxford. 

All the same, I enjoyed many aspects of this novel, although I am not sure that I will read more of her fiction any time soon.

Under the Net

I believe that it Under the Net is a picaresque novel. The hero, Jake, and his friends certainly dash about London and meet with some very surprising adventures, coincidences and strange characters. Jake tells his own story, and thus provides us with insights into his attitude to life.

We first meet the Jake on his return to London from Paris (he works as a translator) when he finds that he and his side-kick Finn have been kicked out of the flat they were living in – rent free. It belonged to Jake’s girlfriend Marge.  Jake is a writer, not very energetic, and not very successful. Being without accommodation precipitates a series of crazy adventures: Sammy wants to move into Marge’s flat, but it appears that he steals a manuscript from Jake, and is involved in a plot with the sister another of Jake’s ex-girlfriends, Anna, to make a film. Sadie is a well-known film star. The plot becomes crazier as Jake and his friends kidnap a performing dog, Mr Mars, to hold hostage against the return of his manuscript. Jake’s old friend Hugo, with whom Jake fell out some years before and who is extremely rich and big in the film business, gets involved too, as does Lefty …

The scenes include a shop near Charlotte Street, run by Mrs Tinckham, overrun with cats, but a place where Jake can leave his luggage while he chasers Anna, and searches for somewhere to live. Mrs Tinck acts as a poste restante which is useful at a time when there were no mobile phones. Mrs Tinck doesn’t appear to sell anything.

The props room at the mime theatre provides some strong visual images (see the cover of the Penguin edition). The scene where Mr Mars is kidnapped is quite hilarious as they are forced to take the cage as well as the dog, put it in a taxi and then release the dog. Mr Mars becomes a faithful companion to Jake, but not suitable for ransom demands. There’s a riot caused by the police breaking up one of Lefty’s meetings on the set of a film. There is a midnight swim in the Thames when the friends have failed to find Hugo, despite following the note on his door which says, ‘Down the Pub’. Jake takes a job as a hotel porter, and when an injured Hugo comes onto his ward, he hatches a plot to spring him, which involves a great deal of complication. 

Jake is also averse to chance, contingencies, but constantly falls over them. 

There are some parts in London which are necessary and others which are contingent. Everywhere west of Earls Court is contingent, except for a few places along the river. I hate contingency. I want everything in my life to have a sufficient reason. (26)

Everything that happens to Jake is contingent, always seeking someone, rarely finding them and never where he expects them to be. He chases Hugo without success but comes across him unexpectedly at the studio and in the hospital. Perhaps Iris Murdoch is reminding us that whatever theory we use to understand the world, we are at the mercy of whatever life sends our way. 

As he rushes about, we see that not everything is as it appears: the aftermath of the riot on the film set of the Roman city is a good example.

All was changed. The whole of Rome was now horizontal and out of its ruins an immense cloud of dust was rising, thick as a fog in the glare of the lamps. In the arena, like a formal picture of the battle of Waterloo, stood a mass of black figures, some mounted on horses, others standing on top of cars, and others on foot marshalling into neat groups. A voice was saying something blurred through a loudspeaker. The foreground looked more like the moment after the battle. The ground was strewn with legless torsos and halves of men and others cut off at the shoulders, all of whom, however, were lustily engaged in restoring themselves to wholeness by dragging the hidden parts of their anatomy out from under the flat wedges of scenery, which lay now like a big pack of cards, some still showing bricks and marble, while others revealed upon their prostrate backs the names of commercial firms and instructions to the scene shifter. (169)

Even the final explanation for all these misadventures is misunderstood by Jake, who manages to mistake the reference to ‘she’ for a whole page, before he (and us) backtrack and understand that Jake has misread everything. 

I enjoyed the escapades across London, the Holborn Viaduct and the pub crawl, the river at Hammersmith, the Goldhawk Road area. He even chases the elusive Anna in Paris. It’s what Michael Wood called ‘a very sprightly read’ in his LRB article.

Iris Murdoch

Born in 1919 Iris Murdoch pursued a career in philosophy, teaching at St Anne’s College, Oxford from 1948 – 1963. Under the Net was the first of the 26 novels published by Iris Murdoch between 1954 and 1995. She died in 1999.

I have always been a little reluctant to engage with the philosophy in Iris Murdoch’s fiction. This is quite light, but the title refers to notion from Wittgenstein about how we know and describe the world. Apparently, he referred to as net and she challenges this by saying look under the net where real life happens.

Another from my mother’s books from the World Book Club.

Under the Net by Iris Murdoch published in 1954. I used the edition from the World Book Club 286pp. A recent edition has been published by Vintage.

Related posts

Don’t Worry about the Pronouns by Michael Wood on London Review of Books website in January 2019.

JacquiWine’s Journal review of Under the Net from November 2019.

The 1954 Club, organised by Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings Bloggers post their responses to books published in 1954 on their blogs and these are listed on the organisers’ pages.


Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews

14 Responses to Under the Net by Iris Murdoch

  1. I remember reading this book many years ago and enjoying it although I have little recollection of the content. I went through a phase of reading Iris Murdoch and have good memories of A Severed Head. I think I got rather lost in some of the others such as The Sea, The Sea.

    • Caroline

      I have several novels of hers on my shelves, inherited from my mother, but I have not been sufficiently interested to read any of them up to this point. Your example is admirable!

  2. I’m glad you enjoyed this, Caroline, and thanks for linking to my review, that’s very kind of you. A little like you, I’d been intimidated by Iris Murdoch’s reputation and the thought of these intellectual / philosophical novels for many years. Nevertheless, I found this one quite approachable and enjoyable to read. The picaresque, caper-driven story really helps, and it’s sprightly enough to feel pacey. A lovely choice for the #1954Club.

    • Caroline

      I especially enjoyed the scenes set in London. She captures a particular time that I can just about remember.

  3. Good review–a fun addition to The Club

  4. Well done on finishing a book I tried to read twice, and failed both times! I should love this, but I struggled to connect – not because of the philosophical aspect, I think, because I like that kind of thing. Never mind – a good choice for the club!

    • Caroline

      I remain lukewarm about Iris Murdoch, although I have heard encouraging things about some of her later novels. There is so much else to read I may not get around to them.

  5. Thanks for joining in with this one! I’ve not had much success with Murdoch myself, but I know how deeply she is loved by many.

    • Caroline

      I have yet to find an enthusiastic fan of Iris Murdoch’s novels. Most readers seem grudging, distant, less than enthusiastic. But it had to be done for the 1954Club.

  6. Under the Net remains to my mind the best – the least over-written – of Murdoch’s novels. You may be interested in my reactions to it in a blog last year: https://oldgeezerrereadingblog.wordpress.com/2021/08/13/re-reading-again-under-the-net/

  7. Here’s your enthusiastic fan of the novels right here *waves*. I read them through in chronological order once a decade and I love this one as a sort of overture to the rest of her works, containing many of her preoccupations. You might enjoy The Sea, The Sea or maybe something like The Bell; I had 25 book groups read The Bell and they were surprised by how approachable it was.

    • Caroline

      I love enthusiasts! Thanks for your recommendations. With fans like you her reputation won’t fade any time soon.

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