A SEVERED HEAD by Iris Murdoch

severed headClassic Murdoch, her fifth book, actually.

Adultery.  Incest.  Divorce.  Oh, did I mention it is satire?  Sort of?   What a crazy book.

Our protagonist, Martin, has a lovely mistress.  And a delightful wife.   He is pretty darn pleased with his life, feeling superior, in fact, until his wife comes home and tells him she is leaving him.  She has fallen in love with her therapist (who is also Martin’s friend), but they still want to remain friends.  Well, now Martin realizes just how much he loves his wife, and begins falling apart, leaving Georgie, the mistress, ignored while he sorts out the mess of his marriage.  His wife and sister insist on helping him by finding him an apartment and arranging for furniture from his marital home to be delivered to his apartment.  While the furniture is being installed in his new digs, the wife bursts in and declares she no longer wants a divorce.

The furniture is returned to the original home.

Martin complains that everyone is interfering in his life.  One character tells him

If people interfere with you it’s because you like it.  You’re dying to be interfered with.  You’re a sort of vacuum into which interference rushes.

Into the picture comes the sister of the therapist, a strapping Germanic figure, whose existence in the story seems to be as a counterpoint to the delicate and ethereal figures of the other two women in Martin’s life.  She is an expert with the Samurai sword, and there is one scene in which we truly fear for the continuance of Martin’s head being connected to his body.

Martin develops a bizarre crush on this woman, and at one point she tells him

I am a terrible object of fascination for you.  I am 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.

He stalks her to her house and goes in uninvited, and catches her en flagrante with ….. gasp….. her BROTHER!

It has the feel of one of those farces,   a play which is funny, not exactly laugh out loud funny, but funny in a British farce kind of way.  If you like Iris Murdoch, you will like this.  It feels just a smidge culturally dated because it was written in 1961,  and I guess we might call it a drawing room absurdity.

I had some thoughts and opinions on a couple other of Murdoch’s work, here, and here.




2 comments on “A SEVERED HEAD by Iris Murdoch

  1. Mary Smith says:

    Goodness, it’s so long since I read this I’d forgotten it. i read it when I was far too young to read such things – might try it again, now.

  2. Marti says:

    That’s the problem with the work of Iris Murdoch. She was popular back when I was ever so much younger. Sigh. Too young for her work. I didn’t care for it and don’t remember any of it, although I did read a number of her books back in the back of beyond. I am really appreciating her now in my sunset years.

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