Saturday, 12 July 2008

Under the Net

by Iris Murdoch

Published by Penguin

I was in a real Iris Murdoch place when I picked up this orange-banded Penguin paperback in my local Oxfam. I'd read The Unicorn and The Sea, The Sea as well as John Bayley's moving biography of his wife, Iris. The cover, despite the lovely vintage stripes, was uninviting, as was the blurb.

I feel that Murdoch's novels are mis-sold by her publisher, her critics and booksellers. They tend to concentrate on her philosophy and her credentials as an Oxford scholar, and forget that what she wanted to tell was a good story which would make readers laugh as much as it made them think.

Under The Net made me laugh a lot. It's a slightly dated but very funny tale about a loveable loser - Jake Donaghue, an interpreter and philanderer. Surrounded by various scallywags, the hero finds himself in all sorts of ridiculous siuations, and the writing and style in these sections is not unlike P.G. Wodehouse's descriptions of Bertie Wooster's antics.

One hilarious bit sees Jake trying to kidnap a famous film-star dog from an adversary's apartment, a dog he becomes sweetly attached to as the story progresses. The dog and he for a time become a lovely double act; the dog even uses his marvellous acting abilities to get Jake out of a particularly difficult situation involving a communist rally, a film set of ancient Rome and the local police. Difficult to explain properly - you need to read it for yourself.

This was Iris Murdoch's first book, which she wrote in her early thirties. In Bayley's biography Murdoch is quoted as lamenting the fact that no-one is reading her book. I agree fully with this. Why isn't this novel more well-known? It deserves to be and would be if her publisher would market it more aptly.

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