"A Severed Head," (1961), is the fifth novel from Dublin-born, Anglo- Irish Iris Murdoch, British writer, Oxford university don, and highly praised, professional, prolific novelist. She produced 26 novels in 40 years, and wrote the last while suffering from Alzheimers, as viewers of Richard Eyre's film Iris (2001) will know. That film based on her husband John Bayley's memoirs of life with the philosopher/poet/lecturer/novelist starred Kate Winslet as the young writer and Judi Dench as the older. Murdoch was known for novels that considered political and social questions, sexual relationships, morality, the unconscious, good and evil. And the author's characters seemed all to drink and smoke heavily. At any rate, while Murdoch was in her prime, she was known as a perfectionist who would not allow editors to change her texts. Her first published novel, Under the Net, was selected in 2001 by the editorial board as one of Modern Library's 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. She was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1987. The Times (London) named Murdoch to their list of "The 50 greatest British writers since 1945" in 2008. Many critics consider SEVERED HEAD, to be the lightest, most entertaining, and most accessible of Murdoch's novels: it unspools as an elegant minuet in which nimble-footed people continuously change partners and dance. Like most of her work, SEVERED HEAD deals with the upper-middle class, educated bourgeoisie, focusing on everyday ethical or moral issues, sometimes seen through myth: it exploits Jungian theories of archetypes, and plays with Freudianism. It was set in and around London, among prosperous people with no real problems; and looks at marriage, adultery and incest. Critics consider it to be a harbinger of the sexual revolution that would hit Britain in the 1960s and 70s.This novel was made a play with the collaboration of well-known British playwright/novelist J.B. Priestley; then, in 1971, a film of the same name,A Severed Head starring Richard Attenborough, Lee Remick and Claire Bloom. Martin Lynch-Gibbon is 41 years old, Anglo-Irish, a well-to-do wine merchant. His pleasant, childless marriage to an older woman called Antonia has been one of convenience rather than love, so it never occurs to him that his ongoing affair with Georgie, a young academic could be construed as immoral. The wine merchant is shocked when, out of the blue, his wife tells him that she is going to leave him for Palmer Anderson, her psychoanalyst and a friend of the couple's, with whom she has had an affair for some time. Lynch-Gibbon displays some macho chest thumping as he moves out of their London house. He still, however, does not want to let the world in on his affair with Georgie, let alone become engaged to her. At about the same time, Lynch-Gibbon finds himself falling for Honor Klein, Anderson's Jewish half-sister, who is a lecturer in anthropology at Cambridge, although he remembers considering her rather repulsive upon first meeting. But soon, like a man possessed, he follows her to Cambridge and, in the middle of the night, breaks into her house, only to find her in bed with her half-brother. Shortly afterwards, his former wife Antonia confesses to him that she has also been sleeping with his older brother Alexander ever since he introduced them to each other ("You mean you didn't know at all? Surely you must have guessed."). The young Georgie also takes up with Martin's elder brother Alexander, gets pregnant, has an abortion, tries to commit suicide, and takes up with Palmer Anderson. It's all too much for our Martin: the wine merchant starts hitting the whiskey bottle heavily. Then realizes it's time for him, too, to change partners and dance. In my journalist days, I interviewed the author Murdoch. Mind you, it was a prospect I found so overwhelming that I fell into dyslexia, and kept pounding, in pouring rain, on the door of the wrong London house. Luckily, Murdoch saw me pounding on that door and took pity on me, granting me a second shot at an interview in a pub near by. We had a pleasant drink and discussed her Anglo-Irish background, about which she was sensitive. If you are interested, you can find this interview in the Iris Murdoch newsletter, or on my Docstoc page. More recently, it has somehow come about that I reread this novel through my mystery book club, whose members were not pleased to discover it wasn't a mystery. As we say, it is what it is. British novelist William Sutcliffe said, "Of all the lots-of-people-screwing-lots-of-other-people novels this is probably the best, and certainly the weirdest. With less philosophising and more shagging than Murdoch's other books, it is a joy to see this wonderful writer let her hair (and her knickers) down." Well, there you are. Change partners and dance.
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