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Severed Head, A

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					"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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