I found Under the Net a terrifically inspiring novel. In part, of course, there’s Iris Murdoch’s astonishingly good writing – the sentences like colourful silk, her talent spread with such luxurious thickness across the pages. (Can you believe it’s her first novel?!) But moreover, it was thanks to the main character, Jake.
Jake, or, to give him his full name, James Donaghue, is a writer who is somewhat lost in the world. We meet him just as he’s being turfed out of his Earl’s Court lodgings, and accompany him on his subsequent wanderings across London in search of various friends. Drinking steadily – either in pubs or from his own supply kept at Mrs Tinckham’s Soho shop (‘For a long time I have kept a stock of whiskey with Mrs Tinckham in case I ever need a medicinal drink, in quiet surroundings, in central London, out of hours’) – Jake is down on his luck. His wanderings see him sink lower and lower until eventually he stops wandering and can’t bring himself to get out of bed. It is indeed a low point, but luckily Jake is made of stronger stuff and pulls himself together. The novel ends with him looking at his old manuscripts and feeling that he has potential:
These things were mediocre, I saw it. But I saw too, as it were straight through them, the possibility of doing better – and this possibility was present to me as a strength which cast me lower and raised me higher than I had ever been before.
It’s a wonderful feeling of optimism founded on truth and realism, rather than naïve illusions. I finished the novel feeling excited for Jake’s future, feeling that he was at the beginning of the path to success. For a writer suffering from her own little crisis of confidence, this was the perfect novel to read.
It seems nonsensical, but Under the Net can best be described as a poetical farce, underlined by philosophy. It is a comedy of errors, of everyone being in love with the wrong person, chasing around after each other in a complete muddle, but written about in perfectly beautiful prose. Underlying its silliness is the idea – discussed by Jake and his friend Hugo – that language isn’t able to convey the truth, that everything we say is only an approximation, that ‘the whole language is a machine for making falsehoods’. They decide that words lie, but actions don’t. (Incidentally, they have this discussion while taking part in a cold-cure experiment – ‘The experiment was going forward at a delightful country house where one could stay indefinitely and be inoculated with various permutations of colds and cures’ – a delightfully dotty situation.)
Jake – a writer – relies upon language, this apparently false medium. But the book sees him stop writing and rely on actions. He looks for people, he follows them, he gets physical work, he does things. He turns from words to actions. But of course the trick of the novel is that it is all a written thing, his actions are related via Murdoch’s language – and very beautiful, wonderful language it is too. So are all his actions, as they are related by words, no more than lies? Is the whole book a lie?
Well it is fiction – a creative lie of sorts – and yet it is told so well that the story has written itself into my understanding of London as much as the city’s real history.
I love the Londonness of Under the Net. The other night I found myself wandering home across Blackfriars Bridge, looking up Farringdon Road towards Holborn Viaduct and thought instantly of this passage:
The sky opened out above me like an unfurled banner, cascading with stars and blanched by the moon. The black hulls of barges darkened the water behind me and murky towers and pinnacles rose indistinctly on the other bank. I swam well out into the river. It seemed enormously wide and as I looked up and down stream I could see on one side the dark pools under Blackfriars Bridge, and on the other the pillars of Southwark Bridge glistening under the moon. The whole expanse of river was running with light. It was like swimming in quicksilver.
Yes, that’s right, Jake has gone swimming in the Thames. It is the result of a pub crawl that began in Holborn, meandered around the City and ended in this swim, achieved with drunken canniness by catching the tide on the turn, so avoiding being pulled out to sea by the current.
Scene after scene has etched itself onto my London map. There is the bit where Jake and Finn (his right hand man) steal a film star dog – Mister Mars – from a bookie’s Chelsea apartment. There’s Jake’s long walk home from a film studio in Deptford, having escaped the police. There’s Mrs Tinckham’s shop in Soho, of course. Funniest of all – I think – is the scene where Jake is sitting on the fire escape of Sadie’s Marylebone flat, eavesdropping on her conversation with the bookie when he realises he is being watched, with some degree of concern, by the neighbours. They decide that Jake must be ‘an escaped loonie’, and the scene builds to a comic climax when the charwoman fetches ‘an extremely long cobweb brush’:
“Shall I poke ’im with my brush and see what ’e does?” she asked; and she forthwith mounted the fire escape and brought the brush into play, delivering me a sharp jab on the ankle.
Jake decides ‘this was too much’ and descends the fire escape. The neighbours confront him in the street and so, ‘uttering a piercing hiss I suddenly rushed forward toward them’, making them scatter ‘in terror’. Ha ha!! Welbeck Street will never be the same again.
Perhaps it is all lies, but lies so brilliantly told, they win over truth any day.
It’s truly a magnificent book and moments from it will accompany me on my own London wanderings. I shall just leave you with one last brilliant quotation because I can’t resist:
Starting a novel is opening a door on a misty landscape; you can still see very little but you can smell the earth and feel the wind blowing.
What a perfectly Autumnal vision of reading.