100 novels: Under the Net

I am reading the Telegraph’s “100 novels everyone should read” list. You can follow my progress on the twitter hashtag #100novels.

This review will contain spoilers.

Under the Net

This was the first book on the 100 novels list that not only had I not read before, but I also had never really heard of it. I had a vague idea that Iris Murdoch was a crime writer, similar to Agatha Christie. I have no idea where I came up with that!

Under the Net turned out to be a witty account of a young writer-slash-translator’s struggle with relationships and philosophy, and ended up with him realising that no matter how much he tries to understand the people around him, he can never truly know who someone is.

The beauty of Under the Net is in the set-pieces, odd characters and backdrops that frequently border on the surreal, conversations laden with wit and dramatic irony, and Jake at the centre of it all, analysing and over-analysing every sentence. The language of the novel is fantastic, it’s just funny enough to distract you from the philosophising, which could – left alone – swamp the book.

The book felt quite adolescent. The free-spirited, no-money, bumming a couch from friends lifestyle smacks of someone who is a perennial teenager. At one point in my life I found that idea immensely attractive; and I used to love novels that featured those kind of protagonists. Just go where the wind takes you, and see what happens! Drink, swim in the Thames, buy a movie dog, don’t commit to anybody.

Now that I am a bit older, I feel like my priorities have changed. I had less sympathy for Jake than I might once have had. Whilst he had enough self-awareness to make him interesting, I still couldn’t help but judge him for the way he took advantage of his friends. The point he (finally!) gets a real job, and discovers that real life is the thing that actually grists a writers mill is less a triumph and more of a sigh of relief. In some ways, that made for uncomfortable reading as it forced me to reflect on the way my own self has changed with the passage of time.

Overall, this was a fun read, and reminded me somewhat of Cold Comfort Farm in tone. I would definitely read other books by Iris Murdoch.

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