‘Under the Net’ by Iris Murdoch

Published in 1954 (Murdoch’s first), Under the Net is a contemporary picaresque novel of a struggling writer and translator, Jake Donaghue, as he psychologically, philosophically and literally deals with the oddball world he inhabits.

A social drifter with few roots, Jake spends time, in contemporary parlance, couch surfing between London and Paris. It’s a wry narrative with more than a hint of slapstick as Jake finds himself in a series of inexplicable situations, most of them of his own making, accompanied on most occasions by best mate and partner in crime, Finn, a man of few words.

Under the Net is a deceptively light narrative of a novel but which sees Murdoch using the opportunity to vocalise elements of current philosophies and political thoughts – in part through the actions of Donaghue himself, in part through successful businessman Hugo Belfounder, an old acquaintance, and Lefty Todd, a political activist. Many of the characters within Murdoch’s novel are based loosely on actual friends, acquaitances and public figures, written as it was in a post-war England and a time of enormous upheaval and change. She herself lectured, at the age of just 28, in philosophy at Oxford University. So Under the Net was never going to be a simple roman de gare.

It’s a frustrating read that has moments of sublime prose, and moments of sheer slapstick idiocy that go nowhere, including the stealing of an Alsatian dog and the following of a former lover (Anna) through the streets of Paris. For a pragmatist, ironically Jake always seems to make the wrong decision, leaving him unlucky in love and empty of pocket. Like Donaghue himself, Under the Net outstays its welcome.

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