Dear Dame Iris Murdoch,

A Severed Head

You write so well, it’s almost criminal. One of my favorite lines in A Severed Head is on page one when, reflecting on his too-young mistress’s practical nature, Martin Lynch-Gibbons assures the reader, “Only with someone so eminently sensible could I have deceived my wife.” Thank you for A Severed Head, your farcical take on the sexual shenanigans of upper middle class Brits and Americans.

During the early Sixties and before I read A Severed Head, I saw a dramatization of it at a theater in New Haven, CT. Half a century later I remember that production. Every turn of the revolving circular stage revealed a bed occupied by a different twosome from among the play’s five characters! I minored in

Moses with the Ten Commandments

French in college, so I was no stranger to farce. But these highly theatrical couplings ranged from garden variety adultery and homosexual hanky-panky to unthinkable incest. To see people vigorously violating so many of the Commandments was more than liberating. It was hilarious! It was The Sixties! My colleague and I left that Saturday matinee performance guffawing, and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the book.

Dead White Males

I wasn’t disappointed. Reading A Severed Head was a vacation from the stresses of introducing works by long dead white men to restive high school kids, for you were a live woman at the top of your game. It was a respite from worrying about poverty and segregation. Martin Lynch-Gibbons and his upper middle class cohort live on inherited wealth and feel entitled to do so. It was an escape from cooking, cleaning and being the “Yale wife” of my grad school husband. Antonia Lynch-Gibbons, the only wife in your book, is unencumbered by household drudgery, children, or a job, and so is free to spend her time screwing around. A Severed Head reads a bit like Updike’s Couples if that solemn tract were written by a winking female wordsmith with a British accent high on speed.

But even in this romp of a read, you include a few caveats, especially for women. The “sensible” one has an abortion and attempts suicide while Martin’s wife ages visibly and, so Martin tells us, unattractively. And then there’s Dr. Honor Klein, an anthropology prof and Jewish half-sister to Martin’s American psychiatrist and longtime friend. Martin speaks often of Honor’s “reptilian” eyes, “oily” hair, dark skin, unattractive “perceptively Jewish” features, and of something “animal-like and repellent” in her stare. These descriptions smack of anti-Semitism on your part until I remind myself that these are narrator Martin’s perceptions and Martin is an idiot. He feels entitled to betray, assault, and coerce women to do his bidding without any awareness that these actions are not right or that the pain he knows they cause matters.

In short Martin is a narrator we can’t rely on. I’d been conned by his kind before, and I relished the idea of a storyteller whom the reader can’t trust but whom the writer can

Unreliable Narrator

manipulate, adding layers of meaning and suspense to her novel. I pictured this omnipotent author creating a genie and letting him out of the bottle to do her bidding. I resolved that someday I’d conjure up my own unreliable narrator.

That day was a long time coming. But finally, in The Bones and the Book, Rachel Mazursky and Yetta Solomon constantly question the veracity of the woman whose diary Rachel is translating. And like the cynical Yetta, Rachel also has suspicions about the truth of what other people tell her. Finally, some wary readers may wonder if Rachel herself, a woman who values keeping and preserving written records of what happens, is entirely

Genie out of the Bottle!

trustworthy.

Thank you for a marvelous read and for all your other marvelous novels as well. Yours was a voice I needed to hear and what I heard was you telling me to make up my own genie and turn her loose.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Dear Dame Iris Murdoch,

  1. Ann

    “These descriptions smack of anti-Semitism on your part until I remind myself that these are narrator Martin’s perceptions and Martin is an idiot. “ I loved that sentence!

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