Don’t worry about the pronouns

Michael Wood

  • Under the Net by Iris Murdoch
    Vintage, 432 pp, £9.99, July, ISBN 978 1 78487 518 3

Jake Donaghue, the endlessly discomposed hero of Under the Net, is a careful composer when it comes to his narrative, as distinct from the life he has notionally been living. He refers to ‘earlier events related in this story’, restricts himself to what is ‘of any interest from the point of view of the present story’, and describes his feelings as they were ‘at the point which our story had now reached’. At one minute he calls what will happen to him his ‘destiny’ and flashes forward to a later moment of awareness: ‘I had no notion how fast it was galloping at that very moment to overtake me.’ ‘Galloping’ is a nice touch, since narrative custom mostly suggests that destiny sneaks up on us, that it can’t be seen in the offing. Jake’s ‘I had no notion’ respects this principle but the rest of the sentence ruins it, plants us firmly in narrating rather than narrated time. And of course destiny itself, whatever else it may be, is always a narrative effect, the insertion of a later perspective (real or imagined) into an earlier one.

We may be a little surprised to see Iris Murdoch playing with the Russian Formalists’ distinction of story and plot (fabula and syuzhet, events in their chronological order and events in the order of their arrangement). Or even to see her playing at all. But we should not be, and for several reasons.

Critics recognise of course that Murdoch’s novels are not philosophical treatises or illustrations of ready-made arguments, but still they tend to concentrate on themes and characters rather than techniques or questions of language. Richard Eyre’s film Iris (2001) is well paced, well acted, and offers a moving portrait of Murdoch’s succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease. But there is no sense of the writer in the film. We just get the sprightly young woman, the honoured dame and the person lost in her later life. What did I want? Shots of Murdoch at her desk? Walking around, waiting for inspiration? No, just a feeling, on film or in criticism, that the writing, the construction of sentences and the orchestration of time and the world, is where the work is going on.

Under the Net, Murdoch’s first novel, 65 years old in 2019 and still a very sprightly read, offers all kinds of ways of thinking about this work. Malcolm Bradbury tells us that on its publication it ‘was hailed as part of the “angry” movement and closely associated with such books as Lucky Jim, Hurry on Down and even Room at the Top’ – novels by Kingsley Amis, John Wain and John Braine, which appeared in 1954, 1953 and 1957 respectively. But Bradbury also tells us – he is writing in 1962 – that he finds this positioning ‘rather curious’, chiefly because of ‘the curious [again] ornateness of mind which Miss Murdoch repeatedly manifests’. ‘Ornateness of mind’ is helpful, since some complicated thinking is going on in the novel. But the style is not ornate; just delicately aware of the job in hand and always ready for a joke.

We could start our inspection of its habits by looking at the sort of distinction Jake likes to make. ‘There are some parts of London which are necessary and others which are contingent. Everywhere west of Earl’s Court is contingent, except for a few places along the river. I hate contingency. I want everything in my life to have a sufficient reason.’ It’s worth noting that the novel’s great set-pieces – a riot in the grounds of a film studio and an escape at night from a hospital for men with head wounds – take place well beyond the necessary world: somewhere near the Old Kent Road and just west of Shepherd’s Bush. It’s true that the Old Kent Road isn’t west of Earl’s Court, but let’s not be petty about geography. ‘The … studio is situated in a suburb of Southern London where contingency reaches the point of nausea.’

Jake may well believe he hates contingency, but his relationship to it is much more complex than he makes it sound. Contingency is his element, it’s where he lives. And his idea of sufficient reason is any reason at all that occupies the forefront of his mind at a given time. Like kidnapping a dog who is a movie star, a masculine counterpart to Lassie. The plot details here are (appropriately) too dizzying to summarise sensibly. They include Jake’s translation of a French novel that is about to be made into a film without his permission. A failed attempt to steal the translation back leads to Jake’s encounter with the dog, Mr Mars, who has been brought over from America for another movie. This meeting creates a lifelong friendship – the dog is still with him at the end of the book – but in the short term, Jake has the ‘absolutely wonderful idea’ of holding the dog as a hostage, to be traded for the typescript of the translation. Needless to say, this plan comes nowhere near working, and indeed Jake has to pay to keep the dog. But then even before he started on the escapade he was thinking it would be worth it even if it ‘did no more than annoy and inconvenience’ the thieves of the typescript. Perhaps his real sufficient reason was that he wanted to spend some time with Mr Mars, a genuine celebrity after all. Jake is aware of his ‘nervous impulse to act at any price’, and will do almost anything – or drink almost anything – to counteract what he eloquently calls ‘the shifting emptiness of present thought’. Still, he doesn’t say everything in his life has a sufficient reason, and we may see in him the first of many characters in Murdoch’s novels who state what they want because they are so far from having it or even knowing how to start on the quest for it. I’m thinking especially of the priest Carel Fisher in The Time of the Angels (1966), George McCaffrey, the title character in The Philosopher’s Pupil (1983), and almost all the bewitched figures in The Flight from the Enchanter (1956).

I imagine Murdoch would not want us to linger too long on the low-key allusion to a novel by Sartre in the word ‘nausea’, even if she had published a book about him in 1953, the year before Under the Net came out. But Jake is certainly making the connection as part of his pose as philosophical fellow-traveller. And his job, insofar as he has one, is translating novels from French. That’s why he can quote Rimbaud without blinking (‘a dérèglement de tous les sens’), and play games with French words: ‘The fishermen were fishing and the flâneurs were flaning.’ Paris, in fact, begins to look like the necessary parts of London stripped of their familiarity:

It is a city which I never fail to approach with expectation and leave with disappointment. There is a question which only I can ask and which only Paris can answer; but this question is something which I have never yet been able to formulate. Certain things indeed I have learnt here: for instance, that my happiness has a sad face, so sad that for years I took it for my unhappiness and drove it away.

Murdoch herself is playing a similar game of allegory with the idea of the city, or making it do similar psychological work, when she says in a letter to Raymond Queneau that she has ‘been falling in love with Rome … but don’t tell your city this.’ It is striking that in the same letter, dated 1954, she says she shares with Jake Donaghue ‘some nomadic insecurity’, which we might gloss as an unresolved or unconfessable need not to have a home.

And if Murdoch is not stressing the allusion to Sartre, in spite of the fact that Jake might appear to be living in a comic version of the country of La Nausée, it may be because she wants to highlight her debt to other writers, whose works appear early in the novel when Jake returns to London – he was in Paris for a while – to discover that his girlfriend has a new lover and is throwing Jake out of her flat. ‘I think there are some books of yours here,’ she says, and shows him Beckett’s Murphy and Queneau’s Pierrot mon ami. ‘I imitated these two great models with all my heart,’ Murdoch said in an interview.

With hindsight, Beckett and Queneau look like perfect tutors for a writer who wanted to ‘really exploit the advantages (instead of as hitherto simply suffer the disadvantages) of having a mind on the borders of philosophy, literature and politics’. Both are interested in proliferations of language that end in silence, and both make comedy out of all kinds of failure. Murdoch links them with Aristophanes, Shakespeare, Sterne and the Marx Brothers. I don’t know whether Murdoch ever wrote to Beckett, but she certainly said to Queneau: ‘I wish I had a mind like yours. I love and covet your mind like I never have anyone’s.’ And more formally: ‘You have a special sovereignty over my affections and will always have. (Why do I put this in such an 18th-century way?)’

Both of the set-pieces I have mentioned involve the character Hugo Belfounder, and in spite of the picaresque (and often funny) flurry of non-events in Under the Net, the novel does focus on Jake’s suspended and not really resumed relation with this man. As Jake himself says, ‘my acquaintance with Hugo is the central theme of this book.’ It’s true that ‘acquaintance’ doesn’t tell us much; interesting that Jake is now calling his story a book.

Hugo is a rich man (‘Somehow money just stuck to Hugo, he simply couldn’t help making it’) who sees himself as a craftsman, and ends up as a watchmaker. When we first meet him, though, he owns and is running a film studio. Jake is rather baffled by the new conflation of his worlds: he hasn’t suspected that a magnate could get to know his bohemian friends. Part of Hugo’s centrality lies in the fact that he is caught up in (and clearly understands) the book’s algebra of love. ‘It’s like life, isn’t it?’ Hugo says. ‘I love Sadie, who’s keen on you, and you love Anna, who’s keen on me. Perverse, isn’t it?’ Sadie and Anna are sisters, and Jake has just spent a full page thinking Hugo was talking about one when he was referring to the other. Jake believed Hugo was his rival for Anna’s affection and couldn’t believe anyone would love Sadie. He won’t admit defeat, though, at least not in the realm of knowledge. ‘I knew everything,’ Jake says. ‘I got it all the wrong way round, that’s all!’ A little later he insists: ‘Don’t worry about the pronouns.’ The comedy here rests on a sort of grammatical swivel, where the names behind the pronouns change places the way characters swap bedrooms in the classics of farce. But the deeper joke is about form and content, an early parody of structuralist thought – Lévi-Strauss’s Structural Anthropology appeared in 1958. Jake was right: he did know the game and all the players. It’s important to understand algebra (and many of us don’t). But your position is a little shaky if you assign the wrong values to the letters.

Hugo is the only person Jake thinks it’s worth stealing ideas from and his larger role in the book comes from that. The ideas are important and so is Jake’s consciousness of the theft. Hugo by contrast doesn’t seem to have noticed there was anything to steal. We should pause here perhaps over the work’s title, which borrows and interrogates an image from Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. Newtonian mechanics, the philosopher says, capture the world through the equivalent of a net, or many nets. The mesh may be fine or coarse, and its holes of different shapes, but it will always be regular, will always bring description ‘to a unified form’. ‘To the different networks correspond different systems of describing the world.’ But, like Jake, we may need to be reminded that our descriptions are not the world, which may slip away, so to speak, under the net. ‘Laws, like the law of causation etc, treat of the network and not of what the network describes.’ It is no doubt a coincidence that a later translation uses Jake’s phrase ‘sufficient reason’ in place of causation, although who knows, words have strange destinies.

Jake meets Hugo when both are playing guinea pig for possible cures for the common cold. Jake tells us that he was ‘particularly short of cash’ at that point, and very happy to receive free board and lodging in return for being ‘inoculated with various permutations of colds and cures’. Hugo appears as Jake’s unwelcome roommate, and after a couple of awkward days when they don’t speak at all (Jake is trying to get some writing done and Hugo gets the message), the two men fall, between coughs and sneezes, into an eager, intimate conversation. ‘We talked without interruption all day, and often late into the night.’ Jake says he doesn’t know ‘why it didn’t dawn on us earlier that we didn’t have to stay in the cold-cure establishment in order to continue our talks,’ but they certainly hang on for a while, alternating their injected colds, and are turned out before they make any sort of decision to leave.

While together they think through Jake’s worries about necessity and contingency, and also his misplaced confidence in algebra. Hugo, Jake says, ‘was interested in the theory of everything, but in a peculiar way. Everything had a theory, and yet there was no master theory.’

It was as if his very mode of being revealed to me how hopelessly my own vision of the world was blurred by generality. I felt like a man who, having vaguely thought that flowers are all much the same, goes for a walk with a botanist. Only this simile doesn’t fit Hugo either, for a botanist not only notices details but classifies. Hugo only noticed details. He never classified.

Hugo resembles Borges’s invention Ireneo Funes, whose sense of the world is so specific he cannot generalise and so cannot think – ‘To think is to forget a difference,’ the person telling his story says, ‘to generalise, to abstract.’ In this respect Jake’s scepticism in the midst of adulation is justified. Hugo and Funes don’t teach us what they know, because they don’t believe in organised knowledge. But they allow us to see the schematic fragility of our favoured ways of knowing.

‘As soon as I start to describe, I’m done for,’ Hugo says. ‘The language just won’t let you present [anything] as it really was.’ ‘In that case one oughtn’t to talk,’ Jake suggests, and Hugo replies solemnly: ‘I think perhaps one oughtn’t to.’ This is the exact sentiment of the last words of the Tractatus (‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’), but the meaning of course is quite different. Wittgenstein is inviting us to stop talking nonsense when there is plenty of sense we can still talk. Hugo believes that everything that is not silence is some kind of lie. It’s true that Hugo and Jake both burst into laughter at the situation they have got themselves into, talking for days on end in order to arrive at a plea for shutting up. But their point is not incoherent, just romantic and radical. It could be the case that all our descriptions are coloured by falsehood – through prejudice, excess of imagination, posturing, sheer mental limitation and much else. We would then have to see what sort of truths we can make out of the lies that are our necessary starting point.


Some time after Jake and Hugo leave the cold-cure institution, Jake writes up their conversations, adding memories as they come, and correcting what he sees as inelegances. ‘I polished it up quite a lot,’ he says. He doesn’t tell Hugo he’s doing any of this, for an interesting double reason: because ‘the creation of this record was a sort of betrayal of everything which I imagined myself to have learned from Hugo,’ and because the record is not a record but an extensive remake. Jake speaks of his ‘secret sin’ and his ‘treachery’, but he also admits he is fascinated by his sin, and almost before he knows it he has published a dialogue called The Silencer. He can’t bring himself to see Hugo again, and disappears into London by changing his address. The book is not well received and Jake doesn’t even keep a copy.

Some time later Jake sees a friend’s copy on a bookshelf, and dipping into the text, feels ‘that now at last it might be possible to make peace with it’. The book’s Hugo figure says, among other things: ‘All theorising is flight. We must be ruled by the situation itself and this is unutterably particular. Indeed it is something to which we can never get close enough, however hard we may try as it were to crawl under the net.’ The Jake figure answers pretty much as he did in the earlier, notionally pre-fictional version he gave us: ‘So you would cut all speech, except the very simplest, out of human life altogether. To do this would be to take away our very means of understanding ourselves and making life endurable.’ But then ‘Hugo’ is much sterner and more imposing, and no one is laughing. ‘Why should life be made endurable?’ he asks.

Jake’s first attempt to make contact with Hugo again ends in a lurid fiasco. He tracks him to a film studio Hugo owns, and finds a spectacular production in process. Jake knows the company is working on a film about the conspiracy of Catiline, evidently an English version of the Hollywood epic, with perhaps too recondite a historical episode at its base. The set offers to Jake’s eyes ‘a piece of ancient Rome’ in ‘an explosion of colour and sound’, and there are ‘nearly a thousand’ extras. A figure is orating. Catiline inflaming the Roman plebs, Jake assumes, but then he catches some of the orator’s words: ‘And that, comrades, is the way to get rid of the capitalist system.’ No, not Catiline, and not a movie, but Jake’s recent acquaintance Lefty Todd, leader of the New Independent Socialists, addressing a rally. Hugo has lent him the studio for the occasion. Jake manages to say hello to Hugo and tries to have a word in private, but by this time right-wing protesters have invaded the rally, and the police have helped to turn the whole event into a brawl where no one knows who is hitting whom. But then there is a fine moment when appearance turns gracefully into reality, reminding us of the epistemological security of a film set compared with that of a finished film:

The ground was strewn with legless torsos and halves of men and others cut off at the shoulders, all of whom, however, were lustily engaged in restoring themselves to wholeness by dragging the hidden parts of their anatomy from under the flat wedges of scenery, which now lay like a big pack of cards, some pieces still showing bricks and marble, while others revealed upon their prostrate backs the names of commercial firms and the instructions of the scene shifter.

It’s good to know that it’s only the scenery that’s prostrate, and that a city can be unbuilt with so little cost.

When Jake does finally get to have a longer chat with Hugo, we are close to the end of the novel, and the talk of destiny multiplies. Jake now has a job as an orderly at a hospital – he has never had a regular job of any kind before, and is amazed both at how tired he gets and how satisfied he is at the thought of ‘having done something’ – and one day Hugo is wheeled in as a new patient. He has been injured at another of Lefty’s rallies. Both Murdoch and Jake are working hard on the novel’s plot here, although in different ways. Before Hugo’s arrival at the hospital Jake has been feeling ‘sure that whatever god had arranged for me and Hugo to have deeply to do with one another would not leave his work unfinished’. The god, whose name is Murdoch, doesn’t have to wheel Hugo in on this cue, but it is an elegant, slightly parodic way of making contingency look like necessity. Jake himself has two reactions to the event. He feels guilty, tempted to believe ‘that it was because of some neglect of mine that Hugo had been struck down’. And he feels pleased, entertaining ‘a certain gratification at the thought that as soon as I had ceased to look for Hugo he had been knocked on the head and brought to me’.

Jake can’t see Hugo in an ordinary way, though, because tomorrow is his day off and he can’t lurk around the hospital. He decides he will have to break in during the night, and a lot of broad comedy attaches to his creeping beneath windows and sneaking through doors. When he reaches his goal, Hugo says: ‘I wish you wouldn’t keep following me about!’ Jake explains that the motion is in the opposite direction, that Hugo has been brought to him, and tries to work towards talking about The Silencer. Hugo gets there first, though, and says: ‘Wherever did you get all those ideas from?’ Jake replies, ‘From you,’ and Hugo says: ‘It sounded so different … So much better, I mean … Your thing was so clear. I learned an awful lot from it.’ The conversation then moves on to Anna and Sadie and the slippage of the pronouns.

Nothing much happens after this. Jake helps Hugo to escape from the hospital, because he doesn’t want to stay there. The two men register how different each is from the other, and fail to find an appropriate way of saying goodbye. Jake’s destiny was not in what the long-delayed meeting meant but in the fact that it happened – or that the god went out of his/her way to make it happen, that the game with narrative time ended in something better than a draw.

This echoes two suggestions of Murdoch’s own in her essay ‘Comic and Tragic’. She says that ‘mythical explanation’ – I am now thinking in particular of Jake’s reading of Hugo’s arrival at the hospital and more generally of his artful construction of his ‘destiny’ – ‘removes the pain of contingency, which is a shadow of death’. And the novel

is the literary form best suited to this sort of free reflection, sad-comic and discursive truth-telling … What it loses in hard-edged formal impact, it gains in its grasp of detail, its freedom of tempo, its ability to be irrelevant, to reflect without haste upon persons and situations and in general to pursue what is contingent and incomplete.

There is something else, or rather, more of the same, although it is much quieter than anything resembling a destiny. Jake looks at some of his old manuscripts – ‘a long poem, the fragment of a novel, a number of curious stories’ – and sees that they are decidedly mediocre. But that is not all he sees: ‘I saw too, as it were straight through them, the possibility of doing better … It was the first day of the world … It was the morning of the first day.’

For the completed upbeat ending, we would need a second narrative time, the one where Jake tells us that he did indeed do better, that his earlier perception was not an illusion. But Murdoch is subtler and more discreet than this. She is suggesting that Jake’s clarity at this moment, his sense of what he calls ‘that strength which is better than happiness’, is so far from the turmoil of embarrassment, evasiveness, fake pride and envy that has marked his life so far that it is already a miracle. Jake’s narrative method proves that he knows this, and for now needs to know no more.