I Used to Think I Wanted to Be Promiscuous

A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch.  Penguin.  205 pp.  $15.00

Everything about my reading of Iris Murdoch has changed since I read Dwight Garner’s review of her new volume of letters and A.N. Wilson’s marvelous memoir.  Wilson was right in his introduction; I had perhaps unconsciously reduced her in my mind to the dotty old woman portrayed so beautifully by Judi Dench in the movie Iris.  In my mind before that she had been one of those brilliant philosophical British novelists, married to an Oxford don, churning out thousands of words every day, reflecting in her mildly erotic novels a deep knowledge of Western culture.  She wrote beautifully and had a wonderful mind.  What a woman.

It turns out, however, that the younger woman was not little and dotty, she was bright-eyed and cute and huggable, and got hugged a lot, jumping into bed with any number of men and women, a kind of who’s who in literature in the 20th century.  I haven’t bought the book of letters, but I stop and look at it on my weekly trips to the Regulator Bookshop, and my jaw drops every time.  The list of her affairs is staggering.

So a book like A Severed Head, which Dwight Garner himself said was one of her best, and which might seem to be based on some mythical archetype dragged out of a classical text I haven’t read (for all I know it is), suddenly seems less like an intellectual endeavor, and more like a book about Murdoch’s life.  This was her life.  Male lovers.  Female lovers.  Coming out of the woodwork.

I thought when I was younger that it would be interesting and enjoyable to have sex with a lot of people, that sex was the most enjoyable thing human beings do and that it would be good to do it with a lot of people.  But I thought that in the abstract.  I wasn’t imagining the relationships involved.  I saw the encounters as if they happened in a vacuum.

They don’t.

If anyone wants to see Exhibit A about why they shouldn’t be promiscuous, they should read A Severed Head.  The weird thing is that the person who wrote it doesn’t seem to have understood that.  Did she read her own book?  Publicists call this an erotic romp.  I call it a blueprint for suffering.

The next two paragraphs will be loaded with spoilers, but I don’t think they’ll spoil anything because you won’t remember it once you finish.  I have trouble keeping it straight and I read the book.  Our protagonist and narrator, Martin, is married to Antonia as the book opens but is carrying on an affair with a younger woman named Georgie.  Martin loves the stability of married life, but also the excitement of this younger lover, whom he’s been seeing for some time.  His supposedly faithful wife has actually been having an affair with a shrink named Palmer Anderson, and early in the novel they reveal this to Martin, saying they want to go off and get married.  This is a horrible shock to Martin, for whom the stability of marriage was a large part of his happiness.  He doesn’t know if he’ll like Georgie as his main squeeze.

Martin has an older brother named Alexander who has always taken girls away from him, and true to form, he’s been banging (pardon the expression) Antonia without the knowledge of either Martin or Palmer.  And when he hears about Georgie, he suddenly takes up with her; they run off together.  In the meantime, Martin has encountered Palmer’s half-sister, Honor Klein, who has a way of revealing things that people don’t want revealed and otherwise overturning the applecart; she has a strange, imperious, charismatic presence that mesmerizes everyone who encounters her, especially Martin.  This is the half-sister of the man who is screwing his wife, but he realizes at some point that he’s overwhelmingly in love with her.  In seeking her out one day, he wanders into an apartment and finds her in bed with . . . Palmer.  Her half-brother.  The shrink.  They’re committing incest.

You’re following all this, right?

The thing about Iris Murdoch was, she actually fell in love with people.  She didn’t have random sex.  She fell for people, this woman, that man, and she had a special thing for imperious, charismatic, mentor types, exactly the kind of affair that is verboten today, when it is believed to resemble incest (which she wasn’t afraid of either, obviously).  She was falling in love and jumping in and out of beds while her husband John Bayley, apparently, was preparing his lectures, seeing students in his rooms, or having one of those enormous wine-soaked meals at the tables where the dons ate.  Iris, meanwhile, had a flat in London.  She called it a flat because she was flat on her back.

The thing of it is that, in this novel, when somebody goes to their supposedly faithful partner (there actually are no faithful partners) to tell them they’ve been fooling around, or that they’ve found the person they really love and have decided to move on to that, they think their partner will already know, or will be perfectly all right with the situation, or will come to understand it, something.  But that is never the case.  The person is completely floored.  They’re devastated.

Furthermore, the person who has finally found this perfect lover, or is finally in love in the right way, thinks they’re going to be happy with this new person forever.  But they’re happy for a matter of weeks, maybe days.  The only stable relationship, it would seem, is the incestuous one, because they can’t tell anybody about that.  Especially not one of Palmer’s patients.

The book is intelligent, it’s fun to read, it’s beautifully written, except for some dialogue that seems annoying in a peculiarly British way, especially the pillow talk.  An example:

“’River Goddess,’ I said at last.

‘Merchant Prince.’

‘Do you love me?’

‘Yes, to distraction.  Do you love me?’

‘Yes, infinitely.’”

Do people really talk that way?  Even British intellectuals?

Do they know as they’re speaking that it’s all total bullshit?

I don’t want to give anything away, but at the end of the novel, after all this, Martin believes not only that he has emerged as a sadder but wiser man but that he has found the love of his life.  She has come to him.  She’s ready to get started.

He really believes this?

This is an erotic romp that will convince you never to be erotic again.  It’s a polemic in favor of fidelity.  It just doesn’t know it.