A Severed Head

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I’ve enjoyed reading this book. My copy came with an introduction by Miranda Syemour but I found myself disagreeing with her. I didn’t think Martin, the main character, moves from hazy view of relationship to lucidity towards the end of the book. There’s definitely truth in this personal voyage that’s externalized with more certainty in the pursuit that Martin makes towards the end of the book. But my impression is that there’s *perceived* certainty and that makes all the difference.

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This was my first Murdoch and so I was taken by her writing and by her description of London’s fog and of the dreary weather that accompanies the novel.
My impression is that A Severed Head is a story that mocks psychoanalysis and ridicules the pursuit of the self’s happiness, this “do whatever makes you happy”. I couldn’t have imagined a different ending which I took to be more sarcastic than serious in tone.

The story
The story opens on an adulterous couple, Martin Lynch-Gibbons, mid 30s, married to Antonia, and Georgie Hands, a 26-year old student within the apartment of the latter that’s filled with gifts offered by Martin. Georgie wants their relation to be out in the open and Martin hesitates. The characters of the novel, upon hindsight, are all introduced in this scene:
Palmer Anderson, the American psychoanalyst who treats Antonia, and who’s half-sister, Honor Klein, a Jewish anthropologist, will be visiting, Alexander, Martin’s brother to whom Martin leaves his mistresses and Rosemary, Martin’s sister who seems prim but whom Martin suspects of leading a liberal life.
Back home to his unsuspecting wife, Martin is stunned by the revelation of Antonia that she is actually in love with her psycho-analyst whom she has been seeing for a while. So much is Martin in disbelief that he tells his wife to abandon her “ridiculous” idea of leaving him and to go to bed with Palmer instead, to which she replies, I already have.

 

That’s the frame of the novel; within a dozen of pages the stability of the couple is shattered and Martin will remain until the end of the book in search of an apartment to settle himself.
The story is told exclusively from the viewpoint of Martin and Martin never exteriorizes his feelings; he’s actually understanding without being forgiving:

I had been cheated of some moment of violence, of some special though perhaps fruitless movement of will and power; and for this at least I would never forgive them.

His understanding of the various changes that happen around him is unsettling, guided, or possibly mesmerized, by his friend and ex-wife’s lover, Palmer Anderson, who explains to Martin:

I know Antonia very well, Martin. Better in some ways than you do. That’s not your fault but my profession. I know *you* better in some ways than you do.

The longevity of the Palmer-Antonia couple seems to depend, almost exclusively, on their gravitation around Martin, in an effort to nurse Martin, who expresses -more than once throughout the book- his longing to his deceased mother, whose features Martin finds within his brother, Alexander.
These referrals to psychoanalytic textbook cases and this omniscience of the psychoanalyst do not shed the least bit of light on the actions of the characters. In fact, it seems to me that throughout the book, the characters react to their basic urges and provide ad hoc justifications of them. This makes them ever evasive to the reader.
To illustrate, in an attempt to explain one of the deplorable acts that Martin commits, he writes three letters to his victim, none of which overlaps with the other, sends the second and wishes he wrote a fourth letter.

This constant rationalization of basic urges finds its contrast in Martin’s unique act that reflects some kind of willpower, possibly fueled by an early admonishment from Honor Klein:

Could imply, could imply! She said. Where logic breaks down anything can imply anything. It seems to me now that you do not really want your wife back after all

The state of debauchery in which the characters find themselves throughout the book is more comical than explicit and though I found myself frequently laughing at the revelations coming from the characters, the book nevertheless felt serious in the way that it treats the frivolity of emotions in adults who, lacking any sort of moral compass, seem more like children responding to basic needs or, though not very inviting to the reader, close to juvenile dreamers.

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