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Book review: “A Severed Head” by Iris Murdoch

This is kind of embarrassing. 

I was about two-thirds of the way through Irish Murdoch’s 1961 novel A Severed Head when I saw in passing a reference to it as a satire and, at times, a farce. Then, I had a look at its dust jacket, and, sure enough, there was a reference to the book as “a comedy” and its author as “a profound comic writer.”

I had no idea.

I mean, I never found any of it funny.  It was odd, for sure, but any funniness it had just didn’t register with me.  The fault was all mine.

Now, to put this in context, A Severed Head was written by the Irish-British Murdoch more than 60 years ago, just as the sexual revolution was about to explode in Europe and the United States.  That’s significant because the novel is all about a lot of sexual shenanigans.

“Shenanigans,” I’m afraid, makes the book sound like a French sex comedy, so it’s not the right word.  It seemed to me more akin to those erotic thrillers, such as Body Double and Basic Instinct, that Hollywood cranked out by the dozens in the 1980s and 1990s although, in no way, as explicit in a soft-core way.

Actually, I thought of A Severed Head as a literary gothic novel that centered on the sexual obsessions of Martin Lynch-Gibson and his circle of friends and family.

It was the ever-deepening obsessiveness that made me think of it as a gothic novel although I must admit I’m no expert on that genre.  I also thought that, given the title, at some point, someone’s head would be severed from the neck.  There is even a Samurai sword that shows up a couple times in the book.

Best friends

The novel opens with the 41-year-old Martin, a wine company owner, ending a nice afternoon of lovemaking with his 26-year-old mistress Georgie Hands.  He returns home to await his wife Antonia, 46, feeling pretty mellow.

When Antonia arrives, however, she tells him that she wants to divorce him to marry her psychoanalyst Palmer Anderson who is at least five years her senior.  Palmer is Martin’s best friend and, as is later revealed, the focus of some vague or not so vague homosexual feelings.

At Antonia’s announcement, Martin no longer has any thoughts for Georgie but wallows in feeling of depression over losing his wife.  She and her paramour, however, don’t want to be rid of Martin.  They want him to remain their best friend, as a couple and individually.

The heterosexual variety

And so the novel starts off, and I can see now how it should have been easy for me to recognize that Murdoch was going over the top and into the world of satire and farce with these characters. 

And not only with these but with Palmer’s Germanic, Jewish-ish sister Honor Klein; Martin’s brother Alexander, a noted sculptor; their sister Rosemary; and a couple secretaries at Martin’s office whom Martin describes as “a happy and well-suited Lesbian couple.”

Except for these two who only make cameo appearances and Martin’s mention of his hazy gay desires for Palmer, the sex in A Severed Head is all of the heterosexual variety, always occurring off stage, although Palmer seems to spend a lot of time in the novel wearing a robe that makes it clear he’s naked underneath.


OK, here’s an indication of how dense I was when I was reading the book.  The book involves:

  • Martin sleeping with or lusting for three different women, some of them becoming first in his libido list more than once.
  • Antonia sleeping or lusting for two different men in a sort of a cycle.
  • Georgie sleeping with two different men.
  • Alexander sleeping with the cast-off lover of one of the other men and with the wife of another.
  • Rosemary sleeping with no one. As far as I could tell.

I thought this outrageous bed-hopping was obsessive.  It’s hard, when put in that bullet form, however, to miss that it’s a send-up.

And there’s more.  There is a lot of adultery in the novel, and some characters don’t limit themselves to a single extracurricular partner. 

And, to ratchet up the lust-o-meter, there’s a particularly startling bit of incest.

So droll

Yeah, I missed all the funniness.  Even after I knew it was a comedy, I didn’t find a lot of laughs in A Severed Head.

In my defense, I’d only say that, perhaps, the novel was written with a particular British-Irish sensibility that was so droll that I missed the nod and the wink that I was supposed to catch to know it was satire.

Oh, well.

Patrick T. Reardon


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