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Severed Head [Paperback]

Iris Murdoch
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Sept. 1 1987
A novel about the frightfulness and ruthlessness of being in love Martin Lynch-Gibson believes he can possess both a beautiful wife and a delightful lover. But when his wife, Antonia, suddenly leaves him for her psychoanalyst, Martin is plunged into an intensive emotional reeducation. He attempts to behave beautifully and sensibly. Then he meets a woman whose demonic splendor at first repels him and later arouses a consuming and monstrous passion. As his Medusa informs him, "this is nothing to do with happiness." "A Severed Head" was adapted for a successful stage production in 1963 and was later made into a film starring Claire Bloom, Lee Remick, Richard Attenborough, and Ian Holm.

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Review

"The is a comedy with that touch of ferocity about it which makes for excitement."--Elizabeth Jane Howard "Immensely readable . . . Miss Murdoch is blessedly clever withour any of the aridity which, for some reason, that word is supposed to imply."--Philip Toynbee

From the Back Cover

“A power of intellect quite exceptional in a novelist.” –Sunday Times

“She is incapable of writing without fascinating and beautiful colour.” –The Times --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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'YOU'RE sure she doesn't know,' said Georgie. Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
2.0 out of 5 stars a very disappointing read June 7 2004
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
"A Severed Head" is the first and very likely the last novel by Iris Murdoch I'll read.It isn't by any means a disgrace, but it falls far short of the expectations raised by the hyped reputation of Ms. Murdoch.
Ms. Murdoch is clearly not a great writer. Just read a page of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens or Virginia Woolf to remind yourself what acuteness of insight, depth of vision and felicity of expression great artists can achieve.
Alas, "A severed head" is not even a good novel. The twists of the plot are ludicrous (at the end of the novel, almost all male-female love relationships will have happened or been revealed in the brisk course of a few weeks), the characters little more than the embodiment of a few adjectives each. The dialogue rings false : there is precious little differentiation of tone and speech, every one drops high-brow cultural references at regular intervals. The mirroring of the narrator's confusion with the London fog is the very heavy simile that Ms. Murdoch beats to death for 200 pages.
This novel has been seriously crafted by a well-read professor who is not a genuine artist. The gist of the issue is that Ms. Murdoch has a few intellectual points to make (on love and seeing, mainly); she constructs her novel to achieve them, but does so with little of the true powers of vision and of expression on which the art of writing and the joys of reading rest. Intellectual novels can be successful, of course, provided there is enough spirit and/or language mastery to go with the ideas - think Dostoïevsky or Proust.
If you want a beautiful example of novelistic art, you'd do much better with "The photograph" an exceptionally fine work by Penelope Lively on the same theme, without the weighty intellectual pretensions. If you want to read a great modern novel, "Disgrace" by JM Coetzee will show you the abyss between a well-meaning but rather limp attempt at literature by a serious don and greatly moving art.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Tops Sept. 3 2001
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
As an Iris Murdoch "junkie", I relish all of her works, and I'm still in the process of completing the list. My personal favorites have to be A Severed Head, The Sea, The Sea, Bruno's Dream and The Green Knight, so far. A Severed Head is particularly enjoyable because its plot is fast-moving and doesn't get sidetracked with lengthy philosophical or religious theory that is inherent in so many of her books. While I do enjoy examining these topics, it's also great just to get engrossed in a good story without having to think existentially, if you know what I mean. She has incredible talent as a novelist in developing characters, describing setting, developing plot and building suspense. She uses these gifts, combined with her great sense of humor, to bring her stories to an unanticipated climax, with an even more unexpected, and often happy, ending. She treats her readers as intellectual equals, which is a nice compliment, although I know I've come up short a few times -- particularly when one of her characters spouts off a phrase in a foreign language. It's the price you pay for good art, and I wouldn't change a thing. This book is a great jumping off point for new Iris Murdoch readers, who can then graduate to her lengthier, (and more philosophical) works later. Not many people can write like Iris Murdoch, and she is missed by many. Luckily, she left her legacy in her writings that we can all enjoy for many, many years to come.
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5.0 out of 5 stars English Decadence July 5 2001
Format:Paperback
This is my first foray into Iris Murdoch territory and I must say I am quite impressed. She writes with wit and vitality and there is much wisdom here also.
This story has to do with a group of people in contemporary (at least as of 1962, when the book was written), English aristocracy. They are all civilized and elegant and tasteful. The plot has to do with the various marital infidelities committed by each and every one of them, and their varying reactions to these discoveries.
The inclination of these people is to treat these things in a very civilized, low-key way. For example, there is an amusing scene in which the husband goes to get champagne to celebrate the announcement that his wife has found happiness by carrying on with . . . well, better not say too much. This emerges as an interesting theme. At want point does civility itself become immoral, when faced with immoral behavior? Must one continue to wear the famous vaunted, stoic, brave English face while inside one is churning with pain?
Well, one does if one recognizes that one is standing in the way of another's happiness. But what is happiness? Love? Perhaps, but another important theme of the novel is that love is not always what we think it is. Simple desire often clouds the issue, as does envy, or even baser motives, such as revenge. So how does civility fit in when faced with such complex and undefinable human emotions?
Ms. Murdoch offers no easy answers. In fact, the somewhat ambiguous ending would seem to indicate that humans--or at least upper-class English humans--will always flout convention when pursuing happiness. Or love. Or the perception of these.
This a fine novel. Although towards the end it careens into farce, one does not have to be an expert in the manners of mid-century English society to recognize what are, indeed, universal themes.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A Surrealist tale May 15 2001
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
Martin Lynch-Gibbon thinks he has it all. He is envied by all by marrying Antonia, a beauty sought by many wealthy and influential men. He has a mistress named Georgie and is quite content with his life. Unfortunately, his wife drops a bombshell. She wants to leave him for her psychotherapist, a man Martin himself introduced her to! He tries to dissuade her by being very civilized about the whole thing. He says all right have an affair but let's forget all this nonsense about divorce. However, Antonia is adament. Martin finds to his dismay that he is to be part of a threesome (not sexual) between Antonio, Palmer and himself. He becomes angry at himself for allowing his emasculazation but rather than take it out on his tormenters, he "acts out" with the enigmatic Honor Klein, Palmer's half-sister. Nothing in this book is what you would imagine. Put aside all preconceptions and simply read it, not just for the story, which seems to move sideways rather than forward but for the character studies and be prepared - nothing is what you think. Iris Murdoch was a great novelist and her irony reminds me a bit of Jane Austin's, although it is of a different kind. While Austin's irony has more to do with words than situations, Murdoch's is more ironic in the situations she creates than the words she uses although her words are marvelous. The dialogues (both internal and external) the characters use are sly and witty. After Pride and Prejudice, I would have to say that this is my favorite book.
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Most recent customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars An Entertaining Comedy
I enjoyed this story about power, love, control, and sincerity. Without being an amateur of psychological monologues, its tempo kept me reading. Read more
Published on May 26 2006 by benoitstpierre
4.0 out of 5 stars Understanding this book
I read this book in college. Some previous reader had underlined every appearance of the word "understand" - and for once I was grateful. I suggest you try that too.
Published on June 10 2004 by Isabeau
3.0 out of 5 stars A severed reality
I read this book after seeing the excellent film Iris. I still intend to read the entire Murdoch set, however I have not been too impressed with this first outing. Read more
Published on Oct. 6 2002 by Matthew Hurst
5.0 out of 5 stars The best book about the power of love...
The best book about the power of love...
how the true love gives one the energy to do, act, overcome
how the true love takes away the fear, makes the conditions of life... Read more
Published on April 4 2002 by "aresidentofmoscow"
5.0 out of 5 stars A Masterpiece of Sly Humour
In "A Severed Head," Iris Murdoch takes the bedroom farce to a whole new level. It's a tangled tale of love, adultery, deception, self-deception, jealousy and attempted... Read more
Published on Aug. 16 2001 by bibliomane01
5.0 out of 5 stars Will become a classic!
Honor Klein is one of the most fascinating of all of Murdoch's memorable characters. Murdoch uses humor deftly in this novel weaving a web of enchantment that underlies the more... Read more
Published on Nov. 10 2000 by R. Rockwell
5.0 out of 5 stars iris murdoch
Iris Murdoch's A Severed Head is a fantastic read. During my commute to and from work my head was buried between the pages of this absorbing tale. Read more
Published on Jan. 11 2000 by angela lessard
5.0 out of 5 stars Engrossing, riveting, brilliant
"A Severed Head" is a dark but extraordinary novel, full of emotion, surprises, and sumptuous writing. Read more
Published on Aug. 31 1999
4.0 out of 5 stars The irrationality of love
What is so special about this book is the way in which it manages to balance the funny with the tragic, and the romantic with the demonic. Read more
Published on March 25 1999 by Anders Mark Andersen
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