IT WAS 45 YEARS AGO TODAY; Iris Murdoch: the Oxford don hits London

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The Independent Culture
In the summer of 1954, an Oxford philosophy don published her second book. The first would have caused little eyebrow-raising. Iris Murdoch's Sartre: The Romantic Rationalist (1953) was a reflection of its author's immersion in Existentialism. But the second was a novel, Under the Net, set in Bohemian London and with a male narrative voice.

Murdoch was 35 and had five completed, unpublished novels under her belt. Over the next 40 years, she would publish 26 more, win all the major literary prizes (including the Booker for The Sea, The Sea in 1978) and become a Dame. Such predictions were absent in the otherwise positive reviews of her debut.

Under the Net follows the geographical and ideological meanderings of Jake Donaghue, a penniless and homeless translator, as he attempts to find money, a flat, the meaning of life, and the raison d'etre of the enigmatic Hugo Belfounder. The story intertwines faintly bizarre scams and scrapes with meditations on philosophical concepts, linking them through a series of larger-than-life drinkers and thinkers. The critics either loved or loathed Murdoch's milieu and intellectual ideas. These were to become her trademark.

"Under the Net is a winner, a thoroughly accomplished first novel," wrote Kingsley Amis in the Spectator. "Miss Murdoch's control of her material is completely assured. She is a distinguished novelist of a rare kind." The Times claimed that Donaghue was "perhaps the most genuinely contemporary character of recent fiction. His attitudes and comments have a clear, knife-like sanity, and are as distinct from the wild rampaging of a former generation of literary rebels as is the smooth rush of the jet engine from the roar of its out-of-date predecessors." The Sunday Times described the novel as "a real achievement of entertainment and impersonation, tracing a rough-hewn path through the worldly wilderness".

Reviewers from other newspapers were more equivocal. The TLS hailed a "brilliant talent" and claimed that "the gifts which have gone to its making promise great things". But it also cited weaknesses in the novel's "construction and design", and advised that Murdoch's characters could be better "mortised" into the framework.

In the Daily Telegraph, John Betjeman thought there was "a little too much farce and fantasy for the good of the novel. The tension of the story is not sustained." Angus Wilson in the Observer thought it was "seriously conceived" but that it did not succeed; he then admitted that his idea of hell was "a week of semantic argument about personal relations in a saloon-bar haze". The Guardian dismissed it as a "sentimental fantasy ... strictly for those who can take their whimsy neat".

Iris Murdoch, who would have been 80 this week, became one of the most respected and best-loved post-war British novelists. She died of Alzheimer's disease last February.