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A Severed Head

3.74  ·  Rating details ·  3,432 Ratings  ·  280 Reviews
As macabre as a Jacobean tragedy, as frivolous as a Restoration comedy, Iris Murdoch's fifth novel takes sombre themes - adultery, incest, castration, violence and suicide - and yet succeeds in making of them a book that is brilliantly enjoyable.
Paperback, 204 pages
Published November 18th 1976 by Penguin Books (first published 1961)
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Susan McAteer Hi George I know what you mean. My take was that it was not meant to be realistic. I think she is dealing with emotional truths- that one person…moreHi George I know what you mean. My take was that it was not meant to be realistic. I think she is dealing with emotional truths- that one person cannot satisfy all ones emotional needs - that we have a light and dark side in our desires - and these truths often manifest in 'irrational' actions ( and by default irrational plots.). I loved it and would include in that all the flawed characters. Indeed I think I might read it again for the beautiful writing :) (less)
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30)
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Lisa
I had no patience for this.

I appreciate the prose style, and can see that Murdoch makes important statements on sexual liberation, but... It is tiring. All characters are equally unsympathetic, and their lives form a panorama of sexual behaviours that challenged the bourgeois minds in 1976 for sure.

They all consistently made me think of Caravaggio's Medusa, with her outraged expression of injustice done to her while her snake-hair is still dangerously alive and capable of causing major damage
...more
Shovelmonkey1
Oct 26, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone who thinks their own relationship sucks
Recommended to Shovelmonkey1 by: a bookcrossing friend
Well, what a messed up little love pentangle that was. I put off reading this book for a while because to be frank, I am a coward. Scared of the weighty prose? Taut wit? Scathing analogies of the middle classes on the cusp of a sexual revolution?

No actually. Just a bit scared of the front cover. Sinister looking serial killer lady wielding a samurai sword or sabre of some description. It just freaked me out and I can't explain it. My friend Dana will corroborate this irrational fear of book cove
...more
Ian "Marvin" Grayejoy
Oct 02, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: fans of Rikki Ducornet, Angela Carter and Martin Amis
Who's Afraid of Iris Murdoch?

Well, I was for one! I bought this novel in 1980 and only got around to reading it now.

I think I was apprehensive about her formidable intellect and wondered whether the book might be too earnest or a chore to read. However, it was anything but! It takes you on a journey from psychological realism to Freudian satire to outrageous farce.

Female Author, Male Narrator

The narrator is Martin Lynch-Gibbon, the son of a wine merchant and now the proprietor of the family busi
...more
Carmo
Aug 31, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: irlanda, bib-p
Então é mais ou menos assim: temos um homem casado; o relacionamento é morno acomodado na pacatez do dia a dia, mas ele ama a mulher que é uma senhora linda e elegante, daquelas que deixam as outras ruídas de inveja e os homens a escorrer baba caninamente - um amor "quente e radioso, tingido do ouro da dignidade humana". Mas não lhe chega, também tem uma amante; muito mais nova, desleixada, desarrumada, um mimo pra saborear clandestinamente e por quem sente um amor " terno, sensual e alegre". Er ...more
James Barker
Six terribly middle-class central characters play bedroom twister. Does loving many people equate to really loving no-one? It's a question that befits this fickle schoolyard. Martin adores his wife, loves his mistress, has homosexual fantasises about his chum Palmer while simultaneously yearning for Palmer's sister, Honor (noticing Palmer's hairy legs and Honor's hairy lip, he clearly has a hair fixation; both his wife and his mistress have Rapunzel-like hair). Martin's brother, Alexander, is in ...more
Manny
Feb 23, 2009 rated it really liked it
I got hooked on Iris Murdoch for a year or so when I was around 20 and read more than half of her novels. But I did wonder where she got her ideas from. I mean, here she was, respectable married professor of philosophy and whatnot, and her plots are always this tangled mess of everyone sleeping with everyone else in between dropping clever epigrams about Wittgenstein. I guessed that she just had a very active imagination.

It's always strange to look back and wonder how one could have been so naiv
...more
Bettie☯


http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b066v39v

Description: When Martin Lynch-Gibbon's wife runs off with her analyst and his best friend, Palmer Anderson, the three characters attempt to behave in a civilised manner; but there is the matter of Martin's mistress and Palmer's sister to contend with and undoubtedly the thin veneer of civilisation will crack in Murdoch's witty and wise story.
"You can recognise the people who live for 
others by the haunted look on the faces of
the others."

1/5: Satire on an
...more
Ben Loory
Aug 09, 2012 rated it really liked it
iris murdoch reminds me a lot of henry james, in that her style is almost scientific. there's a method and a premise and the rest is investigation; it proceeds step by step until the story's done. nothing ever stands out, everything is perfectly in place. as far as novels go, they all seem completely flawless.

this one was a lot more farcical than the others of hers i've read. everybody's fucking everybody and nobody tells the truth. it doesn't quite have the emotional heart of, say, The Sandcast
...more
Fabian
Apr 16, 2009 rated it really liked it
Reading like an early draft of the play/film "Closer," this brilliant book was conceived by a woman whose p.o.v. is that of a man, Martin, who experiences degradation and despair, while he seeks sexual specters. It is an exact, almost samurai-sharp (more on that later...) case study of both true incest & a social, more acceptable type of partner swapping.

Let me try to explain the plot (SPOILER! SPOILER! SPOILER!): Martin's in love with his wife, Antonia, who is herself having an affair with
...more
Frona
Oct 11, 2016 rated it liked it
What ties people together when they (by choice or necessity) escape the security of their own habits and find comforts of domestic life insufficient? The author seems to anwser this question in a row of equaly unlikable charachters mixing up together in an accidental way, where no emotion is strong or lasting, no relationship reliable or inconvenient and no thought independent of other people's whims. In a new-found freedom, we don't, as expected, witness autonomos, powerful beings, but the ones ...more
Sarah
Oct 28, 2009 rated it really liked it
Oh Iris, Iris, Iris....I just love her. This book is filled to the brim with flawed and fabulously unlikable characters who nonetheless manage to drum up my sympathies. They're like lab rats. I'm not particularly fond of rats, but seeing them trapped in mazes and getting zapped as they're forced to navigate their confined little world--well, after a while I'm thinking, "awww...poor things." Such is the case with these self-involved, amoral characters. But the confined maze-like lives in this boo ...more
Cecily
May 30, 2008 rated it really liked it
This catalogues a disintegrating 60s marriage: Martin is happy with his wife Antonia and mistress Georgie. Antonia then leaves Martin to be with their friend and her psychoanalyst, Palmer, who has a sinister half-sister, Honor. It’s all creepily amicable, rational and analytical. Martin’s siblings, Alexander (a sculptor) and Rosemary, also feature.

There are no sympathetic characters, but their thoughts and motives are mostly so well described (albeit not necessarily credible) that it hardly matt
...more
Lavinia
Apr 27, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: fiction, in-en, 2011
Oh, Iris, what have you done to me? How will I ever be able to read one of your books again? If I stop here and now it's only because of you!

Remember my infatuation with Charles last summer? Of course you do, because every now and then I go back and compare male characters with him. Now, guess what? Not only I didn't like Martin (Charles' counterpart for this novel) but I didn't like any of the characters.
Stop for a minute and try to imagine how awful it is for the reader to look for someone t
...more
Judy
Oct 05, 2014 rated it really liked it
Martin is happily married to Antonia but also has a mistress names Georgie. Antonia is older than Martin and undergoing analysis. Suddenly she leaves Martin and moves in with Anderson, her analyst. Anderson's sister Honor tells Antonia about Georgie. Honor is such a truly cracked character that she makes the rest of them look only mildly weird in comparison.

Again a 1961 novel about infidelity. In contrast to Wallace Stegner's A Shooting Star, this one is a breath of fresh air with that almost s
...more
Sketchbook
Mar 07, 2011 rated it liked it
The Dame explores the gothic genre in "The Unicorn." Here she cracks the nut of "artificial comedy," with a bow to Schnitzler and Coward, as her intimate circle pops amid beds while shelling bons mots. It's not meant to be taken seriously. Sensibility without sense, and sex as a form of nervousness.
David
Aug 20, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
"On the whole 'do what you want' costs others less than 'do what you ought'."

Or does it? 'A Severed Head' is a doozy! Quality time spent with a glorious love pentagon in a foggy South Ken. God is dead and everyone has lots of lovely money ... who's to say what's the right thing to do?
Nicola
Aug 17, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 1001-books
3 1/2 stars

For a book that has been written in such a calm and usually evenly measured way A Severed Head really does take the biscuit for utter craziness. By the end of the ride my jaw was permanently residing in a dropped open position somewhere around my chest, my eyes were as wide as small cartwheels and I'd been reduced to a half choking/half laughing sort of snort.

I couldn't decide whether it was dementedly brilliant or sublimely insane so I settled on just enjoying the craziness that Iris
...more
Karl Marx S.T.
Mar 12, 2012 rated it it was amazing
From one of my favorite British authors, Iris Murdoch unravels the many guises of love and how it results to different types of violence us human beings are capable of. A Severed Head, Murdoch’s fifth novels starts with Martin Lynch-Gibbon enjoying a lazy afternoon together with his mistress Georgie, in her apartment as he ponders his life. Committing adultery for Martin doesn’t necessarily mean his love for Antonia -his wife- lessens. As he goes home after a wonderful conversation with Georgie, ...more
Jennifer
Mar 24, 2009 rated it did not like it
Recommends it for: well, people who cheat would probably empathize
...I have absolutely no idea what the point of this book was. It's a whole bunch of machinations, bed hopping, and psychological manipulation with no emotion powering it at all; I spent twenty minutes after having finished it trying to talk myself into having a reaction, any reaction, toward it. At the end of things I just went and had a bowl of cereal.

That, and I'm one of those people who loves so hard (and, I will admit, unhealthily) that, when confronted in real life with people who cheat on
...more
Carol
Mar 11, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: british, fiction
This book is a bedroom farce, in which the characters look ridiculous one minute and pitiful the next. The narrator is Martin, a 40-something London wine merchant, who begins the novel by very smugly talking about how he loves both his mistress and his wife. Martin's about to get a come-uppance, however, because his wife Antonia soon tells him she wants a divorce. Not only has the cheater been cheated upon, but Antonia's been seeing Martin's close friend Palmer -- a double betrayal. The plot con ...more
Laura
Sep 14, 2014 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Laura by: Bettie
From BBC Radio 4 - 15 Minute Drama:
When Martin Lynch-Gibbon's wife runs off with her analyst and his best friend, Palmer Anderson, the three characters attempt to behave in a civilised manner; but there is the matter of Martin's mistress and Palmer's sister to contend with and undoubtedly the thin veneer of civilisation will crack in Murdoch's witty and wise story.


Episode 2:
Martin's wife may have left him for his friend and her analyst, Palmer Anderson, but they are determined that they should r
...more
bobbygw
Jul 15, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction, feminism
In A Severed Head, Martin Lynch-Gibbon, established wine merchant, and happily dedicated two-timing sophisticate (he has been betraying his wife, Antonia, by having an affair for some time with Georgie, a friend, and LSE lecturer), tells you the story of the collapse of his marriage, his wife's affair with no less than two men (one of which, with the manipulative, obnoxiously patronising, slimy psychoanalyst, Palmer Anderson, began even before Martin's marriage with Antonia; the other with Marti ...more
J.C. Greenway
Nov 04, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 1960s
It is testament to Iris Murdoch's power as a novelist that A Severed Head is a gripping and enjoyable read, despite its complete lack of a sympathetic character. Managing to combine that very British kind of sex comedy where everyone is with the wrong partner (Lucky Jim would be another, published just seven years earlier) with astute skewerings of the human condition, time spent with this novel will surprise and delight.

A Severed Head perfectly demonstrates that residents of very nice Central L
...more
Richard Kramer
Mar 28, 2012 rated it it was amazing
My first Iris! And pretty fucking sublime. Merciless, mordant, rigorous, hilarious, relatively brief. It made me want to read everything she wrote, but it didn't make me want to see that rotten movie again. I will never read everything she wrote. I may read maybe two or more, hopefully while hiking through the Lake District, which at the moment I have no plans to do. Can anyone recommend other gems from the oeuvre? This is yet another bok that makes me want to be the author, although I'd like to ...more
Justin Griffiths-Bell
Dec 26, 2011 rated it really liked it
The first ever grown-up novel I ever read was Iris Murdoch's The Philosopher's Pupil. My father had bought it, but never read it, and somehow I felt that its destiny had been stifled in being abandoned on a bookshelf unread, and I felt sorry for it. It was not a novel for children or young adults, and I must have supposed it must therefore be written in some secret code that I hadn't yet learned (it was, but I wasn't to know this at the time). I recall the feeling of near-euphoria that I could a ...more
Mark Desrosiers
Apr 29, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction
In which a well-observed, comically sane love quadrangle (pentangle? parallelogram?) is invaded by a devious conqueror goddess named Honor Klein, whose desires are a bit off the grid. Or rather, on a creepy manipulative ticking grid. Murdoch's internal depiction of male lust (the narrator's a dude) is mostly inaccurate, though I suppose gender got scrubbed and reassigned at some point in this novel's prep stages. Certainly Honor Klein's character often verges upon the "masculine", including one ...more
Kirsty Darbyshire
Feb 20, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: kindle
I loved Iris Murdoch when I first read her, twenty years ago when I was about twenty years old. I loved all the clever characters and their academic musings on life, and everything (not so much the universe if my recall is correct). Now, not so much. This is pretty much a bedroom farce, it starts off silly and gets completely ludicrous towards the end. I ought to draw a diagram to work out which characters didn't end up in bed together, if any. It has lots of angst and clever veneer on top of th ...more
BrokenTune
May 25, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: review-pending, iris
Review to follow.
Sara Mazzoni
Aug 23, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Una testa tagliata di Iris Murdoch è un romanzo d’interni, ambientato in stanze borghesi decorate con sobrio gusto dove i dialoghi s’affastellano; eppure, non è teatrale, anche se nei toni di una commedia acida narra le vicende di una manciata di uomini e donne che si amano e si tradiscono sullo sfondo di una Londra particolarmente nebbiosa.

Il punto di vista di Martin, voce narrante, lascia trasparire tutti quei segreti che il protagonista stesso finge di non sapere. Agli atti Martin è miope: vi
...more
St Fu
Nov 19, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Like Martin, I don't know what to think. I started this book almost by accident and finished it by compulsion. The writing is wonderful. It's the plot I don't know what to think about. When, in an early scene, a sword shows up, I wondered whose head will be cut off with it. Chekhov would insist that the sword be used and the title suggested how. I now think that the severed head refers to how distant the intellectual point of view is from the reality of the human comedy or tragedy or what ever i ...more
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Dame Jean Iris Murdoch

Irish-born British writer, university lecturer and prolific and highly professional novelist, Iris Murdoch dealt with everyday ethical or moral issues, sometimes in the light of myths. As a writer, she was a perfectionist who did not allow editors to change her text. Murdoch produced 26 novels in 40 years, the last written while she was suffering from Alzheimer disease.

"She w
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“I feel half faded away like some figure in the background of an old picture.” 24 likes
“To lose somebody is to lose not only their person but all those modes and manifestations into which their person has flowed outwards; so that in losing a beloved one may find so many things, pictures, poems, melodies, places lost too: Dante, Avignon, a song of Shakespeare's, the Cornish sea.” 17 likes
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