To start with, I’ll have to point out that Iris Murdoch’s A Severed Head is about the most abrasive book title I’ve come across, along with Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, Amis’s Dead Babies, and Radiohead’s Dead Children Playing. Sometimes I will purchase or borrow a product simply by the name alone, that’s how I learned to love Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. That’s also what got me to read Iris Murdoch’s short 1976 novel A Severed Head.
First, I should point out, (spoiler alert) there’s no actual beheadings in the book. Despite that minor deficit, it is a short, enjoyable read by a masterful English writer. Iris, if you haven’t heard of her (and many of us in the US haven’t), was a writer who gave new life to the comedy of manners genre, mixing in aspects of Shakespearean plotting with dialogue that seems right out of a Jane Austen or Oscar Wilde novel.
Without giving too much away (with such a short book, saying just about anything is giving too much away), A Severed Head is a story of a stuffy Englishman who finds himself stuck in a love-triangle when his wife admits her love for her therapist. As the therapist tries to explain to him why he shouldn’t feel remorse, more characters into it, and what started as a triangle becomes a square, a pentagon, and a few other shapes before it concludes. It’s a pretty scathing yet funny indictment of post-Freudian psychology, describing how proscribers end up cutting off the best parts of themselves.
While there’s no beheading, it’s a good book… And there’s at least a samurai sword in a couple of scenes.
Pretty soon I’ll have to go out and read The Sacred and Profane Love Machine by Murdoch.