This is one of those books that I enjoyed reading immensely, but wasn’t always sure what was actually going on, or where things were going to. After a while, though, I figured it was enough just to sit back and enjoy the ride and take things as they came. I still walked away from it a little puzzled, but none-the-less quite content for having made the effort… or lack of effort.
The book is philosophical in a way, a comedy of errors in another. Throughout, we witness a small, but highly significant portion of Jake Donaghue’s life. Jake is an odd, slightly unpredictable character, who, like my reading style, had to be just taken as he came: I never really knew what he was going to do next, or what crazy thing would come his way. Initially, I didn’t know whether to like or dislike him, but then all the other characters in the book seemed to find him quite affable, so I figured I may as well, too.
Jake is the sort of person who is extremely talented, but also extremely lazy. He makes a living by translating mediocre French novels into English, and sponges off his friends for a place to live. At the beginning of the novel he is being thrown out of his latest dwelling and it is recommended to him that perhaps he might seek out an old flame by the name of Anna. It is from this point on that the story begins. Through searching for Anna, we see Jake reunited with his past and some old acquaintances. He meets some new, interesting people along the way, as well, and we find him in a number of hilarious situations. He steals a show dog; takes a drunken, naked dip in the Thames with friends; breaks into a hospital; is mistaken for an escaped nutter; consumes an astounding and impressive amount of alcohol; becomes a guinea pig for a cold cure study; and attends a socialist rally on a movie set. All of this is done in fantastical style, but comes across as being surprisingly normal at the time.
It is through these adventures that Jake comes to realize that he has made some terrible, erroneous presumptions about some of the things he has done, and about how other people have regarded him because of them. This is the underlying philosophy that Murdoch is aiming at as we read through: the question of whether or not language is capable of expressing our true feelings. Language only enables a certain surface level of communication, while never really reaching or encompassing the actual nature of our thoughts or feelings. In other words, we can never truly express ourselves adequately, or conversely, be understood adequately. Consequently, like Jake, we may misunderstand and reason falsely, and through these presumptions be misguided.
This was Iris Murdoch’s first novel; and was written in 1954. It is number 95 on the Modern Library’s top 100 list.