Blurred by booze: A Severed Head on Radio 4

Iris Murdoch can bring you into a whole new world. How can radio capture her?

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“Extreme love, once it is recognised, has the stamp of the indubitable. I had just moved in, again, with my wife, whom I didn’t love, was obsessed by a woman who probably despised me, and had just learned that my former mistress was about to marry my brother, whose good fortune we were celebrating (if that’s the word) with my best champagne.” The opening line is, famously, Iris Murdoch. The rest: an abridger’s attempt to condense the plot of her fifth and most bourgeoisie-bonking novel, published in 1961.

Thankfully, Martin Lynch-Gibbon, the narrator in this dramatisation for Woman’s Hour (broadcast 24-28 August), was played by the always excellent Julian Rhind-Tutt, and in a modestly sardonic way, even if this was an adaptation that most underlined the novel’s farcical elements. When I first read A Severed Head, as a wholly green teenager and never having had anything even approaching a romantic relationship, its drama was gorgeously overwhelming – all that Knightsbridge bed-hopping (sculptors, academics, therapists and wine merchants). I was possessed by the glamour of its various adulteries.

Many years and readings later, I see somewhat more clearly how masterful Murdoch is at showing how men and women wield power in their erotic dealings with each other, how careful she is to imply a savagery beneath it all. The scene where a couple fight with Japanese swords is wildly weird and dark on the page, but came across as merely foolish on the radio – as well it might, since everybody sounded perpetually sozzled.

The novel is awash with booze (the hero is a wine merchant) but that was overdone here. (In life, Murdoch preferred white wine, as cheap as possible, any old unchilled book-launch plonk.) Yet there was something more fundamental that felt skewed, or thwarted: Murdoch’s skill at bringing you into a world.

I have never read ASH and not found myself immediately there, during the book’s bleak Christmas, looking at the rope of someone’s hair or the way a long torso twists when standing uncomfortably by a fire. This world sounded blurred and frantic – none of the winter fog and stillness of the page. What to do but read it yet again, and right away? Still, no bad thing, that.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses