Olga Tokarczuk Takes on the Detective Novel

In 2007, Olga Tokarczuk had just published her novel Flights in Poland, where it would go on to be a bestseller and win the 2008 Nike Award, the country’s most prestigious literary prize; a decade later, it would win the Man Booker International Prize in an English translation by Jennifer Croft. But after she finished writing Flights, Tokarczuk was uncomfortable. She had developed a fear of flying—the novel features restless narratives that wander across multiple countries—and started longing to stay in one place. But that wasn’t the only problem.
“I really had started to run out of money to live on,” Tokarczuk tells me from her home in Poland. “When we talk about books, we rarely talk about the economic side of writing, especially of writing literary works, and that, at base, it’s a pretty costly enterprise.”
At the time, Tokarczuk was already several years into what would become The Books of Jacob, a 900-page polyphonic novel about controversial 18th-century religious leader Jacob Frank (which would net Tokarczuk her second Nike in 2015; it will be published in English in 2020, translated by Croft). It was her most ambitious book to date and she needed money to continue researching, so she came up with a logical solution, for a writer: Write another book.
“I decided to write a crime novel,” she says. “That genre was at the height of its popularity in Poland, so I thought it might earn me a bit of cash to go on with my work on The Books of Jacob. I shut myself away for a few months and devoted myself entirely to Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. I was slightly concerned that breaking the continuity of one book in favor of another might not be a good idea, but it worked.”
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, will be published in the U.S. this month, 10 years after its original Polish publication. It’s a mystical detective novel—the title comes from a William Blake line—that follows Janina Duszejko, a woman in her 60s who lives alone in hamlet tucked in the wilderness of Poland’s Kłodzko Valley, in the southwest region of Lower Silesia, near the Czech border. From the story’s opening, the reader senses the genre conventions: Janina is woken up in the night by the knocks of her neighbor, whom she calls Oddball, who reports that their neighbor Big Foot (another of Janina’s names) is dead in his house. Not long after, the body of the local police commandant turns up in the snow. Janina notices a smattering of animal prints around the commandant’s body, leading her to posit to the local authorities—all men—that the animals are taking revenge on people because of the area’s barely-enforced hunting rules. Soon, another body is found. And then another.
But with Tokarczuk behind the murder mystery, the whodunit is a sort of Trojan horse, a container for her to explore, with characteristic complexity and rigor, a whole host of deeper concerns, including animal rights, morality, fate, and how one life fits into the world around it. For her, simply finding out the identity of the murderer would be boring.
“I’ve never been a great fan of crime fiction,” Tokarczuk says. “I read Agatha Christie in my youth, but that’s all. I’ve often felt that in the process of pursuing the perpetrator of a crime and trying to arrange the facts into a logical sequence, the complex, less obvious psychological motives get lost, the social context doesn’t get described in an incisive way, and no atmosphere is created.”
Both as a reader and writer, Tokarczuk brings a set of lofty expectations to a novel, which she regards as the highest literary form. “I expect novels, including crime fiction, to be multifaceted and to work on many planes,” she says. “A novel should tell a story, be a pleasure to read, and at the same time it should be thought-provoking, even a bit instructive. I still believe in the social function of literature, that literature can change things, it can have an influence on reality, or even generate it. I fully realized that many years ago, the first time a publisher sent me a sales report, and I read with pride and disbelief that tens of thousands of people had bought one of my books. It made me aware that what I say matters.”


Tokarczuk expects a novel “to force an intellectual and mental confrontation. That means sometimes it has to hurt, sometimes it has to be rough and uncomfortable.” She adds, “I like black humor, too.”

Tokarczuk’s three previous works translated into English—House of Day, House of Night (2003), Primeval and Other Times(2010), and Flights (2018)—employ a “constellation” style: they’re structured in far-ranging fragments that hopscotch between different times, places, and perspectives. House of Day and Primeval are mosaics of small Polish communities composed of clusters of stories about their residents; Flights nimbly searches out and plucks stories from all over the map, including that of Flemish anatomist Philip Verheyen’s discovery of the Achilles tendon in the 17th century—from dissecting his own leg.
“The novel allows us to step outside the boundaries of our own self, and to spend time in someone else’s skin—and then we find that the world isn’t black and white after all,” Tokarczuk says. “Literature broadens our awareness, and in a way it’s the guarantor of a healthy psyche.”
Throughout her novels, she demonstrates a command of switching focus from the granular and the individual to the cosmic and the momentous. One astounding passage that represents her style, concerns, and skill is the fragment about Peter Dieter from House of Day, House of Night.
The seven-page fragment is about a German man who travels to Lower Silesia, the region of Poland that Tokarczuk’s work consistently explores and where she now lives, to revisit the place where he grew up. Peter was one of the hundreds of thousands of Germans who lived in the region but were evacuated after World War II, when it became part of Poland. At that point, Polish citizens were given the property of the evacuated Germans. The unsettled Peter hopes that seeing where he came from will bring clarity to his life. Yet when he gets there, he can’t even recognize his own village, which has shrunk and drastically changed in appearance. He walks on alone to a mountain panorama, and feels a moment of peace looking at the view “that he had carried inside him all this time.” But as he climbs on, still higher, he finds himself completely out of breath. He wonders what it would be like to die in this moment (“For some reason this idea seemed funny”), starts to eat a piece of chocolate, and dies. His body ends up lying with one foot in the Czech Republic and one foot in Poland. The Czech border guards find Peter first, horrified at the chocolate stream dribbling out of his mouth. One begins to use his radio to report the body, but it’s dusk and they want to go home and eat dinner, so they pull him onto the Polish side of the border, then leave. Half an hour later, the Polish border guards find Peter. They drag him onto the Czech side and leave. And as Peter’s soul departs forever, the last image he sees is of a wooden nativity scene from his youth: among the wooden cows and wooden dogs, “two pairs of little wooden soldiers carry Peter Dieter’s wooden body from one side to the other for all eternity.”
The fragment contains some of Tokarczuk’s broader throughlines—near-mythic inevitability, borders, responsibility, the churn of history—but it does so through the detailed, precise view of a single life. The resulting effect of this dizzying shuttling between a super low-to-the-ground view and a wider one is that it feels like the perspective of a Tokarczuk novel, limited as all are and in spite of the impossibility of the task, is nonetheless trying to gather everything, to account for as much as it can. Her books never lose sight of the individual within the whole, and the reader is always aware of the swirl of factors—geographic, biological, spiritual, historical—that have added up to bring her characters their fates.
For Tokarczuk’s American readers, Drive Your Plow takes a new—and possibly more accessible—narrative route: it does away with the constellation style. Janina’s limited, first-person perspective squeezes maximum tension out of its murder mystery; readers know only what the idiosyncratic Janina chooses to tell us (and that’s often trying to decipher her abstruse astrological calculations). But Drive Your Plow, like Tokarczuk’s other books, features wide-lens observations. Janina shares her views on, among many others, local flora (flowers in a garden “are neat and tidy, standing straight and slender, as if they’d been to the gym”), the body (that “our cerebellum has not been correctly connected to our brain,” meaning we lack full knowledge of our own anatomy and what’s troubling it, rendering the body “a troublesome piece of luggage”), the apoptosis of the world (“Reality has grown old and gone senile”), and the stars (“Finally, transformed into tiny quivering photons, each of our deeds will set off into Outer Space, where the planets will keep watching it like a film until the end of the world”). The wrinkle of getting these observations through Janina’s eyes is a large part of what makes Drive Your Plow so compelling.
Tokarczuk says that the right voice for the story is always the most important thing for her when constructing a book. “From the start I knew the story had to be told in the first person, and I spent a long time trying to piece together various features of the narrator,” she says. “She needed to be an elderly woman, she had to be eccentric, both irritating and sympathetic at once. A little bit freaky. The whole thing turns on the reader identifying with her and liking her in spite of initial resistance.”
In discussing the origin of Janina’s voice, Tokarczuk says, “I was once at a party where I saw a woman from the flower-child generation, who was dressed quite oddly and who kept asking everyone about their birthday and their ascendant, and then coming up with her astrological conclusions. I could see that people found it irritating, and they were trying to avoid her company, or to ignore her. There was something touching yet at the same time annoying about her. It occurred to me that nobody wants to listen to old women, and that with age women become invisible, which has its good as well as its bad sides. So in the book I decided to tell my story in the voice of one of these women—well-educated, slightly weird, sensitive, and single.”
Lloyd-Jones says that in translating Drive Your Plow, Janina’s voice was key for her, as well. “The reader has to stick with her for 250 pages, in a sense becoming complicit with her,” Lloyd-Jones says. “I worked with an audiobook as well as a printed copy to help me to listen to Duszejko’s strange way of using language. When I’d finished, I went back over the entire translation, fine-tuning and in fact reining her in a bit, making sure the balance between irritating and likeable was still there, but in a form that worked in English.”

Tokarczuk says that she wrote Drive Your Plow in a fugue state, in part because she knew exactly where the story would go. It wasn’t difficult to write, at least compared to a book like Flights, which she didn’t fully know the direction of at the outset (she adds that writing the screenplay for Drive Your Plow, which was adapted into a film in 2017, was much more difficult). “I find writing in the first person to be the easiest literary form. Beginners or inexperienced writers often use this form because they can’t yet handle a more demanding third-person narrative, which requires much greater control over the world you’re describing. A first-person narrative requires you to identify with the narrator for a certain time and to a certain degree, and then it just takes off on its own.” She continues: “I wrote this book without effort, pretty much chronologically. Duszejko’s story carried me along, and more or less wrote itself. While I was writing the last few chapters I did some crying—I don’t know whether it was the tension I’d had to keep up for several months, or sadness over my heroine’s fate.”
As an internationally renowned writer, Tokarczuk isn’t afraid to be outspoken about the situation in her country, using her visibility to bring attention to difficult, urgent issues. She’s challenged both Poland’s own historical narrative of itself as an “open, tolerant country” (which she received death threats for, even needing bodyguards for a time) and its tense current political environment, with the ruling conservative, nationalist Law and Justice party promoting racist and homophobic views, such as when the party’s leader Jarosław Kaczyński spoke about Muslim refugees carrying “parasites and protozoa.” Party officials have recently pushed to declare entire provinces “LGBT-ideology free”; a Law and Justice campaign ad depicted an umbrella with the party logo blocking a family from rainbow-colored rain.
In January, Tokarczuk wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times about Paweł Adamowicz, the mayor of Gdańsk, who was stabbed to death on stage during a live broadcast of a charity event that millions of viewers were watching, stating that the violence was a clear consequence of the rampant hate speech that has proliferated throughout the country. Tokarczuk says, “In today’s Poland it’s impossible for a writer to just write quietly in isolation from what’s going on around them, and as a result, willingly or not, literature is becoming more and more committed.”
What’s happening in Poland is inextricably tied to the Tokarczuk’s wide-lens narrative scopes. “In extreme shorthand, in modern times our world has come apart, and we’ve started seeing everything separately: the body, the soul, nature, science, people, and animals,” she says. “This has allowed us to make lots of discoveries, and in many cases it has brought about an improvement in people’s lives. But now this fragmentary, smashed-up world is starting to be a threat to itself. I wonder if we can make it whole again, and how that could be done. I think understanding the wholeness of the world as a system of communicating vessels, or a network, will give us an entirely new kind of responsibility. Literature, philosophy, and art are sure to play a major part in that.”
Tokarczuk, who has stated that her “romantic notion of helping people” led her to studying psychology at the University of Warsaw over 30 years ago, continues, and will continue, to look outward. She says that novels “exercise and develop our empathy,” and that she’s continually fascinated by literature’s ability to make the local become global. “When we read superbly written books by Annie Proulx or Richard Flanagan we’re able to transfer ourselves to Canada or Tasmania. If I have managed to cause Janina Duszejko, living somewhere in Central Europe, in Lower Silesia, in a tiny village, to occupy someone’s thoughts far away, I think I’ve achieved my literary aim. In a future book I’m going to go back to that idea.”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.

A Year in Reading: Gabe Habash

Due to unremarkable, inevitable, and momentous circumstances, I didn’t read as much this year as I would’ve liked. Many distractions were bad, but some were good. My wife published her first novel. Twin Peaks, the best television show of all time, came back and somehow got even better. I played a lot of Zelda and Super Nintendo. But, like every other year, the books I loved were great company. Here are some I’ll remember from 2017.

1.
Daniil Kharms’s Today I Wrote Nothing is one of the funniest, most surprising, and consistently enjoyable books I’ve ever read. It’s glitch fiction, composed of short notebook entries (“Today I wrote nothing. Doesn’t matter. January 9”), poems, and stories that read like anti-parables. Written during life under Joseph Stalin, these pieces go by very quickly—they briefly spasm in a few directions, give you an unexpected punchline or no punchline at all, and then terminate (many conclude with just the word enough).

In one story, a man waits for another man, gradually growing angry. When the other man finally shows up carrying food from the store they argue about time, until one wallops the other over the head with “the biggest cucumber from his satchel,” killing him. The final line of this story (which is only a few hundred words) is: “What big cucumbers they sell in stores nowadays!” Another story ends with Kharms confessing he actually can’t write anymore: “Wow! I’d write some more but the inkwell’s gone missing somewhere.”

Recalling writers like Richard Brautigan, Lydia Davis, Franz Kafka, Joy Williams, and Samuel Beckett, this is delightfully error-ridden writing that squirms and wriggles against the expected and logical, creating its own nonsensical logic in the process. A few of my friends have now read most of this book, just because I kept sending them pieces.

2.
Morgan Parker wrote my favorite book of poetry that I read this year: There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé. Like Kharms, Parker is funny and surprising, but she writes with such fearlessness that it’s impossible not to follow her. Deploying astonishing line after astonishing line, the book offers questions (“Is a mother still a self,” “What does money cost”), subversions (“With champagne I try expired white ones/ I mean pills I mean men”), and wonderful writing (“Right now six people are in outer space,/ and you are growing smaller in my mind.”). This book is a brilliant riot of consciousness: “So what if I have more regrets/ Than birthdays I am old/ For my age, I am made of water/ Why do you get up in the morning.”

3.
The Vanished by journalist Léna Mauger and photographer Stéphane Remael is an extraordinary investigation of the johatsu, the group of 100,000 Japanese who vanish without a trace every year.

Though many disappear because of shame, debt, and the societal pressure for success (one student disappears when he’s faced with taking his exams), the book includes a range of voices, places, and stories, including: the companies that help those who wish to vanish to move in the middle of the night; Tojinbo cliffs, a popular suicide site, and the man who devotes his life to dissuading those considering suicide there; Sanya and Kamagasaki, neighborhoods in Tokyo and Osaka, respectively, that have been wiped off maps but are inhabited by people hoping to disappear, including day-laborers living in tiny rooms; and otakus, from the Japanese word meaning “home,” referring to people who waste away and lose themselves in monomaniacal passions like doll and fanzine collecting or video games. Complete with amazing photographs, this is a fascinating and exceptional book.

4.
Hernán Díaz wrote my favorite passage of the year. It occurs toward the end of his debut novel, In the Distance, so I’ll avoid specifics, but not since László Krasznahorkai’s Satantango have I read such an exhilarating narrative turn.

 In the Distance is about a young Swedish immigrant, Håkan Söderström, who is separated from his brother on his way to America. What follows is one of the most compelling deconstructions of a genre convention I’ve ever read. This is an old-school Western turned on its head—Håkan hates guns and becomes an outlaw legend on accident. But maybe what makes it great is that it’s also a memorable immigration story, not to mention a powerful depiction of loneliness, while being stuffed with some of the best landscape writing around (“Nothing interrupted the mineral silence of the desert. In its complete stillness, the world seemed solid, as if made of one single dry block.”). And in addition to that narrative turn toward the end, there are countless other great moments: Håkan gets roped into a wacky naturalist’s search in dried-out seabeds for a jellyfish-like organism that supposedly created mankind, and during one drug-induced passage, Håkan looks at his own brain.

5.
The end seems to be the best place to start with Elvira Navarro’s A Working Woman, which has my favorite ending of the year. Not just because of the twist in the last few pages (which are staggering), but because the novel sneaked up on me. It kept getting better and better and I couldn’t really put my finger on why I was enjoying it so much. A Working Woman is set in Madrid, and is about struggling writer Elisa, and her roommate, the more headstrong Susana. Susana finds a sexual partner through a personal ad; Elisa wanders Madrid’s ruins and edits a book she dislikes while contending with an unspecified psychiatric condition. Gradually, through their volatile proximity and an art project, the two become enmeshed in each other’s madness, resulting in an elusive mindbender that mutates and resists any effort to box it in or categorize it. Somehow, the book reveals itself without yielding its secrets.

Other books I loved that I read this year: Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag; Winter in the Blood by James Welch; Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls; Large Animals by Jess Arndt; Close Range by Annie Proulx; The Correspondence by J.D. Daniels; Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish by Tom McCarthy; I Am the Brother of XX by Fleur Jaeggy; Multiple Choice by Alejandro Zambra; The Plains by Gerald Murnane; See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt; Grief Cottage by Gail Godwin; What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah; The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson; McGlue by Ottessa Moshfegh; Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall; The Bell by Iris Murdoch; Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue; Old Open by Alex Higley; Eat Only When You’re Hungry by Lindsay Hunter; Daddy Issues by Alex McElroy; The Iliac Crest by Cristina Rivera Garza; and Difficult Women by David Plante.

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Incest and Spouse Swapping: On Iris Murdoch’s ‘A Severed Head’

The remarkably prolific Iris Murdoch wrote 26 novels over a 40-year span; today, she’s best known for 1978’s The Sea, the Sea. The novel won the Man Booker Prize, and deservedly so: it’s a world-eating emotional chronicle in which the elderly narrator, Charles Arrowby, tries to fix his greatest mistake: letting his first and only love go. But almost 20 years earlier, Murdoch, who worked and reworked similar moral themes throughout her entire career, wrote a much more potent and incendiary novel than The Sea, the Sea. This delirious little book, A Severed Head, is a dirtier, more bizarre study of the messiness of human desire, complete with incest and spouse swapping, and it’s arguably the better book.

In selecting A Severed Head for his “top 10 relationship novels” for the Guardian, novelist William Sutcliffe had this to say: “Of all the lots-of-people-screwing-lots-of-other-people novels this is probably the best, and certainly the weirdest. With less philosophising and more shagging than Murdoch’s other books, it is a joy to see this wonderful writer let her hair (and her knickers) down.” Sutcliffe pinpoints what makes A Severed Head such an oddball masterpiece. The novel succeeds by following a structural pattern so obvious — each character sleeps with another character, then another, then another — that it at first seems too easy and too coincidental, but then the obviousness becomes, through repetition, strangely unfamiliar and enigmatic. And because human desire is the rudder of the characters, A Severed Head is one of the great novels about the unknowability of others.

The novel begins with Londoner Martin snuggling his mistress, Georgie, as he idly considers whether his wife, Antonia, might find out. The reader might encounter a similar scene in the work of a number of realist contemporaries of Murdoch: John Cheever or Richard Yates or John Updike. Before the snuggling session turns into heavy petting and then rounds third base, there’s just enough time for Martin and Georgie to name every character the reader will meet: Antonia, Palmer (Antonia’s psychoanalyst), Honor (Palmer’s sister), Alexander (Martin’s brother), Rosemary (Martin’s sister). Toward the end of chapter one, the reader is given a hint that Martin’s situation (indeed the situation of all the characters since they are all about to engage in one giant game of sexual musical chairs) is presented only to be torn down:
It was for me a moment of great peace. I did not know then that it was the last, the very last moment of peace, the end of the old innocent world, the final moment before I was plunged into the nightmare of which these ensuing pages tell the story.
The most significant word here is “nightmare,” and the reader quickly discovers why: in chapter three Antonia confesses to Martin that she has been sleeping with Palmer, and is leaving Martin for him.

It’s true that Murdoch subverts the reader’s expectations, but since the Antonia-Palmer affair is revealed in chapter three, this is only the first part of Murdoch’s trick. Indeed, if it turned out that the adulterer was also being cuckolded we’d still be in the safe, predictable terrain of realism. But A Severed Head, a surrealist novel in the guise of a realist novel, doubles down, then triples down on its premise.

Here’s a summary of the novel’s amorous transactions. First, Antonia predictably finds out about Martin-Georgie. But then Martin, after assaulting and slapping Honor (Palmer’s sister) in a basement, realizes he’s in love with her. Then Martin discovers the incestuous relationship between Honor and Palmer. Antonia and Martin make up, but then Alexander (Martin’s brother) announces he’s marrying Georgie. Finally, after Georgie attempts suicide, Antonia tells Martin she’s been sleeping with Alexander for years.

Perhaps the exact points of transition vary for different readers, but A Severed Head goes from realist to straining credibility somewhere around the incest reveal. Except: Murdoch smashes the old rule that you can’t have more than two coincidences in a narrative, and so the book passes through any dubiousness and out the other side, landing finally in a space so exceedingly nonsensical its only forecastable pattern is a kind of kitchen-sink-cum-Murphy’s-law (one is reminded of the scene in the “Cape Feare” episode of The Simpsons, in which Sideshow Bob steps on rakes, repeatedly and for nearly 30 seconds, as the joke becomes funny and then not funny and then funny again, but in a twisted manner). Somewhere around the second or third revelation that one of these characters is sleeping with another one, you stop expecting the unexpected and begin expecting everything. It’s as if Murdoch is saying, “Yes, that can happen. And so can this.” And if she can get you to buy into her rules that completely, isn’t that its own kind of realism?

The illogic of the design of A Severed Head is so perfect as to be logical. The reader is reminded of the sister/daughter slapfest in Chinatown or, even more exactly, the slap at the end of John Fowles’s The Magus. The slap, that amazing image of flabbergasted absurdity, is an especially appropriate image since the point in A Severed Head when Martin slaps Honor is more or less the hinge that divides the two halves of the book (half one is Martin’s blissful ignorance, half two is the cascade of truths). Even the respective language in Fowles and Murdoch is similar.

Fowles:
I do not know why I did what happened next. It was neither intended nor instinctive, it was neither in cold blood nor in hot; but yet it seemed, once committed, a necessary act; no breaking of the commandment. My arm flicked out and slapped her left cheek as hard as it could. The blow caught her completely by surprise, nearly knocked her off balance, and her eyes blinked with the shock; then very slowly she put her left hand to the cheek. We stared wildly at each other for a long moment, in a kind of terror: the world had disappeared and we were falling through space. The abyss might be narrow, but it was bottomless.
Murdoch:
I could see her face just below mine, the black hairs on her upper lip, the white of her teeth. I lifted myself a little and with my free hand struck her three times, a sideways blow across the mouth. She closed her eyes and tried to turn her head away. I saw that clearly in retrospect too.

After I had hit her the third time I began to wonder what I was doing. I let go and rolled off her. She got up without haste while I got myself into a sitting position. My head, suddenly asserting its existence, felt terrible. She brushed down her coat and then without looking at me and still without haste she mounted the cellar steps.

I sat quiet for a minute feeling extremely confused. Then, holding my head, which felt ready to break open, I got shakily to my feet.
The dream/nightmare theme remains throughout. As he creeps toward Honor’s bedroom, where he will find her with her brother, Palmer, Martin thinks, “By now I scarcely knew what I was doing. My movements took on the quality of a dream.” At one point Martin pleads with his mistress, Georgie, “in the name of that reality.” Preceding her suicide attempt, Georgie sends a box of her hair to Martin who, trying to convince himself briefly not to assume the worst, thinks, “The arrival of the hair had had the heavy significance of a token in a dream; but there was no need to apply nightmare logic to it.” Except it turns out he should think the worst because Georgie is at that moment unconscious on the floor of her apartment. And, it seems not insignificant that the book is told in Martin’s first-person narration, as a dream or nightmare would be.

The most surreal, dream-like scene happens in the middle of the book when Martin, “somewhat tipsy,” encounters Honor in the dining room. She has a samurai sword. Martin asks her about the sword and when Honor, an anthropologist, replies that she obtained it while working, it seems to Martin that “she spoke as out of a deep dream.” Martin asks her to “show me something.” Honor tosses napkins into the air and slices them in half. Martin thinks, “I felt an intense desire to take the sword from her, but something prevented me.” Then Honor, no longer “attending to” Martin, “moved the sword back and laid it across her knees in the attitude of a patient executioner.” This strange scene, packed with halts and nebulous logic, bores so deeply into Martin’s psyche that he has a dream about it, at which point the book folds in on itself and refracts its own strangeness. By the very last scene of the novel, in which Honor cites the apt story of Candaules and Gyges from Herodotus’s The Histories (in which king Candaules pridefully shows Gyges his naked wife and Gyges kills Candaules, becoming king), we know the mythical has more currency than the “real.”

Toward the end, as Martin and his wife, Antonia, are briefly sort-of making up, one of the narrative tensions is the question of whether Martin staying with Antonia is “right.” Psychoanalyst Palmer first encourages Martin to leave her, then states, “On reflection I feel sure that in returning to Antonia and mending your marriage you have done the right thing.” But there is no “right thing” because the book’s scope includes nothing outside of the blending relationships between the characters. Very little of the outside world is shown; the book is a series of scenes in which different combinations of characters are situated together — Martin goes to visit Palmer; Antonia visits Martin; Martin picks up Honor at the train station; Martin visits Alexander’s studio; all the while, characters are meeting off-stage and then meeting Martin to reveal the results. The world of A Severed Head is restricted to conversations in rooms (the extent of our knowledge really only includes the occupations of the characters, and London is foggy throughout); how can there be a right or wrong answer to Martin leaving Antonia if we don’t know what the world contains if he leaves? During Martin’s profession of his love to Honor, she tells him, “Your love for me does not inhabit the real world. As real people we do not exist for each other.” But we aren’t in the real world. Are we? In a narrative guided only by the affections of the characters, Murdoch so rapidly scrambles them that no relationship seems viable or trustworthy at all. Who is to say, finally, that even Martin’s love for Honor is to be trusted? Given the book’s final conversation, even the characters themselves are aware of the unreliability of anything. “I wonder if I shall survive it,” Martin says.

Murdoch’s body of work is consistently concerned with the space between order and chaos — The Sea, the Sea, in fact, is an extended series of asides from, accidents against, disruptions of, and derailments from its premise. But in A Severed Head, one of her shortest books, the reader can experience perhaps her most harmonious blend of the two. Like a small diamond full of inclusions, it paradoxically depicts human life at its most crystallized and muddied.