The Sea, the Sea by Iris Murdoch [A Review]

Not having read Iris Murdoch before I did not know what to expect from The Sea, the Sea. What I found was a wonderful, entertaining and engaging novel of expert craftsmanship. While some might want to give it even more credit for its intelligence, its complexity, its greater message; the strength of its storytelling means it can be thoroughly enjoyed without such considerations.

Charles Arrowby, a man famous on the London theatre scene, has surprised everyone who knows him by deciding to retire in seclusion. They all expect this late life, eccentric manoeuvre to be short-lived; surely he will miss the glamour and fame of his former lifestyle and abandon his silly retreat. Charles, though, insists they simply do not know him. He says he was never enthralled with the glitz of life in the theatre. For him it was all about the art form; it was about a pure appreciation for acting, writing and directing. Outside of that, he found the life to be pompous, snobbish and superficial. He insists he is glad to be rid of all that.

How vulgar, how almost cruel it all was; I gloatingly savour now that I am absolutely out of it at last, now that I can sit in the sun and look at the calm quiet sea.

For his escape, he has bought a house on the coast, isolated even from the local village. It is a strange old house with an unattached tower and functionless rooms as well as being drafty, damp, lacking modern conveniences and it sits above a precarious cliff and a tumultuous sea. Here, Charles hopes to enjoy time alone; a diet of simple, bland food; daily exercise from swimming in the sea; and a bit of nudity! He has also taken to writing.

He writes without an agenda, varying from a journal of his current situation to a memoir of his past life, which provides the first-person narrative of this novel. Of his childhood and adolescence, he writes about his small family, his relationship with his parents and their relationship to each other. He also writes about the awkwardness between his parents and his uncle and his wife and between him and their son, his cousin James, who is now the only family he has though they are not close.

But mostly he writes about Hartley, his first love from his adolescence, a girl with whom he had an extreme, obsessive and pure love for. He felt they were destined to be together forever, that nothing could destroy their bond and that she felt the same way he did. Yet, when the returned home from his first year at acting school, Hartley abruptly ended their relationship. Shortly afterwards, her family moved away and he has never seen or heard from her since. Charles is adamant that the immense heartbreak and betrayal of this experience has had a profound effect on his life.

Can a woman’s ghost, after so many years, open the doors of the heart?

Charles, who never married, also shares his thoughts on some of the relationships he has had since then. There was a long affair with an older woman, a famous actress, when he was still in his twenties. Behind his back it is often thought he would have never amounted to anything without her help yet he perhaps took their relationship for granted and has since diminished its importance in his life. Charles also ruthlessly seduced the wife of one of his best friends, causing them to end their marriage, before he left her too. Even now, as he embarks on this new life, he has only recently left another lover, one who is clearly heartbroken and is reaching out to Charles. But rather than simply ending things, he seems to want to torture her with hope for no reason other than to see if he can. Of course, none of this makes Charles look good in the eyes of the reader, though we may appreciate his imperfections and complexity and be charmed by his honesty and storytelling.

As well as past lovers, his cousin, James, flies in and out of his life. Charles has never been able to figure out his cousin. James also never married and lives a solitary life. He took a career in the army and is now a General but otherwise leads a life of mystery. Charles finds himself wondering if his cousin is gay, or if he is a spy.

While he reflects on his past life and immerses himself in enjoying his new one, strange things begin to occur in the house – a vase falls and breaks for no apparent reason, similarly a mirror falls and  smashes in the middle of the night. None of this is as shocking as the discovery that his lost love, Hartley, is living nearby with her husband. All the symptoms of obsessive love come flowing back to Charles. He is convinced that Hartley must still care for him as deeply as he cares for her, that she is trapped in a loveless, abusive marriage and that he must rescue her. He just needs a plan.

Hatred, jealousy, fear and fierce yearning love raged together in my mind. Oh my poor girl, oh my poor dear girl. I felt an agony of protective possessive love, and such a deep pain to think how I had failed to defend her from a lifetime of unhappiness. How I would cherish her, how console and perfectly love her now if only… But I still had just enough prudence left to go on thinking.

Fortunately, since he last saw her, Charles has accumulated plenty of experience. He knows how to destroy a marriage, he knows how to make women fall for him. Unfortunately for him, just as he puts a plan into action, his isolation is broken as past friends and lovers, and James, invade his sanctuary. What will they make of what Charles is doing?

One afternoon, sitting outside his house and enjoying a beautiful sea view in a contemplative mood, Charles finds himself paralysed in fear from the sight of a massive sea monster, an enormous serpent, emerging from the sea and turning menacingly towards him. Surely, he hallucinated, he thinks.

The Sea, the Sea was my first experience of Iris Murdoch’s writing and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It is very engaging with its charming narrator, easy flowing style and absorbing story full of incident. That casual, seamless style fits Charles’ approach to writing his journal, but it is deceptive, hiding complex characterisation and themes that I can only scratch the surface of. When Charles’ has his terrifying ‘hallucination’, an event that may have been fumbled by a lesser writer, I instead felt in safe hands and certain that I was in for a treat. Charles, frankly, is at times diabolical, wicked, manipulative; his plot positively Machiavellian. A writer who has the skill to make us enjoy an otherwise unlikable character is always a pleasure to read. As enjoyable as all the puzzles pieces were, I did not feel sure I could see the whole picture and I will probably have to reread The Sea, the Sea again some day, which I will do with pleasure.

The Sea, the Sea won the 1978 Booker Prize and it reminded me of two other Booker Prize winners; The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (2000 winner) and The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (2011 winner). Though it has been a long time since I read The Blind Assassin, I thought of it when reading The Sea, the Sea because they are both written in the first person, with an older narrator looking back on their past life. There is therefore a strong sense of nostalgia, even of regret. The narrators of both novels have some of the traits we have come to expect from contemporary literature. Namely of charming us to overlook their less than admirable qualities while telling a story that maintains a strong interest in the reader even if they can’t trust it as reliable.

It has only just now occurred to me that really I could write all sorts of fantastic nonsense about my life in these memoirs and everybody would believe it! Such is human credulity, the power of the printed word, and of any well-known ‘name’ or ‘show business personality’. Even if readers claim that they ‘take it all with a grain of salt’, they do not really. They yearn to believe, and they believe, because believing is easier than disbelieving, and because anything which is written down is likely to be ‘true in a way’.

Another thing I thought The Sea, the Sea has in common with The Blind Assassin is that it is difficult to say much about their polts. If you were to introduce the plot to a friend, without spoilers, they might be tempted to say, ‘is that it?’, and feeling the weight of these 550-650 page novels would wonder why does it take the author so long to tell that story. Both of these novels have much else going on – anecdotes, sub-plots, asides, observations, thoughts, analyses – of the main character that are difficult to describe.

We’ve all suffered through fiction with overly long descriptive pieces but that is not what is going on here. The enjoyment of these novels is as much due to these anecdotal asides as the main story and it is owing to the skill and genius of these writers that we are engaged and amused throughout these long books. In The Sea, the Sea, there is always something crucial happening. As someone who mostly reads literary fiction, it was a rare pleasure to read something this exciting. Murdoch never lets the reader feel safe in placing their bookmark; the reader, like the main character, feels the proximity of the cliff throughout.

The Sense of an Ending is also the story of an older protagonist, whose past behaviour is questionable, whose recollection is either a purposeful or unintentional misrepresentation. But it is a much shorter novel, a novella really. Some fans of it have praised Barnes for achieving in a short novel what other writers take much longer to accomplish. I disagree. When I read The Sense of an Ending, I found myself asking, like my imagined friend, ‘is that it?’, and was sure that I had misunderstood it. But I hadn’t, there just wasn’t much to it. Reading The Sea, the Sea and seeing the contrast with The Sense of an Ending helped me better understand why I am not a fan of the latter. Given the choice I much prefer the complex, full-bodied, journey to the simple, lean, recess. When done with skill, more is more.

And that is not so say that I understood the meaning of all else that was going on, just that I enjoyed reading it nevertheless. Clearly, with characters from the world of theatre, Murdoch has scope for making many allusions to plays and other literature. Shakespeare’s The Tempest is an obvious one with Charles as Prospero; living reclusively in a strange house near the sea; full of vengeful, obsessive and scheming traits waiting to be unleashed. But I am not knowledgeable enough about The Tempest or whatever else is being alluded to comment.

I had wakened some sleeping demon, set going some deadly machine; and what would be would be.

The Vintage Classics edition that I read includes an introduction by John Burnside in which he shares a perspective of the novel being about a thirst for spirituality in the modern West as exemplified by things like the New Age movement of the time of writing. Charles abandons his superficial, materialist life in the London theatre scene for seclusion, simple living and nature.

My reaction to this was one of incredulity. To me the novel was mostly about relationships and marriage, love and obsession; about the inability to be objective about our own feelings and actions especially if they don’t do us credit; about the inability to really know other people, the inside of their marriages and the tendency to invent personas for them and ourselves. But as Burnside goes on, comparing Charles’ experience in the novel to that of Tibetan Buddhist mystic Milarepa, I had to admit that it is likely that my understanding of the deeper layers of this novel is probably poor at best.

This is, after all, the first Murdoch novel I have read and while I was aware of her philosophical interest, especially with French existentialism, I did not ask myself whether this came through in this novel. Normally, ignorance of such ingredients would irritate and enchant me, but in this case I am not worried. The Sea, the Sea is unpretentious and simply a good story expertly told. We’ve all read novels where the story has little going for them and the point of the novel comes down to the power of their themes. The Sea, the Sea is at the other end of the spectrum; a novel whose story is so entertaining, the reader can thoroughly enjoy it without being overly concerned about hidden themes.

The Sea, the Sea is a beautiful, complex, ironic novel, which confronts our major demons: fear, jealousy, vanity, envy, the pain and confusion of misplaced love, and the impulse to violent action, whether on the battlefield, or in the privacy of the home. – John Burnside

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2 comments

  1. I read this ages ago and your review really makes me want to read it again. Thank you! The Blind Assassin is at the the top of my tbr list so you have whetted my appetite there too. The Sense of an Ending is a bit underwhelming but it rang true for me.

    Liked by 1 person

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