Saturday, March 21, 2020

The Sea, the Sea by Iris Murdoch (novel #145)

I have battered destructively and in vain upon the mystery of someone else’s life… ~ Charles Arrowby

Charles Arrowby is the recently retired first-person narrator. After a life of stage and screen (mostly stage), acting, directing, writing (mostly writing). He retires from the London jet-set, to a humble cottage, in a quiet village, on the sea to write his memoirs, probably late 1970s.

Very quaint. I was rather jealous of the setting, and Charles is quite content at first:
It has stopped raining and the sun is shining, but over most of the sea the sky is a thick leaden grey. The sunny golden rocks stand out against that dark background. What a paradise. I shall never tire of this sea and this sky.

Until he discovers an old flame, Hartley, living nearby – which sets him on a destructive obsession – even though Hartley is married, and rather dowdy by most standards.

The book is arranged in a pre-history chapter, six history chapters, and a postscript. I wouldn’t ordinarily discuss the arrangement, but to me at least, it was significant, and perhaps even brilliant. 

The pre-history, is a bit dull to be honest. Charles describes his many show business friends, colleagues, lovers and cousin James. Charles is a perfect hedonist, though he certainly didn’t see himself as such. Reading the pre-history, the reader has no idea, most of the characters will reemerge. Charles is merely setting the stage – apropos for a director and playwright – for his memoirs.  

But the memoirs are never written; the six history chapters are narrative about life in retirement, on the sea, and the pursuit of Hartley. These were the exciting parts, when I couldn’t put the book down, but in retrospect, it is the pre-history and the postscript that give the book its real poignancy.

It’s marvelous, though I didn’t realize it until the end. For most of my read, I just thought it was beautiful, soulful writing, such as the way Charles describes…
…the sea, image of an inaccessible freedom.

Or his starlet lovers…
Clement was the reality of my life, its bread and its wine. She made me, she invented me, she created me, she was my university, my partner, my teacher, my mother, later my child, my soul’s mate, my absolute mistress.

[Lizzie] She fell in love with me during Romeo and Juliet, she revealed her love to me during Twelfth Night, we got to know each other during a Midsummer Night’s Dream. Then (but that was later) I began to love her during The Tempest, and (but that was later still) I left her during Measure for Measure.

Rosina’s kisses were those of a tigress. Rosina had the fierce charm of the rather nasty girl in the fairy-tale who fails to get the prince, but is more interesting than the girl who does, and has better lines too.

Or Hartley…
She was not an intellectual or bookish girl, she had the wisdom of the innocents and we conversed as angels. She was at home in time and space.
She became my Beatrice.

Or male colleague, Peregrine aka Perry…
It has taken me a long time to persuade Perry that it is stupid and immoral to go to expensive crowded restaurants to be served with bad food by contemptuous waiters and turned out before one is ready to go.
I went to Peregrine not only for a drinking bout and a chat with an old friend, but for male company, sheer complicit male company; the complicity of males which is like, indeed is, a kind of complicity in crime, in chauvinism, in getting away with things, in just gluttonously enjoying the present even if hell is all around.

Or Charles’ retort to Perry’s accusation that he despised women
I don’t despise women. I was in love with all Shakespeare’s heroines before I was twelve.

Charles is also a foody, often describing in detail the dishes he prepares. These always made me hungry.
Of course, I never touch foreign cheeses. Our cheeses are the best in the world.

Or this one, that I most emphatically identify with.
What is more delicious than fresh hot buttered toast…

Or his description of the audience...
Of course, actors regard audiences as enemies, to be deceived, drugged, incarcerated, stupefied. This is partly because the audience is also a court against which there is no appeal.

A lot of excerpts I know, but there were just so many quotable, marvelous passages. And I’m not done. 

But then there is also this horrific and magnificent story, complete with foreshadowing, subtle allusions, unexpected twists, and just enough doubt about what really happened in the end.

In the pre-history, Charles newly settled in his home is gazing out to sea, when he sees an enormous sea-serpent, rise and writhe, and disappear. Charles of course disbelieves his own vision, but professes that it was so real. Perhaps it was the green-eyed monster that was about to rise from Charles’ idyllic existence. (if you look closely at the cover, you can see the sea monster...I missed it, thanks to Brona for pointing it out)

In the middle history, Charles is nearly drowned. One of his show-biz friends pushes him in, but Charles is rescued by his cousin James. Charles does not  remember the rescue, and there are no witnesses. Much later, Charles remembers – but it is, like his sea monster, utterly impossible, and yet…

And then in the postscript he explains it away, he convinces himself of a physically possible explanation, but the reader – this reader at least – finds the utterly impossible more plausible.

Much earlier Charles had said of James…
James had always been the finder of lost things.

I believe Charles was lost for most of this story.
Time, like the sea, unties all knots.

In the very end, Charles is able to give up his obsession with Hartley.
I have battered destructively and in vain upon the mystery of someone else’s life and must cease at last.
Upon the demon-riddled pilgrimage of human life, what next I wonder?

4 out of 5 stars

This was my first read of The Sea, the Sea or Iris Murdoch. I loved it, though I didn’t really love it, until the end. I will definitely read more by Murdoch, including Under the Net which I hope to get to this year. What are your thoughts on The Sea, the Sea? On Iris Murdoch?

This book satisfies square N-2 “Winner of a Foreign Literary Prize” [the Booker Prize] in the 2020 Classic Bingo Challenge

Other excerpts, all the words of Charles Arrowby:

Is there any language in which there is a word for that tender runnel that joins the mouth and the nose? 

(Wanderer’s response: Yes! The language is English; the word is “philtrum”. I don’t remember how I know this.)

Well, this is getting a little too picturesque: dragon, poltergeists, faces at windows! And how restless this rain makes me feel. 

There are a great many references to classic literature throughout The Sea, the Sea. References to Shakespeare, Proust, Dante, and near the end, Charles tries to read The Wings of the Dove by Henry James, but confesses…

…its marvelous magisterial beginning failed to grab me.

I emphatically agree.



  1. I read this last year with Liz’s readalong - it was enthralling & annoying & mesmerising - she has a way of getting under your skin.

    1. She does. I sometimes don't like books if I don't like the main character, so I have to acknowledge that as a mark of distinction. Thanks Brona, I'll check out your review.

  2. Thanks for linking up to Reading Ireland Month - I've yet to read any Iris Murdoch, to my shame, I must rectify that next year!

    1. Yes, you should. I thought her writing was marvelous. I'll definitely read more of her. I've got another first time author, also Irish, Flan O'Brien that I'm working on right now. Not enjoying that near as much.


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