The Sea, the Sea
by Iris Murdoch (1978)
Penguin Classics (2001)
495 pp

While perusing books, I came across The Sea, the Sea by Iris Murdoch. I had heard of her, but I knew next to nothing about her except that she’d won the Booker Prize for this book.

This was my first time with Iris Murdoch, and I see why she was shortlisted for the Booker so many times during her career. I was drawn to her straight-forward yet elaborate prose, her fine rhythm, all bolstered by her expertise in psychology — psychology as a dark art, that is (which I hear she used against her husband frequently).

Here we have the memoirs of Charles Arrowby. At the beginning of the novel, he intends to tell his life story, focusing on his tumultuous love affair with Clement Makin, a powerful woman who seems to have controlled him. She’s dead now, and in this fashion Arrowby decides his story is important enough to record for everyone, that since it was profound for him, it must be profound for all. So, after retiring from a life of fame in the theater, Arrowby moves to a small home by the sea and begins to write his memoirs. The firs tpart of the novel is very much a day-to-day recitation of events — though, thanks to Murdoch’s insight and wit, even the food is interesting and important to developing Arrowby, who catalogs what he’s eating and how he prepared it as if we all should take note of how a great man eats his potatoes.

His peace is broken, however, by the unwelcome visits from the people of his past — not to mention ghosts and sea serpents (see it in the book cover?). But Arrowby keeps writing. The story he tells is brutal and haunting, not always on the surface but mostly in the characters’ psyches. These poor people should not be dealing with each other! But somehow, out of their interaction comes a sense not just of redemption but also of transcendence — somehow. At least, that’s how I remember feeling at the time I was reading it, but now, looking back, I can’t believe it’s true — Arrowby is despicable. It seems unlikely that I’d have forgiven him.

But then, the book is full of things unlikely. In particular, Arrowby runs into his first love, now a seemingly unhappily married old woman. He becomes obsessed with taking her away and beginning the life they should have begun some forty years earlier. Redemption, at last?

I left in store with that first love so much of my innocence and gentleness which I later destroyed and denied, and which is yet now perhaps at last available again. Can a woman’s ghost, after so many years, open the doors of the heart?

He’s not that innocent, and his love is not pure, though he consistently excuses himself, sometimes by admitting half of the truth.

What indeed was I planning to do? I was in a state which I well knew was close to a sort of madness, and yet I was not mad. Some kinds of obsessions, of which being in love is one, paralyze the ordinary free-wheeling of the mind, its natural open interested curious mode of being, which is sometimes persuasively defined as rationality. I was sane enough to know that I was in a state of total obsession and that I could only think, over and over again, certain agonizing thoughts, could only run continually along the same rat-paths of fantasy and intent. But I was not sane enough to interrupt this mechanical movement or even to desire to do so.

Arrowby is not the kind of man I would like to know in my old age. Here he is telling a story that puts him and his life in such a high position that readers who are not looking closely will not read the guilt, the pain, and the emptiness of his life, though it’s there. Much is hidden. Probably he hides it so well by seeming to admit to being somewhat vulnerable at times, but such confessions more effectively throw us off his trail. We also do not get a clear glimpse at the other characters because Arrowby himself does not fully comprehend those around him. While this may sound like a typical case of an unreliable narrator, Murdoch expertly uses this to explore the themes of egoism and jealousy, and even the unreliability of the whole narrative.

Of course this chattering diary is a façade, the literary equivalent of the everyday smiling face which hids the inward ravages of jealousy, remorse, fear and the consciousness of irretrievable moral failure. Yet such pretenses are not only consolations but may even be productive of a little ersatz courage.

Even though I found the story implausible and the characters unlikeable, I found myself reading this book compulsively, often when I should have been doing something else. It says a lot for Murdoch that I’d gladly spend my time in this man’s head. I now don’t remember some of the more ambitious themes in the novel, though at the time I dipped my toes into them; I was much more interested in Arrowby’s voice.

I was also pulled in by Murdoch’s mastery of atmosphere: the bead curtain, the red room, the sea itself are all presences throughout the book. She uses them to great effect to create moods and to reflect the flow of the novel. There are some beautiful passages that I’d love to put into this blog, but since it’s already too long, I will resist the temptation.

This book is not a straightforward story with a clear plot. One of the great things about this book is that whenever the narrator lets his reader know his intentions, he never complies, he never gets around to doing anything he says he is going to do. It’s like a long list of failed plans.

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