The sea, the sea by Iris Murdoch
Reviewed by Sandra Horn
This is a book I would not have chosen to read, but for the imperatives inherent in belonging to a Book Group. It was next on the list, so I read it, and I’m glad. I have not always enjoyed Iris Murdoch’s writing; I have found some of her characters repugnant and their motives incomprehensible, so why did I become so engaged with the story of this one, Charles Arrowby, from whom anyone in their right mind would run, screaming? The quality of the writing is the answer. The well-honed art and the craft of storytelling .
When Charles Arrowby, actor, playwright, director, decides to retire, he attempts to leave his theatrical past well and truly behind him by moving to a dilapidated, isolated house on a rocky shore by the sea. He likens himself to Prospero. He craves, or thinks he does, seclusion. He wants to live simply: swimming, walking, concocting simple, eccentric meals , reflecting on his life in tranquility and (perhaps) repenting of his egotistical past. These are his stated intentions in the journal (or diary or memoir) he writes.
The theatre is certainly a place of learning about the brevity of human glory: oh all those wonderful glittering absolutely vanished pantomimes! Now I shall abjure magic and become a hermit: put myself in a situation where I can honestly say that I have nothing else to do but to learn to be good.
His life in the theatre had brought him a certain amount of fame in the wider world, but among his colleagues his fame was rather more as a marriage-wrecker and a serial abandoner of a succession of women. He has never married: I wanted a wife once when I was young, but the girl fled. He believes that this first love, which began in childhood, is something he never truly relinquished and that it is with him still. It might also be the reason for his inability to be faithful to any other woman – or so he tells himself.
Charles’ life of quiet solitude rapidly becomes anything but. He is visited by discarded mistresses, an ex-husband of one, his wealthier and much-envied cousin James and others from his past. Lizzie wants him back, Rosina wants to punish him, Peregrine tries (perhaps) to kill him. Then his first childhood love, Hartley, reappears: he sees an old village woman who resembles her, and then when he sees her again, clearly illuminated in car headlights, he is in no doubt. She is married and shows no signs of wanting to leave her husband to be with Charles, but he refuses to believe that she means what she says. He is sure that she is unhappy and that she has always loved him. He pursues her relentlessly, insanely, at one point kidnapping her and locking her up. Nothing that she or indeed anyone else can say or do, shakes his conviction that she loves him. Finally, her distress is such that he lets her go, but he is still convinced that he can win her back. When she and her husband flee from him by emigrating to Australia, it is still not quite over for Charles. He imagines going to Sydney and seeking her out. He thinks perhaps they didn’t go at all, it was a trick to put him off, and are lurking somewhere like Lytham St Annes. But he does not act upon these thoughts. He is weary. He sells the sea house and settles back in London, in the flat his cousin James left him. In the end he reaches some kind of inner peace about Hartley:
The fallibility of memory and its feeble range make perfect reconciliations impossible. But there is no doubt that Hartley was afflicted, and no doubt that she did, as I thought at first, sometimes feel sorry that she had lost me. She came to me, she ran to me, that was no dream…
One can be too ingenious in trying to search out the truth. Sometimes one must simply respect its veiled face.
This is the very bare bones of the story – but this is Iris Murdoch, and bare bones won’t do. There is a sea-monster, seen only by Charles, which may be a flashback to a dose of LSD, or is perhaps a portent or a Jungian symbol – although if it does represent the dark and convoluted side of his persona, he doesn’t seem to learn anything from it. Hartley’s adopted son dies tragically in a drowning accident. Is this Charles’ fault? Why did he fail to warn the boy about the currents? Cousin James is not only a retired army officer but a mystic with (possibly) supernatural powers. He may have willed his own death – if indeed he is dead at all and not the perpetrator of a hoax to allow him to disappear. He has left behind, among other Oriental arcana, a closed box, believed by Charles to contain demons. At the end of the book, it is shaken off the wall by building works next door, and comes open…
This is a long, long story, with many twists and side-steps. I kept thinking it was too long, but yet I couldn’t leave it. Charles is at best an unattractive , obsessive character, at worst an egomaniac with a streak of indifference to the suffering of others amounting to cruelty, yet somehow he evokes sympathy. He blunders about causing mayhem in the lives of those around him; he adheres to his own self-seeking version of events in the face of all evidence to the contrary, and yet one wants him to survive and be at peace. Perhaps we recognize in him those wild delusions and egocentric preoccupations we all suffer from, but usually in private. We don’t act on them, because we know it would be bad for us and those around us; we’ve been brought up to suppress them for the greater good. Perhaps there is a sneaking admiration, albeit mixed with a certain amount of horror and enjoyable disapproval, for someone like Charles who lets his impulses lead him where they will, and the devil take the consequences.