The Sea The Sea – Iris Murdoch (1978)

Does anyone still read Iris Murdoch these days?  She seems to have gone out of fashion.  I haven’t read her since 1997 when “The Green Knight” (1993), one of her later novels, really did nothing for me but back in the early-mid 80’s I read quite a few and one of my favourites was this 1978 Booker Prize winning title. I couldn’t actually remember any details of what it was about but I have over the years experienced occasional echoes of what I recalled as a very atmospheric piece which has the sea central to the characters and plot.

Actually, on re-read the sea wasn’t quite as omnipresent as I thought I remembered.  This is the tale of Charles Arrowby, a notable aging thespian, who retires to a simple life in a pretty ropey house close to the sea in order to escape London life.  The novel starts off as his memoir, a record of the women in his life, until the people he is writing about appear back in his isolated existence.  At first it seems almost as if he is hallucinating, early on he spots what he believes to be a sea monster in the waves and with people from his past re-appearing the reader suspects he is losing his grip on his mental faculties.  But, however implausible their reasons for being back in his life they are there and this coming and going at one point resembles a theatrical farce.  When he re- encounters the person he saw as the love of his life the novel shifts into a record of obsession.

Mid-way through I was finding it quite magnificent with the always fairly obnoxious Charles out of control, misjudging situations and behaving inappropriately.  It feels like it has come to a conclusion in a couple of places but Murdoch continues the tale using her love of analysis and philosophy which is both characteristic of her as a writer and occasionally a little wearying which might explain why she is not read as much as she used to be. She is not an easy read, her references make the text quite dense and there is much navel-gazing from her characters.  I remembered why I liked her so much and why I also found her frustrating but I was left with the general impression that I didn’t enjoy this as much as I did the first time round decades ago. The world she creates seems more alien now, it is not always easy to get what is motivating the characters and particularly here why Charles Arrowby is considered an attractive proposition when he is so hard to like. I did very much like the magnetic pull of the sea which she describes brilliantly throughout.

I’m not sure whether the Iris Murdoch revival is imminent but I was glad to revisit as she is one of those people whose demise has overshadowed her work.  The accounts of her heart-breaking dementia in her final years have been famously portrayed by her husband in writing and film adaptation and the image I have had stuck in my mind is this fervently intellectual mind ending up devouring episodes of “Teletubbies”.  Reading a work from when she was in her prime has rebalanced this for me.

The Sea The Sea was first published in 1978.  I read a Vintage Classics paperback edition.