Jesse's Reviews > The Sea, the Sea

The Sea, the Sea by Iris Murdoch
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Jan 08, 12

bookshelves: brit-lit, read-in-2011
Read from December 26 to 31, 2011

I found this both repelling and compulsive, and the more repulsed I became the less capable I seemed of putting it down. I was hooked just several pages in, enamored with the elegant, elegiac tone of Charles Arrowby's attempts at composing a memoir/diary after exiling himself to a remote seaside home to live in monastic isolation. Via Arrowby, Murdoch's prose takes on a sea-like quality, the ebb-and-flow of memories and musings churning together present and past to the point where the edges of reality and unreality begin to blur imperceptibly. I settled in for what I fully expected to be more or less an intelligent and eerie psychological thriller.

But just as it was not meant for Arrowby to enjoy his solitude, so I was quickly jumbled out of any conceptions that I was in for a graceful memory piece. Suddenly figures from Arrowby's past begin showing up uninvited at his doorstep, culminating with the unexpected reappearance of a lost first love, setting off a string of increasingly erratic behavior that quickly threaten to become dangerous.

It took a while for me to adjust to such a drastic change of narrative trajectory, but as it went along I began to appreciate the grand guignol absurdity of it all. And it wasn't, I admit, until just about the very end that I realized how the incongruent-seeming opening does indeed set up nicely the rest of the novel: reported to be the premiere interpreter of Shakespeare of his day, isn't it natural, maybe even inevitable that Arrowby's life takes on an expansive Shakespearian theatricality?

"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages."


-Shakespeare, As You Like It

And that kind of sums up my final response to The Sea, The Sea—creaky, isolated Shruff End is not the place of escape and seclusion Arrowby intends it to be, but is merely an empty stage upon which the figures of his past, present and possibly his future appear with a theatrical punctuality, reciting their lines, performing their small roles and disappearing again into the wings again until called upon again to reappear on cue around Arrowby as he plays his "many parts," from a wizened Prospero to a tragic Lear to a pathetically misguided attempt at Romeo and Juliet that quickly deteriorates into a truly horrific parody of Taming of the Shrew.

Did I enjoy The Sea, The Sea? I can't honestly say that I did. I'm not even sure that I liked it per se. But it did compel me to descend into a unique type of claustrophobic madness, creating a literary experience of a type that I've never quite experienced before, which is saying something indeed. My true reaction is suspended somewhere between three and four stars, but considering that the only other Murdoch novel I've read has continued to grow in stature in my memory, I gladly give the novel the benefit of the doubt and round my rating up.


The past and the present are so close, so almost one, as if time were an artificial teasing out of material which longs to join, to interpenetrate, and to become heavy and very small like some of those heavenly bodies scientists tell us of."
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Reading Progress

12/26/2011 page 117
22.0% "I've been inspired to take to my journal again."
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message 1: by Sketchbook (new)

Sketchbook Terrific review. You summed it all up--.


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