Shane's Reviews > The Sea, The Sea

The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch
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This is a weird book peopled by a cast of weird characters who weave in and out of the narrative like a bunch of actors in a farcical play garnished with bits of Buddhist philosophy, magic, and a heck of a lot of soul searching.

Charles Arrowby, a celebrated Shakespearean theatre director, has retired and moved to a remote house in the countryside overlooking the sea with the intention of writing a memoir about the lover and woman who started him on his theatrical career, Clement. He cooks, swims and writes in his diary, but he writes about everything else but the memoir on Clement, although he makes many false starts in that area. Then a series of people from his past life in London start showing up on the doorstep, to stay with him, argue with him, haunt him, taunt him and live off his largesse. There is Lizzie, a forty something actress and former lover, who is still very much in love with Charles, and her gay roomie, Gilbert; the wicked temptress Rosina and her drunkard ex-husband Peregrine (Charles stole Rosina from Peregrine long ago but they are still good friends); James, Charles’ rich and celebrated cousin who is a general in the army and a Buddhist with a passion for Tibet; Hartley, Charles’s first and unrequited love, and her bullying husband Ben; and Titus, the adopted son of Hartley and Ben, whom Charles would like to adopt.

In a sudden, irrational desire to relive and put right his aborted prior relationship with Hartley, Charles kidnaps her and holds her prisoner in his house, much to the chagrin of his houseguests. The stakes ratchet up and people are mysteriously pushed into the sea, others drown, and those least suspected confess to the crimes. In between, Murdoch slips into her preferred mode as philosopher over author, and, using James the Buddhist, spouts off pearls of wisdom for the reader and for the hapless Charles. Some interesting lines caught my attention:
“Emotions lie at the top or bottom of personality. In the middle, they are acted. That is why all the world’s a stage.”
“Every persistent marriage is based on fear.”
“White magic is black magic. A less-than perfect meddling in the spirit world can create demons for others.”
“Leave the past in the past. It cannot be recreated.”

The last statement is the moral of the story, for Hartley is no longer the youthful beauty of Charles’ youth; she is now a frumpy, indecisive, fear- ridden old woman, whom Charles woos with desperate entreaties that border on the ridiculous. Through his insane love for her, Charles also comes across as selfish, conniving, jealous and possessive. He likes the chase, but loses interest after the conquest. The relationships between the houseguests and Charles are like the effervescence of soda bottles: bubbling with warmth and caring one moment, flat and tepid the next. Charles is eventually brought to his senses by James that kidnapping a woman who is wedded to her husband through a combination of fear and bullying is not going to work, and Charles is forced to reverse plans.

After this tempest blows over and tragedy has struck the house by the sea, the remaining characters pair off and leave to form other ventures and associations, some in remote parts of the world. Charles is left alone, back where he started, with questions such as his relationship with Hartley and James answered, but with many more new questions stemming from what has transpired at the house by the sea, and he is forever to be preoccupied by them. And, alas, the memoir of Clement is never written. Yet, Murdoch is able to use the goings on in the house to surface questions on moral philosophy, and use the setting of the sea as a metaphor for the turbulence within Charles—at times he is in harmony especially when left alone, at others he is whipped into a storm of passion and rage by Hartley and Ben, or one of guilt by Toby, or one of jealousy by Lizzie and James. Magic intrudes in the forms of imaginary sea monsters that Charles sees on the eve of catastrophic events taking place, and James’ mastery of the dark arts provides for some interesting twists in the tale.

Although this book won the Booker, it is not my best Murdoch novel, for I found the relationships of the characters rather superficial, unless that was the author’s intention when depicting theatrical types. The actions of the characters were also contrived: people show up when a character is needed and then leave just as casually. The foreshadowing is crude: Charles simply tells you that something is going to happen, and then it does. There was also a lot of overwriting: Charles’s never-ending mental gymnastics when he puzzles over things can be irritating, and I kept skipping. The saving grace is the dialogue, which is funny and eccentrically British.

I guess for the Murdoch-aholic, this will be an essential read, for this novel is recorded as one of her defining works. I beg to differ.




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Started Reading
October 28, 2019 – Shelved
October 28, 2019 – Finished Reading

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