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Booker Prize for Fiction > 1978 Winner: The Sea, the Sea

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message 1: by Trevor (last edited Oct 04, 2016 11:43AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Trevor (mookse) | 1842 comments Mod
The Sea, the Sea, by Iris Murdoch

The Sea the Sea

1978
502 pp

Charles Arrowby, leading light of England's theatrical set, retires from glittering London to an isolated home by the sea. He plans to write a memoir about his great love affair with Clement Makin, his mentor both professionally and personally, and to amuse himself with Lizzie, an actress he has strung along for many years. None of his plans work out, and his memoir evolves into a riveting chronicle of the strange events and unexpected visitors--some real, some spectral--that disrupt his world and shake his oversized ego to its very core.

In exposing the jumble of motivations that drive Arrowby and the other characters, Iris Murdoch lays bare "the truth of untruth"--the human vanity, jealousy, and lack of compassion behind the disguises they present to the world. Played out against a vividly rendered landscape and filled with allusions to myth and magic, Charles's confrontation with the tidal rips of love and forgiveness is one of Murdoch's most moving and powerful tales.


message 2: by Paul (last edited Oct 03, 2016 02:58PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8515 comments Malcolm Bradbury's parody had Murdoch down to a tee

"Lavinia had thrown down her lilies and now stood facing Alex. 'Alex,' she said with sudden passion, 'I have resigned from the presidency of the WI.' The words struck a sudden chill over him, and he knew that the shapeliness and order about him were about to be violated."

Lavinia then continues

"'I am in love with Fred.'

'You can't be,' said Alex, speaking without thought, absorbed in his own misery, Augustina is in love with Fred, Hugo is in love with Augustina, Flavia is in love with Hugo, Fred is in love with Flavia, Moira is in love with Fred, I am in love with Moira, and you are in love with me.'

'No, Fred ... Hugo ... Alex rather,' said Lavinia, her voice trembling, I'm afraid you have it all the wrong way round. I am in love with Fred, you are in love with me, Moira is in love with you, and you utterly missed out Leo, who is as unutterably particular as anyone else, and who is in love with Moira.'"


Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8515 comments Ultimately don't think this has aged that well. The florid prose and mystical elements do feel very much of their time.

But Appleby is a memorable central character.

Are we judging this shortlist as if we were in 1978 or as if these novels were entered into today's prize?


Hugh (bodachliath) | 3110 comments Mod
I find that the more one reads of Iris Murdoch, the more you forgive her stylistic quirks and bizarre plotting. I probably won't be re-reading this as it is a long book and I have too much else available, but I'll certainly keep an eye on what others have to say.


message 5: by Trudie (new)

Trudie (trudieb) Ha ! Thanks for the parody quote there Paul.

In terms of judging these novels I think two discussions could be had - how they measure up with the competition within the short list and maybe with other literature of 1978. So consider ing them within their historical context.

And then separately how they have aged and how they compare to more recent Booker nominated novels.


message 6: by Dan (new)

Dan Thanks, Trudie: your perspective on the two discussions is helpful.


message 7: by Karen (last edited Nov 25, 2016 07:57AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Karen (bookertalk) | 41 comments This was one Booker winner I didnt expect to enjoy. But the characterisation of Arrowby tipped the balance. Here's my review from last year https://bookertalk.com/2016/07/21/the...


Hugh (bodachliath) | 3110 comments Mod
I seem to have forgotten the memorable Appleby. Charles Arrowby I do remember better, though as with so many of Murdoch's characters she subjects him to some pretty strange mood swings and behavioural quirks. I read this book a few years ago while on a walking trip in Cornwall, and the two seemed to go together pretty well...
Oh and I quite liked this article:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/boo...


message 9: by Trevor (last edited Oct 04, 2016 11:26AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Trevor (mookse) | 1842 comments Mod
I'm definitely one who loved the book because of Arrowby. I still remember delighting in his snobbery as he described the potatoes he was preparing (and I remember wanting some of those potatoes, a testament to Arrowby's believe in his superiority of taste since the potatoes actually sound quite awful if taken at face value). I despise how he portrays Hartley, and yet I couldn't stop reading. What a ridiculous man, and I think that's why I forgave completely some of the ridiculousness of the book itself.

That's a great article, Hugh. I think Sam nails it.


Trevor (mookse) | 1842 comments Mod
Here's my old review of The Sea, the Sea. I wrote it in mid-2008 (a few months after I'd read the book, actually):

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.


message 11: by Paul (last edited Oct 04, 2016 02:01PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8515 comments Hugh wrote: "I seem to have forgotten the memorable Appleby. Charles Arrowby I do remember better.."

whoops - I haven't even got the excuse of having read it back in 1987 as I read it in 2015 and the name confusion is in my original review as well.

I must have had a William Tell fixation at the time!


message 12: by Trudie (new)

Trudie (trudieb) So.. this book is now making it's way to me from my local library, giving myself plenty of time to get through it. Doing a trawl back through my reading I have a faint recollection of reading The Bell by Murdoch - I think there were Nuns involved.
It obviously didn't leave a big impression but I am cautiously looking forward to this one.


Karen (bookertalk) | 41 comments I hesitated about reading The Sea The Sea for so long fearing it would be terribly esoteric but in fact I found it to be hilarious in part.


message 14: by Nicole (last edited Nov 01, 2016 03:33AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Nicole | 115 comments I haven't read this book since high school, and had forgotten virtually everything about it except some of the bizarre and possibly supernatural experiences of the narrator, which I suppose I remembered with distaste. Since then I have read many, many Iris Murdoch novels, with great pleasure, and this one had come to seem less successful than her others in the haze of my memory, as I replaced it with the Black Prince, the Sacred and Profane Love Machine, or the Green Knight.

Reading it again now, I think I have been wrong. This book is much better than I remember, and decidedly mesmerizing. Contrary to some others, I think it has aged extremely well, and unless something goes very off in future pages, it's shaping up to be one of Murdoch's best efforts. It's also made me reconsider what she actually does best (but more on that below).

So this quote, from a conversation with Peregrine which made me think both men are deeply disturbed and much to be pitied, has me thinking:

I don't despise women. I was in love with all Shakespeare's heroines before I was twelve.

The serious problems with this claim are, I think, immediately and even sort of pathetically obvious to the reader, as are the possible ties to Charles' bizarre obsession with Hartley (which I doubt would or could have continued if he had been forced to have real relationship with her as an actual person over years of shared history, instead of pining and romanticizing and deciding he could never love again).

But what it has me thinking about most is the technique and idea of the unreliable narrator. Certainly Charles is unreliable in the extreme, but it's not because he lies (though he almost certainly does), nor because he is deluded and incapable of seeing himself clearly (though he certainly is), but because he is a subjective human being expressing things as they are from his point of view.

I guess it occurs to me (as it has in the past when reading a Roberston Davies trilogy of first person narratives) that there is a difference between saying a narrator is unreliable and saying that he is so fully realized as a person that the narrative puts you fully and completely inside his viewpoint. Indeed, the emphasis on the unreliable narrator as both a judgment and a technique can make it seem like it's a cheap gimmick, and also like the correct response to such a character is to see through him, find his weakness, judge him, and find him wanting.

I do not think that this is at all what is going on here, and perhaps many first person narratives actually go quite far beyond the observation that they have an "unreliable" narrator.

It also makes me reexamine what I have always though to be Iris Murdoch's strongest features as a writer. I have long had a tendency to hold up her third person narratives, peopled with a wide variety of flawed and bizarre characters who are then placed into equally flawed and bizarre situations as sort of the quintessential Murdoch. They are almost like little experiments: create them, set them amid stressors and difficulties, watch them run and then record these results in your big book of the philosophy of the particular.

I do still love this mode, and think it is one very good way into a novel of ideas, a philosophical novel -- Henry and Cato, the Book and the Brotherhood, the aforementioned Sacred and Profane Love Machine, A Fairly Honourable Defeat -- these are all successes in this mode (imho). The Green Knight even incorporates the perspective of the family dog. But with TSTS, I am reminded that Murdoch did also write successfully in the first person, and these efforts are no less serious and intriguing a contribution. It has me wanting to re-read the Black Prince, even before I have properly finished this one.

Anyway, enough of this long and rambling post, back to the couch and the cat and the novel.


message 15: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8515 comments Very interesting point about the unreliable narrator who is simply but realistically subjective, and the more gimmicky version that is perhaps too prevalent elsewhere.


message 16: by Jonathan (last edited Dec 06, 2016 06:19AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Jonathan Pool My review:
I had high hopes and expectations for The Sea, The Sea. Iris Murdoch is regarded as a literary Titan; this is a prize winning book; a number of members of the Mookse Group have lauded The Sea, The Sea.

My expectations were dashed, as comprehensively as the rocky shoreline in The Sea, The Sea destroys the unwary.

Were it not for the fact that Murdoch is a woman, telling a story through the eyes of a male narrator, I would have parked this book in the space reserved for embittered male writers. Kingsley Amis shortlisted this same year (1978).
The style of writing, and sentiments expressed, by Amis and Murdoch, barely differ.
Amis is well known for his misogyny; but it's Murdoch's narrator who opines:

" I do not even care for sharing a bed,and I rarely want to spend the whole night with a woman I have made love to. In the morning she looks to me like a whore" p 57
A friend, remarking on Arrowby's being single and hence lack of marital tie to a woman, says:
" You're a lucky dog. Good clean fun every time and then you ditch them"p176

The Amis/Murdoch comparison seems valid (I have not read other Murdoch work so this may be unrepresentative); and for this waspish style of writing Amis the more amusing.
Murdoch seems more embittered:
" it is stupid and immoral to go to expensive crowded restaurants to be served with bad food by contemptuous waiters and turned out before one is ready to go" p172

Amis the more ironic
"The food wasn't much good and they were rather nasty to you, but then it cost quite a lot" p91

As I read The Sea, The Sea I felt the influence of Marcel Proust (referred to by Murdoch p189) ; though this was a poor imitation. Swann's pursuit of Odette and Arrowby's obsession for Hartley are both played out in a continuous, minutely detailed, loop.
I was also reminded of Thomas Bernhard's narrator in The Woodcutters as Arrowby's thespian bitchiness and contemptuous dismissal of his friends and peers, is given full reign. Bernhard was writing a few years later, I appreciate.

Books featuring loners and monologues entertain for a while, but rarely for five hundred pages (Joyce the exception)
Several times I found The Sea, The Sea long winded and repetitive;
Arrowby at the denouement of the book:
"I got up, feeling horribly giddy and climbed upstairs and lay on my bed and fell into a sort of sleep coma. I woke later on, not sure if it was morning or afternoon and feeling less giddy but rather mad. I went down to the kitchen and ate some cheese, then went back to bed again"p482

A succession of characters beat a path to Arrowbys door.
The idea that a egotistical, capricious, self promoter, could exert such influence and draw people to him seems mildly ridiculous.
The supporting characters made cameo appearances, as though in the different acts of a play. Clement features at the tail end of the book (supposedly a significant person) with little or no integration into the life picture of Arrowby that had been developed for the reader.

When I consider the extent of the amazing literature out there, and reflect that The Sea, The Sea won the Booker prize in 1978 I can only conclude that this was a reward for an esteemed writer with a series of near misses.


message 17: by Dan (new)

Dan Jonathan wrote: "The idea that a egotistical, capricious, self promoter, could exert such influence and draw people to him seems mildly ridiculous." Follow the recent U.S. presidential election much, Jonathan?

On a more serious note but on a less worrisome topic, I only really enjoyed The Sea, The Sea on my second reading, undertaken solely because of this forum. Dame Iris was about 60 years of age when The Sea, The Sea was published, and her so convincingly creating a "book in the space reserved for embittered male writers" does speak to her powers of imagination. I found Arrowby and his romantic, culinary, and theatric obsessions sad and affecting, although I would have no desire to meet or share a meal with him.


message 18: by Hugh (new) - rated it 5 stars

Hugh (bodachliath) | 3110 comments Mod
I have read 15 other novels by Iris Murdoch, and Charles Arrowby did not strike me as any more implausible or unsympathetic than many of her other characters - but then many of her characters seem implausible at face value and she does play with them like a malevolent Greek God - I don't think she was interested in persuading people to identify with the characters. She clearly did have a sense of humour and mischief, and this is something that all of the 1978 shortlist with the possible exception of Brink seem to share.


message 19: by Ang (last edited Dec 09, 2016 01:29AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ang | 1685 comments I enjoyed The Sea, The Sea, but I think I would have enjoyed it more if it were shorter. I am no expert on what could be cut, but 539 pages seems excessive for the subject matter. Much of it was farcical, which is not my genre of choice. It might also relate to the timing of when I've been trying to get through it. Nothing seems very funny at the moment.

I can, however, appreciate that Iris Murdoch was a great writer. The portrayal was vivid.


Meike (meikereads) Just like Ang, I think this book could have been way shorter. While the characterization of Arrowby with all his delusions and narcissism is extremely well done (and it's fun following him through the story not although, but because he is such a douche), I felt like the rest of the story simply functions as a mirror for the protagonist and the whole story arc is intentionally contrived - for me, it was Arrowby who was the only character or overall feature of the text that did seem real.

Here's my review.


Robert | 1974 comments I'm a big fan of this book, probably in my top 10 novels of all time. The Sea, The Sea is Iris Murdoch displaying all her powers; first class writing, an intriguing plot and there's the symbolism of the Sea and the 'Monster'. I think it's also a good place to start if you've never read Murdoch (or the Nice and the Good but that goes into Enid Blyton territory towards the end)


message 22: by Patrick (new)

Patrick Murtha Robert wrote: "I'm a big fan of this book, probably in my top 10 novels of all time. The Sea, The Sea is Iris Murdoch displaying all her powers; first class writing, an intriguing plot and there's the symbolism o..."

Somehow I have missed reading Murdoch up to now, so I am grateful for this recommendation.


message 23: by Hugh (new) - rated it 5 stars

Hugh (bodachliath) | 3110 comments Mod
This is not the easiest Murdoch to start with, but it is quite representative of her writing. Meike's criticism "the whole story arc is intentionally contrived" could apply to most of them. For me this one was very strong on atmosphere.


Jonathan Pool Of all the books, of all the message trails to re- ignite.. And it's The Sea, The Sea.
This is bringing back terrible memories.


Robert | 1974 comments Meike wrote: "Just like Ang, I think this book could have been way shorter. While the characterization of Arrowby with all his delusions and narcissism is extremely well done (and it's fun following him through ..."

The more you read Murdoch the more you'll notice that there's a formula

Misfit (most of the time it is a male)- Misfit has a chance to redeem himself - misfit encounter philosophical symbols - misfit rejects or accepts the chance to redeem.


Meike (meikereads) Robert wrote: "The more you read Murdoch the more you'll notice that there's a formula..."

That's interesting! While I clearly see Murdoch's strengths and why she is lauded, I think she won't become a favorite of mine - the characterization of Arrowby is fantastic, but there wasn't much else there for me. It's certainly funny and the language is good, but I was longing for more layers - just as Arrowby, the story revolves around itself, which makes sense in the narrative context, but it pretty much exhausted me. When this framework of the story is rooted in the formula you describe, that scares me off a little! :-)

Well, the Booker has something for everyone in our group, and I think Murdoch is not necessarily for me! :-)


message 27: by Hugh (last edited Jan 16, 2018 01:25AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Hugh (bodachliath) | 3110 comments Mod
I don't think they are quite as formulaic as Robert suggests. I have read 16 of them. Some of them have female leads, and some of them are more group stories than individual narratives. The Red and the Green, her first book Under the Net and The Unicorn are all very different to the others I have read.


message 28: by Robert (last edited Jan 16, 2018 01:26AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Robert | 1974 comments Hugh wrote: "I don't think they are quite as formulaic as Robert suggests. I have read 16 of them. Some of them have female leads, and some of them are more group stories than individual narratives. [book:The R..."

That's true I did exaggerate but when you do read them in one go (as I did in the early 2000's when Vintage redesigned the covers) they blur a bit. Under the Net is totally different though as Murdoch tried to write an experimental novel.


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