Not all at sea with Iris Murdoch

TheSeaTheSeaMy experience with Iris Murdoch’s work has not been a happy one. Maybe I just chose the wrong titles but I found her a bit impenetrable. Hence why I have procrastinated for more than three years about reading her Booker winning title The Sea The Sea. I knew I would have to tackle it at some point as part of my Booker project. But every time I picked up this fairly big book (538 pages of very closely typed text) I found an excuse not to get further than page 5.

The reactions of Andy Miller in A Year of Reading Dangerously compounded my feeling this would be a slog and one maybe I should delay getting to for as long as possible.  In essence he said it was a long book with a distasteful protagonist, in which nothing much happened but there were many descriptions about meals (inedible concotions often) and the sea. None of which exactly had me racing to the shelf.

But me and Murdoch have finally squared up to each other.

And you know what? It’s nowhere near as bad as I was expecting.

What’s more – I am actually enjoying it.

Yes it does, in Charles Arrowby, have a narrator I would dread finding sat next to me on a long train journey. But Murdoch makes him deliciously awful, a wonderful satire on a totally self-satisfied, pompous and deluded man. Arrowby has left his glittering career as a theatre director to live in seclusion in a creaky, run-down house by the sea. He spends his days swimming, watching out for sea monsters and making rather disgusting meals. In between he deals with past lovers and  encounters his first love, Mary Hartley Fitch. He decides she must still be in love with him. Her  marriage must be an unhappy one. It must be his duty to rescue her.

As you’d expect from the title, the sea plays a major role in the book. It’s always beautifully described. As are some of the ridiculously comic scenes when Arrowby’s past loves descend on the house.

Iris, I fear I have wronged you.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on November 14, 2015, in Man Booker Prize and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 22 Comments.

  1. I was also prepared to be bored by this book for the reasons that you mentioned, but like you, I also enjoyed it. I love this kind of surprise and revelation.

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  2. Hooray! So glad you are enjoying the book! I read it and enjoyed it quite a few years ago. Arrowby is deliciously awful isn’t he?

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  3. That’s really interesting as I find a lot of the Booker prize novels impenetrable and the runners up more approachable. To find that an impenetrable authors book is more readable is intriguing. (I have it on my shelf and will get to it in the future at some point.)

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    • Some of them are more impenetrable than others (The Famished Road is the worst so far of the ones I’ve read). But there are plenty of winners that are highly readable. Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively is wonderful, Hotel du Lac is another.

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  4. So glad you are liking it after all. Sometimes it pays to go in with low expectations!

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  5. This was my first Murdoch and I loved it – I think it’s up there with ‘Brave New World’ as a Tempest adaptation … right up to the extreme weirdness at the end (trying to avoid spoilers)

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  6. I’m glad to hear you are enjoying this one. One of my closest friends is a huge fan of Murdoch, and The Sea The Sea is her personal favourite. For some reason, I’ve always felt a little daunted by the prospect of reading it, but your experience is very encouraging.

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    • Daunting sums it up perfectly. She was such an intellectual that I feared I would drown. Maybe some of the others are more impenetrable than this one but its given me courage to try something by her again in the future

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  7. Haha Karen, I know exactly what you mean. My first Murdoch, An unofficial rose, put me off for a decade or more. Like you, I found it impenetrable but then in the late 80s I read The green knight, followed in the 90s and very early 2000s by The bell and The sea, the sea, and I enjoyed all of these with The sea, the sea being my favourite. The bell was in fact earlier than Rose so it’s not simply early versus late. Next I’d like to read The Italian girl, but that may be a while off yet. I think I won’t try Under the net!

    Anyhow, glad to hear that I wasn’t the only one!

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    • Reading a little about her it seems that her work varied hugely in quality so it may be just a case of finding the right one. Theres a fascinating biography just realised about her – she was quite a handful..

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  8. I haven’t read any Murdoch, but have this one in the 746 so will have to tackle it at some point.

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  9. kaggsysbookishramblings

    I struggled with my one attempt at Iris – in fact, I actually tried twice to read “Under the Net” and failed. I have this on the shelves though, and I’m pleased to hear it’s readable! 🙂

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  10. Good to know you are enjoying this. I have a fair number of titles by this author on my shelf.

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  11. this is the only one I have read by her and I like it although it is one that takes tim e to get into not read any since

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