The Sea, The Sea glared at me from my bookshelf for five years. I glared back. It was a feat of endurance. Who would be the first to break? Well of course the answer is clear, if I was going to complete my quest to read all the Booker Prize winners then the battle of wills between myself and Iris Murdoch would have to come to an end. I did not relish the occasion having tried on more than one occasion to read her work (I still have the scars of The Black Prince which started off reasonably but became more and more confusing with its possible multiple intepretations of the theme of erotic obsession). After a few more false starts I put her into the category of “too damn difficult and obscure”.
And so I embarked on The Sea, The Sea which won the 1978 prize girding my reading loins for more of the same challenge.
What a revelation awaited me.
This was not a book of obscure erudite philosophical meanderings but a darn good read that at many points hilariously ridiculous.
It’s impact comes from the central character of Charles Arrowby, an esteemed London theatre director who has recently retired to a seaside cottage in the south of England. There he plans to write his memoirs, with particular focus on a woman called Clement who was once his lover as well as his mentor. He doesn’t have a great success in love having toyed with the affections of two actresses believing he has power over them when in fact the reverse becomes apparent.
We get a blow by blow account of his life in a cottage that might come with a Martello tower but is clearly a pretty down at heel property. His days are filled with doing battle with rough waves in the cove near his home ( he sees himself as a skilful, fearless swimmer who can sport like a dolphin) and preparing bizarre concoctions that he thinks of as a product of his “felicitous gastric intelligence” but to me felt rather disgusting.
Here’s one of the more reasonable menu offerings:
For lunch, I may say, I ate and greatly enjoyed the following: anchovy paste on hot buttered toast, then baked beans and kidney beans with chopped celery, tomatoes, lemon juice and olive oil. (Really good olive oil i essential, the kind with a taste, I have brought a supply from London) …. Then bananas and cream with white sugar (Bananas should be cut, never mashed, and the cream should be thin). Then hard water-bicscuits with New Zealand butter and Wensleydale cheese. Of course I never touch foreign cheeses. Our cheeses are the best in the world. With this feast I drank most of a bottle of Muscadet out of my modest celler.
A few days later he is extolling the delights of his dinner:
… an egg poached in hot scrambled egg, then the coley braised with onions and lightly dusted with curry powder, and service with a little tomato ketchup and mustard. (Only a fool despises tomato ketchup). Then a heavenly rice pudding. It is fairly easy to make a very good rice pudding but how often do you meet one?
You get the idea from the asides that Charles is a man who has many foibles, opinions and ideas but not all of them can be relied upon as accurate. That Charles is an unreliable chronicler of his life becomes evident when he discovers that the former love of his life, a girl called Hartley, is living in the village near his cottage. Though she is married with an adult age son this doesn’t stop Charles deciding that now is the time to rekindle that love and that Hartley needs rescuing. She never gives him any real evidence that she needs him to act the knight in shining armour but Charles ploughs on regardless, even to the point of abducting her and keeping her hostage in his home.
Meanwhile his former friends and lovers keep dropping in unannounced to try and talk sense into him beyond his rose-tinted version of a new life with Hartley. Rosina gives him a dose of reality:
She’s timid. She’s shy, she must feel terribly inadequate and mousy and dull… she probably feels ashamed of her dull husband and feels protective about him and resentful against you. … She’d bore you , darling, bore you into a frenzy and she knows it, poor dear. She’s an old-age pensioner, she wants to rest now, she wants to put her feet up and watch television, not to have disturbances and adventures. … You’ re used to witty unconventional women and you’re an old bachelor anyway, you couldn’t really stand living with anybody, unless it was a clever old friend like me.
Inevitably all his plans unravel.
In Murdoch gives us a tremendous portrait of a man of middle to advancing age subsumed by jealousy and vanity and capable of letting his egotistical self damage those around him. With this novel I might well have slain my Murdoch dragons.