The Sea The Sea by Iris Murdoch – slaying the dragons

The Sea, The SeaThe 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.



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 July 21, 2016, in Book Reviews, Man Booker Prize and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 43 Comments.

  1. I love Murdoch. She loves to cast an ironic eye on the grandiose and their schemes and plans. How well she understood humanity–the absurdity of it and the occasional loyal loveliness.

  2. I’ve just finished this. Like you, I had been apprehensive about tackling Murdoch (although I’d never read anything else by her – just assumed she would be weighty and challenging). Like you, I was pleasantly surprised. Much of this book, particularly those parts revealing Arrowby’s pomposity, lack of self-awareness and utter self-delusion, is very funny. I found parts of it a bit odd and some of the prose a bit wordy, and I’m not sure that I fully understood all of the things that Murdoch was getting at (particularly some of the Buddhist stuff with James), but it’s definitely a book that will stay with me and it’s given me an appetite for more Murdoch.

    • Our experiences were indeed similar. I was astounded that Arrowby could be so self centred that he thought his ex girlfriend had put her life on hold waiting for him to come back and ‘rescue her’. If he was unreliable about that, I got to wondering what else was he unreliable about – maybe how glittering a career he had really had

  3. This has been on my shelf for a while and you’re making me want to read it. I’d say I’ll bump it up, but it’ll probably keep staring at me until I give in a few years from now.

  4. Ha – the Iris Murdoch Society has done a recipe book of her disgusting meals!! I’m glad you enjoyed this. Murdoch is my favourite author, I even love The Black Prince (though there are others I don’t love so much). I agree that The Bell is a good one to try, I also really like A Severed Head.

  5. Congrats on slaying the book beast!

  6. Wonderful review, Karen! I haven’t read an Iris Murdoch book yet, but now after reading your review, I want to try this one. Glad to know that you gave slain your Murdoch dragons 🙂

  7. LOL, Karen! I admit that when this popped up in my email, I thought, “Does Iris Murdoch write ‘fantasy’ with dragons and such?” Ha! Ha! But now I see… She supposedly didn’t allow publishers/editors to change her text one iota…not at all. That’s interesting in and of itself, isn’t it? Although I had none of her novels on my TBR list, I added this one and The Bell. Sounds like I shouldn’t even bother The Black Prince! 🙂

    • I wonder how she got away with that when she was a young and not well known author? I can see how once you become venerated publishers would feel she knew what she was doing but I imagine when she first met the publisher they wondered who the hell this upstart was getting all precious about her work

      • That could be, and perhaps she didn’t start doing that until after she’d published successfully. Having heard from quite a few authors about the changes their publisher’s forced them to make, I thought it noteworthy. About the only way you can have total control today is self-publishing.

  8. Hooray! Glad you liked it! I read so long ago the details are fuzzy but I still get a warm glow when I think about it so i consider that a good book.

  9. I haven’t even attempted Iris Murdoch, but I do like the sound of this one…great review!

  10. Well, NOW I want to read this (and am vaguely ashamed to admit that I looked at that coley/curry powder/ketchup meal and thought, “Sounds all right…”). I did try it when I was fifteen but didn’t have the stamina (and the typeface in my mum’s edition was very dense, which put me off, for some reason.) We have it on our bookshelves somewhere, I know; I’ll find it!

  11. This was my first Murdoch some years back and I remember being surprised by just how much I loved it, the disgusting meals and all. I’ve read a few more of her novels since then and would recommend The Bell.

  12. I’m glad to hear this is so good because I failed twice to get anywhere with “Under the Net” (just couldn’t care enough about what was happening to carry on reading it) but this one appealed and is on the shelves. I shall give it a go!

  13. Well, you did start with one of the most difficult of her books, so I am surprised you tried anything else. The Sea the Sea is a much more fun oen to explore. Her early novels are quite humorous, I seem to remember, although perhaps not as ‘weighty’ in themes as her later work (and perhaps that’s a good thing). A Severed Head, Under the Net and The Bell all seem to have stuck to my mind.

  14. A little like you, I have always been a bit intimidated by the prospect of reading Iris Murdoch. (A friend from Uni, a huge Murdoch fan, has been trying to encourage me to try her for years!) Funnily enough, we were talking about this novel earlier this month as she was thinking of asking her book group to read it. So glad to hear you enjoyed it – I really ought to give her a go.

  15. I enjoyed this one a lot too. A few years ago I and a few friends read our way through the works of Iris Murdoch. I felt similarly about The Black Prince. I remember my edition was something like 408pages and I made it to around page 200 when I nearly threw it across the room and gave up. The Sea the Sea is excellent though.

  16. piningforthewest

    I know that I tried to read one of her books years ago and as I rarely give up on books I haven’t tried any more of hers. I can’t even recall which one it was, I must have blocked it out. This one sounds good though.

    • funny that isn’t it, if a book is really, really, really bad I remember it but if its only moderately bad I instantly forget it which has sometimes meant I started reading it all over again before realising….

  17. I have to admit that like you, my experience with the Black Prince has prevented me from running out to read her other works. This review makes me reconsider

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