Thursday, February 26, 2009

Iris Murdoch: the sea, the sea

This is the first time I have read a book by Murdoch, as I have previously been a little frightened by Murdoch's reputation as an intellectual.

The book is written in the form of a diary, kept by Charles Arrowby, theatre actor turned director, retired to an isolated neglected house on the edge of the sea. The plot is fairly brief; Charles recognises one of his neighbors as childhood love who had run from him forty years before, and obsessively pursues her. The main body of the writing (502 pages of small type) is description, of Charles's moods, thoughts, worries, meals, and of the sea, the rocks and the weather.

There is a sense of unease about Charles. Shortly after the narrative begins he spots a huge sea serpent off the cost by his house, writhing in coils above the sea, which remains unexplained. There are strange rooms in his house. There are continual shadows, faces, drafts, noises, rustlings and clickings about the house, and there is no electricity, so nights are dark except for candles, oil lamps, firelight. The very residents of the area are hostile to Charles, for no reason.

The book charts Charles' loss of control over his life. At the beginning he schemes and influences past loves by letter, bringing them back into his life, deciding who to disrupt, who to hurt. Then he sees Hartley, and it all changes. He schemes as before, but he has miscalculated; Hartley does not want him, something he cannot conceive of, so all his plans go awry. As he continues to focus on Hartley, he loses control over all the other people in his life, who make plans without him, who change how they relate to him. Revelations are made, relationships he broke apart are mended, people he thought he disliked out turn out to be vitally important to him.

I really enjoyed this book, though I did tire of Charles Arrowby. This is another book written in the first person, and I admit that I was speed reading through the pages at the end, not wanting to miss anything that was happening, but keen to skim over more of Charles' ruminations.

I had an interest in Titus. As soon as his name was mentioned I felt that it had occurred before in the book in relation to Charles, though I can't now find it. Titus is a theatre name isn't it? It doesn't really belong in the world of Roy and Mary. And Titus is red haired; Lizzie was described as having red hair, and her description is like the description of Titus. Charles grows a red beard at the end of the book. I wondered if those were hints that in the cruelest of ironies, Titus actually was Charles's son.

The best bit of the book for me was during the kidnapping of Mary/Hartley, when the novel became a farce, with everyone turning up at the door, and Charles' house of cards falling round his ears.

I have not yet decided if I would read more Murdoch. I did enjoy this book, and though it was very long, and to some extent wearying, there really wasn't a wasted word.


  1. I'm glad you tried Murdoch and enjoyed The Sea, The Sea. I did too. The Black Prince is my favourite of hers and Message to the Planet was good too. I have a taste for more of her work now and will be reading others. I enjoyed your review very much.