Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Sea, the Sea by Iris Murdoch

An ageing man gives up his glamorous life in London as an eminent theatre director, moves into an odd house on the coast, and picks up his pen with the intention of 'finding' his 'form' and exploring what has been and will be his life. The man has a few strange episodes at the start of the book relating to peculiar visions and ghostly activity, but the story is quickly overtaken by a series of increasingly incredible events the centre on him finding his long lost childhood sweetheart.

The sea, the sea is too long by far. The novel's charm comes from the daily occupations of a man seemingly seeking something akin to solitude or peace - his daily encounters with the sea, his domestication of the rocks surrounding his house, the meticulous descriptions of his particular brand of culinary activity. In these details, the novel sings. The story, though, is curiously constructed - it starts like a ghost story, quickly shifts into a somewhat farcical drama and then becomes a meditation on spirituality. The house is at times phantasmic, though it never truly fulfils its potential as a force to be reckoned with. The central plot - the overlong 'history' section - is ridiculous, and brings out all that is unbearable in Charles, the protagonist. By chance, he meets again his childhood sweetheart, who left him some forty five years earlier. He decides that he has another chance to pursue her, that they may find happiness with one another again, and he hatches elaborate plots to determine ways to meet her, to ensnare her, to 'rescue' her. She, however, has no intention of being rescued, has no notion that things might be different, and at the apex of the silliness, when Charles has her held against her will in his house, there are a number of very tedious exchanges in which Charles fails to listen to anything she says, and in which she fails to say anything rational or convincing. This farce ruins what has the makings of a great novel: many of the peripheral characters are interesting and colourful; the setting is evocative, menacing and powerful; and the context of the protagonist seeking a retreat but ending up with something different has potential. The ending is a reward for the feat of endurance to get through the book, but its potency is all but destroyed by the preceeding nonsense.

Sadly, I think this novel tries to be too many things, and as a result, fails to find a focused 'form' - which throws an odd light Charles' explicit intention to allow the writing to find its own form.

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