Monday, January 5, 2009

1978 - The Sea, the Sea by Iris Murdoch

The narrator of The Sea, The Sea is Charles Arrowby, an unreliable narrator extraordinaire! He's an aging actor/director, who decides to retire to peaceful solitude by the sea, a fantasy beloved of so many. He buys a horrid little house called Shruff's End which is besieged by damp and void of amenities such as electricity and heating. Still, in summer the sea is lovely, and the weather is warm, and all seems well...

Murdoch's specialty is irony, and before long the reader becomes aware of Charles's egocentric view of the world. It takes only a little longer to realise that he is subject to delusions and powerful obsessions. He thinks that the whole theatrical world will be at his door disturbing him - and when they fail to turn up - he goes up to London to invite them!

Alas, they all come at once, the very weekend he plans to abduct his childhood sweetheart from her husband. Hartley Smith, now Mary Fitch, was as innocent childhood love (or so he tells us), and when she 'just happens' to live in the same village, his love for her is rekindled and he determines to rescue her from her 'brute' of a husband (who turns out to be handsome, and rather heroic, having done something very brave in the war).

By now, about half way through the book, the reader isn't sure whether any or all of the visitors are an illusion. Is Hartley real? Is she some other woman he has attached his fantasies to? Absurdity piles up on absurdity. Are we really meant to believe that Charles keeps Hartley locked in one room while he sleeps in another, content with minor fondlings? That James, Gilbert, Lizzie, Peregrine and Titus are all sleeping in serious discomfort in this bizarre household so that they can help him in his crazy conspiracy? And mad Rosina, is she real?

Well, finer minds than mine may make something else of it, but I don't think so. I think that Charles is down on his luck and can't afford his old lifestyle as work dries up. He has a romantic view of solitude but loneliness, drugs and cheap wine work together to form a soup of wild delusions. I think he's incapable of having a relationship with anybody and that it's significant that most of the characters (if they ever did actually exist) 'disappear' one way or another.

Did I like the book? I think it's a bit long and could have done with some of the editing that Murdoch reputedly resisted. I became rather weary of Charles (as I think I was meant to do) but the interminable conversations with Hartley were irritating, and the ending was disappointing. I'd have liked Charles to get his comeuppance!

I finished reading and journalled this book on 19.7.03
Lisa Hill, ANZ LitLovers

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