This innocent little picture from the back of my diary reveals so little of the anguish and torment which it represents…
When someone suggested The Sea, The Sea for my book group last September, my initial thought was “Oh, good. I wasn’t sure whether or not I liked The Sandcastle, and now I’ll be able to have another try with Iris Murdoch.”
And then I saw how long it was.
Well, nothing daunted (ok, a little bit daunted), I started to read it. And it’s really beautifully written. It all starts off with a retired theatre director in his new house by the sea, discussing his hectic past and his embrace of solitude. And his meals. Always his meals.
(This, incidentally, will not be a review of the book. I don’t have the stamina.)
My experience – nay, my journey – with The Sea, The Sea was very strange. I started off thinking I’d cracked Murdoch. All those unread novels by her, sitting on my shelf, could now be read.
Well, that beautiful prose got rather cloying after a while. There is almost no dialogue, because Charles Arrowby lives alone. Even at the best of times, I prefer well-written dialogue to well-written narrative – one of the reasons I love Ivy Compton-Burnett so much – and I felt rather beleaguered by it all after a while.
Then it got mad. By a series of bizarre coincidences, every woman Charles has ever romanced ends up in the same village – including the love of his youth, now a dowdy old woman. He is still bewitched by her, or the memory of her, and is determined to ‘free’ her from her cruel husband. She admits that he has been cruel… and changes her mind a bit about it… so Charles (great sage that he is) decides the best thing to do is kidnap her, hold her against her will in a locked bedroom, and tell her how much she loves him. He wants to free her, by imprisoning her.
Ok, so Charles is insane. But nobody else much seems to mind. The husband busies himself with gardening, various other people have highly-detailed lunches and bathe in the sea. There’s even a half-hearted murder plot thrown in for good measure.
Most bizarre of all, once the woman is finally let out of her locked room (Charles still determined that they love one another), she goes back home and nobody seems to mind either. She even lets him come to tea. IT ALL MAKES NO SENSE.
I finished reading it. I was hoping there would be some big pay-off. It’s a first-person narrative, so I was expecting a big unreliable-narrator twist – did any of it happen? Is Charles insane? But, instead, it just petered out. There was no indication that the events were only in his mind – which is the only way that the novel would make any sort of sense. I even wondered if The Sea, The Sea held the first clues of Iris Murdoch’s dementia, but she wrote quite a few after this, so I suspect not.
Rarely have I been so cross with a book. Yes, any individual sentence or paragraph was beautifully written – but a series of beautiful sentences do not a novel make. And nobody at book group could explain it to me either.
So… I’m willing to give respected or recommended authors three attempts. That’s how I came to love books by Muriel Spark, Evelyn Waugh, and E.M. Forster. Iris Murdoch – you’ve had two swings and two misses. Third strike, and you’re out. We’ll see, we’ll see…