Saturday, 24 March 2001

Iris Murdoch: The Sea, The Sea (1978)

Edition: Chatto & Windus, 1984 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 791

Charles Arrowby, narrator of The Sea, The Sea, is an egoist; but, as he himself points out, does that make him so exceptional? Much of the novel is about how we control others, and how what we know of others is filtered through our own ideas and desires. Even his profession (theatrical director) is an aspect of this.

Now retired, Charles has bought himself a house by the sea. There, he begins an autobiogrphy, but soon discovers that one of the people living in the small town is his first love, who moved away in his teens and disappeared from his life completely. He becomes obsessed with her as a symbol of his lost youth and innocence, and, convinced that she still loves him, he even goes to the length of kidnapping her.

Like most of Murdoch's writing, The Sea, The Sea is about relationships. Charles is at the centre of quite a complex network of these, as part of a rather "luvvie" group of theatre people, most of whom have at one time or another been lovers. All these past actions affect their current interactions, and in particular Charles' understanding of what they do. (It is not, however, altogether clear that Charles is an honest narrator.)

The novel has other strands to it. Two which are quite closely related are the supernatural and the symbol of the sea. The former just occurs in touches, as when Charles believes his house to be haunted. (Part of this is the activity of an ex-lover, but she refuses to admit responsibility for all the occurrences which lead him to think this.) Even when not being directly mentioned, on the other hand, the sea is present in the novel as something vast, incomprehensible and certainly uncontrollable: sometimes drawing Charles in and sometimes threatening his life. In the context of the novel, its meaning must be connected to the fact that much of what surrounds us is actually beyond our control. This is why the ideas of the supernatural and the sea, as used by Murdoch, are closely related.

The Sea, The Sea is powerfully effective, really catching the reader up in the drama of the relationships it deals with, and leading us to take a new look at how we treat others, and how we understand others. It is a huge achievement.

No comments: