The Sea, The Sea
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Charles Arrowby is a famous theatre director, now retired to Shruff End, a dark romantic queer little house by the sea. His has been a busy and selfish life, wherein he has enjoyed many a mistress. At Shruff End he means to relinquish at last these worldly cares and embark upon a clean good simple somewhat penitent regime of reading, swimming, and contemplation. Luckily for you, dear reader, he decides to pen his memoirs. When he’s not listing the Windsor & Newton pigments on display in his private seascape – the indigos, the emerald greens, those dusky ochres and luxurious purples! – or describing his charming eccentric predilection for bad cooking (no less than one square meal a page, preferably involving tinned potatoes and boiled onions), he’s reminiscing about his dear lost perfect paradisiacal love, Hartley.

As teenagers, Charles and Hartley made one another such tender innocent vows. And yet she parted from him by her own free will when they were but twenty, and whithersoever he might search it was in vain. No other woman – not Clement, eternal wonderful unclassifiable Clement, not vampish vicious Rosina, not darling Lizzie with her cinnamon brown hair, which is of the hyacinthine variety and copious – could ever touch the pure and holy communion of that early love. So imagine Charles’s terrified ecstatic surprise when he learns that Hartley, now the aging wife of ex-serviceman Ben Fitch, is living locally! The Fitches retired to the very same village just a few years ago. How strange and significant that Charles has come precisely here to repent of his egoism! It must be the fateful hand of fate at work; there can be no other explanation. And despite Hartley’s tired pale wrinkled soft round face, Charles finds that the fierce indubitable magnetism of love is still at work.

After some furtive futile encounters with Hartley in the village church Charles decides to eavesdrop at the marital home, and again by the most extraordinary, fateful coincidence he happens to overhear in full a long conversation pertaining entirely to him. It would appear that he, Charles Arrowby, is part of an ongoing and bitterly jealous domestic quarrel between the Fitches; his very presence in the village has thrown the couple into painful opposition. Convinced that Hartley is the victim of a marriage emotionally if not indeed physically abusive, Charles embarks at once upon a rescue mission. In this he is aided by the timely arrival of Titus, the long-lost adoptive son of Hartley and Ben. Thanks to Ben’s jealous hatred of Charles, Titus believes that Charles may in fact be his real father; he has sought him out to learn the truth at last. Charles uses Titus to lure Hartley to Shruff End, where he locks her in a windowless room indefinitely in the hope that she will change her mind about remaining in that perfectly ghastly marriage with that appalling brutish man.

Meanwhile all sorts of pesky bothersome friends have come to stay. There’s Lizzie and Gilbert, both actors, both not a little in love with Charles. Then there’s Peregrine, the man from whom Charles stole Rosina, an old flame now lodging at the nearby hotel in order to persecute Charles by pretending to be a poltergeist (you know, the usual vengeful-ex routine – secretly break a few mirrors, hide in the house and rattle the bead curtain a bit…). Titus is persuaded to stay on and even indeed to see Charles as a father, to now and henceforth belong to him. Oh, and don’t forget James, Charles’s mysterious military cousin with a penchant for Eastern spiritualism.

Everyone thinks it’s rather rum that funny old Charles has a woman locked up in his house but they’re all too busy enjoying the sportive sparkling sea to take much notice. That is, until James intervenes as the voice of reason and persuades Charles to return Hartley to Ben. Charles complies but only with the secret intention of later redoubling his efforts. Peregrine turns out not to be such a dear true friend when he uses the twin covers of alcohol and nightfall to push Charles off a cliff into the churning death pit of the sea. No one quite knows how, but he survives, resuscitated by mouth to mouth from James. Then Titus actually does drown. At first Charles suspects that Hartley’s husband Ben pushed both him and Titus into the sea but James makes Peregrine tell Charles the truth. Charles is so surprised and really almost impressed by Peregrine’s pluck that he quickly forgives him. With that mystery solved everyone can forget about Titus and move on – or in Charles’s case, return to obsessing over Hartley.

In fact if anything Titus’s death rather frees things up: Ben and Hartley can emigrate to Australia at last. All the pesky bothersome friends go back to their lives and Charles finds himself alone in Shruff End with his rambling drunken thoughts. During the course of his reflections on the illusory nature of his love for Hartley he recovers a memory of the night he nearly drowned: while he was in the water he saw the head of a sea-monster. It was, he realises, the head of the self-same sea-monster he saw when he first arrived at Shruff End, although that first time he attributed the apparition to the after-effects of LSD! Moreover he also remembers cousin James saving him from the waves by walking down the cliff face like a giant bat and raising him up with superhuman strength. Is it possible that James was channelling some occult Buddhist power? Or did Charles bang his head on a rock and suffer hallucination-inducing concussion? We’ll never know – because James dies mysteriously in his flat before Charles has a chance to talk to him. Despite the happy appearance of some seals at Shruff End – no doubt beneficent beings come to visit Charles and to bless him – Charles decides to end his adventures by the sea, and returns to continue his retirement in the blank yellow days of a London winter.

 *  *  *

 Fans of Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea – if they have managed to read this far without throwing the review across the room – will no doubt be screaming ‘it’s not a realist novel’ and ‘that’s Charles Arrowby’s voice, he’s meant to sound like a fastidious old pedant’. Both of those statements are true. Charles Arrowby is meant to sound like a fastidious old pedant. But there are two key problems with his voice. The first is that actually, he doesn’t sound like a fastidious old pedant: he sounds like the love child of Henry James and Louisa May Alcott. Those breathless comma-less adjectives are straight out of James, only James uses them much more sparingly and judiciously, for intensity. In The Sea, The Sea, they are endemic. Nor are they exclusive to Charles’s voice: other characters employ them too, as does Iris Murdoch in other novels. Similarly, both Murdoch and her characters are fond of saying things like ‘wherein’ and ‘therein’, which were surely out of mainstream circulation by the 1970s. So in fact these mannerisms also belong to the author, making them much less excusable as part of Charles’s characterisation.

The second problem – as that relentless bit of parody has hopefully demonstrated – is that 538 pages of a voice like Charles’s is about 537.5 pages too many. All the cack-handed, self-indulgent descriptions of landscape and inner turmoil can indeed be attributed to Charles’s pompous love of his own voice. But this doesn’t mean they’re worth reading. Murdoch, however, is so bloody-minded about establishing a naturalistic narrative voice that nothing else – accurate description, decent sentences, basic readability – seems to matter to her. Most first-person narratives require the reader to suspend a little disbelief: to put aside questions like ‘who is the narrator telling this to?’ for the sake of economy and fluidity. In The Sea, The Sea, though, we are explicitly encouraged to imagine we’re reading an actual document written by Charles. The action unfolds as he’s writing the memoir, and so we experience events in delayed real-time, with Charles recounting each new development immediately after it has happened. There is something slightly plodding about this literalism – as if there had been no narrative innovation in fiction since the epistolary novel. Clumsiest of all are Murdoch’s attempts to create suspense by having Charles ‘write’ a section straight after a dramatic event:

‘I had written the above, destined to be the opening paragraph of my memoirs, when something happened which was so extraordinary and horrible that I cannot bring myself to describe it.’

‘Something rather odd and distressing has just occurred.’

‘I was sitting writing the above late last night in my drawing room when something very disconcerting happened.’

‘Shortly after this something very disconcerting happened, and then… But first…’

At stark odds with this literalism is the ‘anti-realism’ of the plot. The tally of coincidences in my précis is not exhaustive. For example: Charles’s one-time chauffeur, whom he hasn’t seen for many years, turns out to be the cousin of the local publican, and is also staying in the village by the end of the novel. There are also numerous inconsistencies and loose ends. When Charles returns Hartley to Ben after her long incarceration (her insanely jealous husband, note, has made only cursory attempts to get her back and hasn’t done anything so sensible as to go to the police), Ben’s parting shot to Charles is: ‘Keep away or I’ll kill you… I’ll kill you!’ Less than a hundred pages later the Fitches invite Charles round for tea to let him know they’re off to Australia. It is a very civilised affair. The sympathetic reader has just enough information to stitch together an explanation for this – perhaps Ben wants to show Charles how good his marriage now is? Perhaps he’s simply calmed down? – but at these moments it’s hard not to feel that you’re doing Murdoch’s homework for her.

The plot itself is deliberately Shakespearean – the chance meetings, the eavesdropping scene – with the coastal village functioning like a stage set onto which all of the characters/actors (most of whom really are actors) make their entrances and their exits. The patron play is The Tempest, with Charles as Prospero – a role he once actually played, with Lizzie as his Ariel. Lest we miss this parallel, several of the characters independently allude to Charles’s aging-sorcerer vibe, starting with Charles himself, who wonders of his retirement from the ‘trickery’ of the theatre, ‘Have I abjured that magic, drowned my book?’ (p 42). ‘You’re not really a teacher, you’re a sort of rapacious magician’, Lizzie tells him in a letter on p 48. Rosina, on p 116, takes a similar line: ‘Women loved you for your power, your magic, yes, you have been a sorcerer.’ And on p 428 Peregrine, confessing to the attempted murder of Charles, is careful to match his insults to Murdoch’s theme: ‘Now you’re old and done for, you’ll wither away like Prospero did when he went back to Milan.’

There is a second, more serious Prospero-figure in The Sea, The Sea – cousin James of the Eastern spiritualism. Although all of this can of course be attributed to Charles’s increasingly infirm grip on reality, there are serious suggestions that James has used his mystical powers to orchestrate the whole plot – from that opening sea monster through Titus’s sudden appearance to Charles’s miraculous survival and Titus’s death (the intimated idea being that some demon in the sea wanted him in return for Charles). The philosophical heart of the book is meted out in expository conversations between James and Charles, with James conveniently providing everything we need to join the dots.

The worshipper endows the worshipped object with power, real power not imaginary power, that is the sense of the ontological proof, one of the most ambiguous ideas clever men ever thought of. But this power is dreadful stuff. Our lusts and attachments compose our god.

What The Sea, The Sea illustrates, again and again, is how someone can unwittingly become either an angel or a demon in the minds of others. Hartley has been endowed, as the worshipped object, with real power by Charles – a power that has dominated his life. Charles himself has been a demon in the mind of Peregrine, even though he always thought they were good friends. In crude counterpoint to this, Charles is terrified of bumping into his old chauffeur Freddie because he feels guilty about how he once treated him and thinks that Freddie hates him. It turns out that he has been an angel, not a demon, for Freddie. Now working as an actor, Freddie feels inspired by his time with Charles and benefits from his association with such a famous director.

There are some interesting psychological insights to be had here, but not nearly enough to redeem the novel, which is peopled with unbelievable characters saying unbelievable things. (Worried about Charles’s attraction to Lizzie, Rosina tells him she’ll make his life hell ‘if you wed this wench…’; Peregrine says his stepdaughter has a motorbike, ‘a long thick brutal thing which you bestride like a charger’; James, on hearing that Charles feels quite well, says ‘You relieve my mind… I thought you might be sickening for the ’flu’; Charles asks Hartley, ‘if you had all these misgivings why didn’t you utter them?’) The coincidences, however deliberate, are also problematic. Shakespeare hasn’t survived because of his plotting: contemporary audiences might have been delighted by yet another case of mistaken identity, but we read him today for other reasons – including the beauty of his language and his brilliant characterisation. There are no such compensations in The Sea, The Sea.

Yet it too has survived, perhaps because it has the potential to make cleverish readers feel clever. It’s packed with literary allusions and Shakespeare-nerd in-jokes (Charles as a schoolboy ‘had only a little French and less Latin’), and the ostentatiously intellectual themes lend themselves perfectly to extended academic discourse. There’s a whole paper waiting to be written on the semiotics of power in The Sea, The Sea and The Tempest, for example: Rosina’s aggressive trickery with the broken mirrors; Hayley’s invisible hold over Charles; James’s role as a sort of uber-Prospero…

Tricksy as her characters, piggy-backing on Shakespeare, Iris Murdoch is hard to argue with. The Sea, The Sea is a thematically dense piece of work from an intelligent, learned woman. But Murdoch is not, on the evidence of her most celebrated book, a very good writer. Yes, you can explain Charles’s maddening voice as a form of playful pastiche. Yes, you can explain the strategy behind all the absurd coincidences. Yes, you can explain the sea monster (!) as either metaphorical or a product of Charles’s concussion. This doesn’t mean that any of those things are sound artistic decisions.

 


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