The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch

Hey everyone, look what I can do! Technology, huh? Apart from learning how to use basic WordPress functions I have also just finished The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch, which is a rather clunky title to give when someone asks what you’re reading.

The Sea, The Sea is narrated by Charles Arrowby, a retired theatre celebrity who has retreated to a lonely seaside cottage in order to escape his previous life and find a sort of tranquillity. “To repent a life of egoism? Not exactly, yet something of the sort. Of course I never said this to the ladies and gentlemen of the theatre. They would never have stopped laughing.” The book serves as his diary/memoir/possible novel and proves to be a mix of styles; from fussy catalogues of his meals to reminiscences to meditations on the nature of life and love. However his previous life turns out to be harder to leave behind than he had hoped, with many visits from his theatre friends and old lovers.

The main substance of the novel hinges on the chance rediscovery of his first love, Hartley, who Charles once planned to marry but who instead left him with little explanation. Hartley is now married to Ben Fitch and Charles decides that she is desperately unhappy and needs rescuing. From here on in, things get a little crazy.

Charles is incredibly self-involved, seeing himself as a Prospero figure benevolently manipulating the lives of those around him, apparently for their own good but largely for his. His self-importance leads to what 1001 Books calls “some comic set pieces” and I don’t really know what that means but there are certainly some very awkwardly funny moments involving his inappropriate visits to Hartley and Ben, and his attempts to fit in at the local pub. He is also acutely and hilariously torn between his desire to get away from his celebrity and his need to be recognised.

I think the best thing about The Sea, The Sea is the convincing picture it paints of obsession. Charles is painful in his agonising over Hartley’s every move, clutching at increasingly thin straws to convince himself that his love is returned. Reading his repetitive and irrational thoughts really feels like hanging out with someone in love who can only think and talk about the one subject, agonising over tiny ‘signs’ and secret ‘signals’. That is to say, this book is sometimes really annoying. I also found it way too long. You feel like saying ‘Iris, I get it, he’s really obsessed with her.”

Part of this obsession is Charles’s tendency to idolise. John Burnside writes about this search for imagined perfection really nicely in the introduction. Charles is constantly maintaining the perfection of his feelings and imagining impossible scenarios. Yet never once does he act as the kind, loving, generous person he imagines himself to be in his perfect world. Like I said, it gets old. But in an accurately captured way, if that makes sense. I feel like The Sea, The Sea is, above all, very true to the kind of self-obsessed, self-involved people we can be, frantically building fantasy futures (alliteration much?) while remaining annoyingly unaware of ourselves in the present.

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