Here we have a 1978 novel from Irish-born writer Iris Murduch (1919-1999). It’s celebrating its 40th anniversary, so we thought it was well worth a retrospective look. This was actually her 19th novel! But this one won her the Booker Prize. To this day, it’s largely considered her masterpiece amongst readers.
It’s about this chap Charles Arrowby. He’s a leading English playwright, but he’s had enough of London. Retiring to isolation, in a remote home right next to the sea, he starts to write his memoirs. And Murdoch thumped 500+ pages of effort into his story, which makes for an introspective consideration on life.
The Sea, The Sea
Arrowby is a bit of a conceited one, unfortunately, and his attempts to write his memoirs reflect this. But all of a sudden, despite his remote location, he comes across the lady who was his first love decades earlier in his youth.
She’s now reached old age and he hardly recognises her. As if rekindling his youthful and hedonistic years, he grows infatuated with the lady. But his increasingly invasive efforts lead to something of a kidnapping of her – yet she rejects him.
His raging ego continues to know no bounds. And despite his many efforts to make something of his situation and document it all in his memoir, all of his plans fail.
Despite turning into a failed piece of writing, his work instead documents his strange antics. The visitors he receives, some of whom are seemingly from another world, create a personal crisis on Arrowby’s side.
His narcissism has run unchecked for decades in his former prosperous environment in London, but away from the greed and self-aggrandisement he’s become nothing but a bitter and unstable old git. But whilst this realisation plays out, you have that beautiful setting – the sea pounding the shores near his home as he attempts to chronicle his life.
It’s been a while since we read The Sea, The Sea (back in our uni days circa 2004), but what sticks with us is a character study of a vain man in decline. It’s a look at the human condition and how foibles can make matters worse, despite having the beauty of a natural surrounding as a reminder of the great privilege and luck Arrowby has come by.
And it’s all told rather brilliantly by Murdoch. If there is a criticism, it’s that this is a long old read. If you’re busy, you might want to turn to a novella. As this is quite the undertaking, but worth it if you want to see an inspired writer at the peak of her powers.
So, this Irish-born (but British) writer was something of a trailblazing force in the last century. She was writing up until her final years after a lifetime dedicated to culture, with her works taking on themes such as personality flaws, the balance of good over evil, and philosophical ideas such as the human conscience.
This was an eventful life, too. She tried moving to America in the 1940s but was denied a visa as she was a member of the British communist party (goddamn commies). She eventually received a waiver that let her tour around the states – in later years she grew disillusioned with Marxism in general.
But throughout her life she ran two careers – one as a philosopher, the other as a novelist. The latter dominated public interest about her. But Murdoch’s inspirations (including the likes of Plato) spurred her into a genius world all of her own.
And despite often having a stern (almost haughty) prose style, she was able to look at the silliness of human behaviour and make it an appealing and profound experience to read. Her deconstructions of such absurd antics are well worth a consideration, should you want to try out a new writer.