At one point in my compulsive reading I had reached the end of my ‘books to read’ list. So I freaked out, tore my garments, and frantically danced the polka. Then I realized that dancing the polka was accomplishing nothing, so I changed tactics and did a google search for a list of Booker prize-winning novels: Iris Murdoch’s “The Sea, the Sea” was among them. Sign me up! I cried, and 2 weeks later the book was ready for pickup at my local library branch.
The book starts out as a series of writings and sketches by Charles Arrowby, the narrator. He has just retired from a gloriously successful career in theater (as actor, director and playwright) and has bought a small stone house by the sea. He starts writing his thoughts, toys with the idea of writing his memoirs, describes his new house, talks a little about his old friends and lovers. At first, it’s a patchwork of material, like a journal. He talks about the meals he eats of olives, lentils, oats and honey; the refreshing but dangerous swims he takes off the rocky cliffs near his house; the enchantment of the old beveled mirror in his front hall. This led me to believe that the book was going to be a series of poetic ramblings like “Gift from the Sea,” and I considered tossing it aside in favor of something a little more meaty. However, as the characters (Charles included) start taking on definition and weight, a narrative emerges that drives most of the book forward, with a clear story and themes that cut to the very heart of the human condition.
After reminiscing about his first love, a woman from his teenage years, Charles encounters her completely unexpectedly in town one day. After 40 years she has aged a lot and is no longer beautiful, but Charles muses “If even a dog’s tooth is truly worshiped it glows with light. My love for Hartley was very nearly and end in itself. Twist and turn as she might, whatever happened she could not escape me now.” And old woman married to a potentially tyrannical husband, Charles begins to believe he will be her savior of sorts.
The recurring refrain “Jealousy is born with love, but does not always die with love” echoes throughout his efforts to recover Hartley from her sad marriage. Ironically, in his endeavors Charles behaves very much like the man he hates the most–irrational, angry, jealous, set in his ways, inflexible with those he loves. As a reader however, I couldn’t help but feel a strong affection towards him in spite of his flaws. After seeing all the rabbit trails his thoughts followed and all the convoluted ways he arrived at his frequently wild conclusions, I felt like I could at least understand his sometimes (very) poor decisions.
The copy of the book that I got from the library made the following statement on the cover: “A rich, crowded, magical love story.” Scattered among the down-to-earth descriptions of the anchovies Charles ate for lunch and the emotions he’s feeling towards his ex-lover, there are mysterious and perhaps magical elements that come into play: at one point, Charles sees a sea monster with a writhing dragon-like body rise from the waves. He later wonders if he really saw it or was simply reliving part of his bad LSD trip from decades prior.
As love, disappointment, family, and purity take the center stage as themes, Murdoch grabs your heart and winds it into her story with the power of truly wonderful writing.
Through this novel, you get a vision of the egotism of the human heart, the mental tricks we play to boost our own self-image, and the way we transform the story of our lives by retelling it in different ways. At one point, Charles describes himself as “an aging powerless ex-magician for whom people were sorry” as opposed to the god-like creature he shaped himself to be in previous pages. He seems at last to see in himself what the story has been revealing all along to the reader: “The only fault which I can at all measure is my own. I let loose my own demons, not least the sea serpent of jealousy. But now my brave faith which said ‘Whatever she is like, it is her that I love,’ has failed and gone, and all has faded into triviality and self-regarding indifference; and I know that quietly I belittle her, as almost every human being intentionally belittles every other one.”
As a reader I of course longed for a neat ending, something to tie up the loose ends, but how much better the real ending is–as the narrator says “That is no doubt how the story should end, with the seals and the stars, explanation, resignation, reconciliation, everything picked up into some radiant bland ambiguous higher significance, in calm of mind, all passion spent. However life, unlike art, has an irritating way of bumping and limping on, undoing conversions, casting doubt on solutions, and generally illustrating the impossibility of living happily or virtuously ever after”–I leave it to you to nab this book and take it to its mysterious and uneasy but perfect end.