The Sea, The Sea was Iris Murdoch’s nineteenth novel and the only one to win the Booker Prize (in 1978). It is, to my mind, her best novel, as well as being the most representative of her talents and distinctive world view. It is also hypnotically readable. Actually all her novels are hypnotically readable (with the sad exception of her last, fractured book, Jackson’s Dilemma), but most contain certain faults of excess: passages of over-description, stagey scenes, unrealistic over-intellectualized dialogue, plotting whose artifice is all too obvious. This does not make them less lovable or less intellectually stimulating. Still: you can see the joins. This is not the case with The Sea, The Sea. In that novel Murdoch achieved the perfection of her craft. It is her Great Expectations, her Mona Lisa, her Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
The opening sentence seductively draws you in: ‘The sea which lies before me glows rather than sparkles in the bland May sunshine.’
That’s beautiful. But in the very next paragraph things turn abruptly dark and mysterious: ‘I had written the above, destined to be the opening paragraph of my memoirs, when something happened which was so extraordinary and so horrible that I cannot bring myself to describe it . . .’
What was it, what was it? Ah. We shall have to wait and see.
The bizarre, teasing, unpredictable plot (though plot seems too crude a word, somehow) is one of the great joys of this book. I shan’t, of course, disclose any details. Yet even when you know the story, The Sea, The Sea richly repays rereading (as do all Murdoch’s novels, but this more than most). I have read it five times and I don’t intend to stop there.
The story is told in the first person by Charles Arrowby (a number of Murdoch’s novels feature a male narrator, none a female one). Arrowby is a famous and successful man, an actor, playwri
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