A Modern Prospero

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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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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, playwright and theatre director in his early sixties who has retired and moved to a lonely house near a desolate part of the coast, where he plans to lead a simple life and write his memoirs.

Of course, his life turns out to be far from simple and the memoirs never get written, at least not in the form he intended. Characters from earlier in his life reappear, crowding on to the pages. Typically for Murdoch, the dramatis personae are larger, more colourful, more vivid and more eccentric than real life. There’s Lizzie Scherer, who is half Scottish and half Sephardic Jew, a former lover of Charles with ‘the most adorable breasts of any woman I ever made love to’; Gilbert Opian, a gay, gossipy, somewhat ineffectual but very funny old actor who insinuates himself into Charles’s household; the violent and unpredictable star of stage and screen Rosina Vanbrugh; her exhusband Peregrine, a heavy-drinking Irish actor who specializes in TV villains; Charles’s cousin James, an Army General and possible secret agent who is also a Buddhist; and Charles’s first and only true love, Hartley, whom he has not seen for over forty years but who turns out to be living in the same village with her husband.

These are not just attractively painted caricatures. Murdoch does surfaces brilliantly, but what she is really interested in is the inner life. For her, morality is not only or even primarily about what you do, but about how you feel and think, your own internal view of others and how you attend and relate to them. She argues for this view as a philosopher in her book The Sovereignty of Good. Here, she makes the same point in literary form. Through Charles’s observations we gradually come to see the motivations behind the machinations. And nowhere do we see this more clearly than in the case of Charles himself.

Charles Arrowby is an example of a particular character that Iris Murdoch much enjoyed creating: the powerful man of superior gifts, will and intellect who dominates those around him. Other and later examples include Professor Rozanov in The Philosopher’s Pupil and Marcus Vallar in The Message to the Planet. (It has been suggested that this type of character was based on Murdoch’s own intellectual and sexual encounter with the philosopher and novelist Elias Canetti.) Usually Murdoch does not give the viewpoint to this person and we are never privy to his thoughts: we see only his effect on others.

In this instance, however, everything is filtered through Arrowby’s thoughts and perceptions. Early on we are made well aware of his arrogance and egotism, his bullying and manipulative attitude to friends and lovers. As the novel progresses, cracks appear. We see his insecurities and fears, his remorse over past events and his blundering way of dealing with emergent ones. And we begin to like and understand him more, share and sympathize with his struggles as he makes his way through the ‘demon-ridden pilgrimage of human life’.

The novel is full of Murdochian hallmarks. She is one of our great describers of nature and every few pages one encounters a description such as this: ‘Enormous yellow-beaked gulls perch on the rocks and stare at me with brilliant glass eyes. A shadow-cormorant skims the glycerine sea. The rocks are thronged with butterflies.’ Or: ‘I was lying in tall luscious green grass which was just coming into pink feathery flower. The grass was very cool and dry and squeaked slightly as I moved.’

The Sea, The Sea also displays to the full her gift of describing while simultaneously reflecting upon physical sensations. It contains the best description of the experience of falling that I have ever read:

Falling, what the child fears, what the man dreads, is itself the image of death, of the defencelessness of the body, of its frailty and mortality, its absolute subjection to alien causes . . . My back and waist felt the dreadful imprint of the hands which with great sudden violence and indubitable intent propelled me over the edge. My hands reached out in vain for something to clasp. My feet, still touching the rock with which they were parting company, jerked in a weak useless spasm, a last ghostly attempt to retain balance. Then they were jerking in empty space and I was falling downward, as if my head and shoulders were made of lead.

Murdoch always excels at describing food, too, but in this novel she plays a strange trick on the reader. Charles Arrowby considers himself to be a connoisseur of the art of eating, yet the meals which he describes with such pride are weird, unappetizing little messes – chipolatas served with boiled onions and apples stewed in tea, kipper fillets sprinkled with dry herbs served with fried tinned potatoes, rashers of cold sugared bacon and poached egg on nettles. There is something both funny and touching about the enthusiasm and air of culinary expertise with which he describes these ghastly feasts; he confides to the reader that he used to think the only book he would ever write would be a cookery book.

Iris Murdoch loved Shakespeare with a passion, and allusions to his work run through all her novels. Nuns and Soldiers, for example, is full of parallels with Hamlet. The Sea, The Sea is plainly modelled on The Tempest. Charles Arrowby is Prospero, lone ruler of a sea-girt kingdom which is invaded by figures from his past (we are told that Charles once actually played Prospero in the theatre), and an alert reader can spot versions of Ariel and Caliban, as well as scenes of singing, drunkenness and a tragic drowning. But it’s not just these literary echoes that show Murdoch’s debt to Shakespeare. She is like him in outlook and sensibility. Her wide sympathies, her ability to understand and engage with every character, the way in which she mingles comedy and tragedy, and most of all her sheer interest in the daily process of living, the sensory experiences, the accumulation of detail by which she builds her worlds, the names of birds and flowers and animals and songs and pubs and wines and foodstuffs and books and works of art, her inexhaustible curiosity about the multifarious universe we inhabit: this is a profoundly Shakespearean way of looking at life and making art out of it.

The Sea, The Sea is a distillation of all that’s best about Iris Murdoch’s novels. It is excellent that she wrote twenty-five of them. But if you read only one, let it be The Sea, The Sea. If you are a newcomer to her work it is the ideal introduction, for it encapsulates all her virtues as a novelist, thinker and storyteller with none of the faults. If you know her novels already, then this is the most complete reminder of that magical, mystical, musical, marvellous Murdochian world.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 66 © Brandon Robshaw 2020


About the contributor

Brandon Robshaw lectures in literature and philosophy for the Open University. He has written a philosophical novel for young adults, The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers.

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