In praise of older books: The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch

Week 35: Julie Parsons on a year of her favourite books

Iris Murdoch: The character of Charles is, one suspects,  in part Murdoch, thinly disguised. Photograph:  Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

Iris Murdoch: The character of Charles is, one suspects, in part Murdoch, thinly disguised. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

 

Stand on the edge of the rocks. Take a deep breath. Eyes fixed on your tummy button, arms straight, palms together. Then dive headfirst into The Sea, The Sea, Iris Murdoch’s dense, elliptical, fascinating, irritating, Booker prize-winning novel.

It’s the story of a summer in the life of Charles Arrowby, actor, director, playwright, who says of himself: “A theatre director is a dictator. (If he is not, he is not doing his job)”. He has retired to Shruff End, a house on a rock, virtually surrounded by the sea. He will revel in solitude and quiet and write his memoirs.

This, however, is not to be. A posse of former lovers, colleagues, sometime friends, are all determined to exact acknowledgment from Charles of past wrongs. As Peregrine, one of his inner circle says, “You’re an exploded myth. And you still think you’re Genghis Khan! . . . you never did a damn thing for anybody except yourself”.

However, Charles is distracted by his first love, a woman called Hartley, who is married and, coincidentally, living in the same seaside village. Hartley tells him she has an adopted son, Titus, whom her husband, Ben, loathes because he thinks he is Charles’ son. He has driven Titus away. Charles is convinced that Hartley must be rescued. He pursues her relentlessly, promising “I will love you and cherish you and do my most devoted best to make you happy at last”.

Happiness is, of course, elusive. The more Charles seeks it, the more it evades him. Hartley chooses Ben, and they disappear to Australia. The summer begins to wane, as do Charles’ powers. “Last night someone on a BBC quiz did not know who I was.”

Charles, one suspects, is in part Murdoch, thinly disguised. As old age approaches, the certainties of success and recognition fade. Only the sea remains: “golden, speckled with white points of light. . . How huge it is, how empty, this great space for which I have been longing all my life.”

Dive in and enjoy.

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