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The Sea, The Sea - Iris Murdoch

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Author: Iris Murdoch / Genre: Fiction

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    3 Reviews
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      27.06.2010 22:43
      Very helpful



      a fantastic book in the form of a memoir

      The sea, the sea is the 19th novel by acclaimed writer Iris Murdoch and won the Booker Prize in 1978.


      Famous Shakespearian director, Charles Arrowby has decided to retire and has moved to a small house on the coast in a small English village to write his memoirs. Whilst Charles writes about his day to day life he also reflects on his childhood and general past and his many love affairs. One of these was his first love, a girl called Mary, or 'Hartley' as he called her. Although he felt he'd one day marry her she suddenly left him and he feels that this has tainted all relationships following this, as he remained being in love with her he was always unable to marry anyone else. Charles soon discovers that Hartley is actually living in the very same village as him with her husband of around 40 years. He in convinced that she must still love him too and should leave her husband for him. As she remains reluctant to do this Charles manages to enlist the help of Hartley's estranged adopted son and many of his friends from the theatre (who just happen to drop by) to ultimately kidnap her and keep her locked up in his small house whilst they all stay over. However, she continues saying that she has no wish to leave her husband and that she wants to go home, whilst Charles remained convinced that she will soon 'crack', and acknowledge her love for him. What will Charles and his friends do to convince Hartley to leave her husband and to love Charles?


      I do very much like Iris Murdoch and this book especially I thought was a great read. However, I did find it hard to get into as there really isn't much story at all for a good 30 odd pages, there's nothing much more than descriptions of what the sea was like on a daily basis (this book really must have used every single sea description possible) and what Charles ate, how he cooked it and what wine he drank with it, until small stories of his childhood gradually creep in. These kind of descriptions do carry on throughout the book but things get a lot ore lively when people start to visit Charles and he discovers Hartley in the village.

      This is quite a large book and having read it I have no idea how the story manages to stretch across so many pages. There really isn't too much of a story to be quite honest, it's quite basic, the book is more descriptive and focuses on the relationships between the characters, how they interact with each other and discusses a lot what love is and what it means to different people, and whether it really exist at all. And of course it is very descriptive.

      If you're looking for a page turner with many twists and turns and a fast flowing story, then this isn't the book for you. It's pretty slow, but I had no problem reading it pretty fast, I didn't feel it got boring apart from slightly at the end where it kind of just trails off rather than having a strong definitive ending. Although Charles does mention that the book would do that, so I assume that this kind of ending was deliberate, although I could not guess what the purpose was.

      Charles is the narrator in this book as it is written as a kind of diary, so everything is from his point of view. I think that Iris Murdoch has a knack of writing protagonists' with which it is very easy to get terribly annoyed with. Charles is very annoying at times, kind of infuriating, you wish he was real so you could just shake him. Although he's not a very likeable character I still didn't find it hard to read a book full of him. A lot of the other characters, mainly girls who are pathetically in love with Charles (or perhaps not, in the case of Hartley) are indeed annoyingly pathetic. It's frustrating having who you assume to be perfectly ok women run after such an annoying character who you find a bit ridiculous. Even though the book doesn't have a strong, very likeable main character I think there is much more to it than that, it kind of doesn't need that. I think it's a book where you can read between the lines a lot, you can certainly get a lot out of it. This is certainly the best book by Iris Murdoch that I've read so far, so for any fans I would certainly suggest it.


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        01.11.2006 12:58
        Very helpful



        A complex book but worth the effort

        So the Man Booker prize hoohah is over for another year. The bookies’ favourite didn’t win – again. There was grumbling on the sidelines about the long list – again. There was divided opinion about the short list – again. Still, it does at least push modern fiction into the headlines briefly, and give an unexpected sales fillip to half a dozen short-listed novels which would otherwise have sold a few thousand copies at best.

        Would you actually want to read any of the Booker winners? They vary. Of those I’ve read I found “The Life of Pi” (Yann Martel 2002) well written but flawed, and “Possession” (A S Byatt 1990) excellent, as is all her stuff. On the other hand “The Bone People” (Keri Hulme 1985) I couldn’t get into at all.

        But the subject of the review, although a winner as long ago as 1978, still sticks in my mind and I think this is an apt time for a re-visit.

        Iris Murdoch is in the public consciousness not because of her novels but because of her distressing descent into Alzheimer’s and subsequent death in 1999. A film “Iris” was made in 2002. Of all the unlikely heroines, Iris Murdoch must be up there with the unlikeliest. A philosophy student at Oxford (she studied under Wittgenstein), she became a philosophy lecturer and wrote philosophical works like “Existentialists and Mystics”. So no mean intellect, but that doesn’t mean she can write novels. But an acclaimed novelist she was, with a string of excellent readable books, of which this was, I think, her finest,

        An outline of the plot gives nothing away as this is a novel about relationships, not action. Charles Arrowby, a successful playwright and director, moves from the bright lights of London’s theatreland to a remote village by the sea. The location is not specified but think Devon or Cornwall with rocky cliffs and big waves. He settles into a life of rather specious rustic charm, buying local produce and concocting strange dishes, swimming every morning, eschewing modern conveniences like electricity and recording it all in a diary. But he can’t shake off his past and it returns in two forms. Acquaintances from his immediate past descend on him as house guests. And he discovers that an old flame, Mary, known as Hartley, is living in the village.

        Charles resolves to win her back. As she seems to be in an abusive relationship he can justify himself that he is “saving her”. He becomes obsessed; she is in his thoughts constantly. Eventually he abducts her.

        Their relationship is at the core of the novel, and it is astonishing in its strangeness. They are complete opposites, in character, personality and background, and the attraction is one-sided to boot. Hartley wasn’t interested in Charles then, and isn’t now. Yet whatever chemistry is making their lives touch is also driving them to extremes: he to obsessive behaviour and she to an almost catatonic state where she says nothing and reacts to nothing.

        In parallel with this, Murdoch describes other relationships. Charles’ past contains a powerful relationship with his mentor, Clement, and with many women from his theatre days. Titus, Hartley’s son, maybe Charles’, comes to live with him and they are drawn to each other. James, Charles’ Buddhist cousin, appears. He is strange, spiritual, disliked by Charles as he makes him feel uneasy. This cast of hugely contrasting characters gradually populate the book. The exotic, brittle London people throwing tantrums; the local people monochrome, quieter; James and Titus floating between the groups, touching but belonging to neither. As more characters crowd in on him, and his obsession with Hartley grows, the format changes from an objective diary style to a straight first person subjective narrative, then distance is re-established later with an objective past tense.

        Ever present is the sea, as the title suggests. It is such a powerful presence, it is not only an allegory and a metaphor, it is also a protagonist. Early in the book, Charles records in his diary that he saw a sea monster that morning, and describes it in great detail. The reader, this reader at any rate, thinks, “What the …?” It becomes clear it is a drug-induced vision, but equally it is a striking allegory of impending catastrophe when an outside influence intrudes in elements where it doesn’t belong. Charles is swimming in this sea, and also plunging into a disastrous course of action. He has no control over the outcome in either case.

        The monster makes a couple more appearances, and in more normal mode the sea makes itself felt in storms and a drowning. Another strange episode is Charles’ own rescue by James, from physical drowning, if not from spiritual submersion. Perhaps the sea as a metaphor for tempestuous relationships, stirrings beneath calm surfaces and elements in our lives over which we have no control is rather obvious. It is certainly common throughout literature –a sea monster destroying those threatening a pre-ordained order of things is straight out of the Aeneid. But it is powerful and originally worked by the author for all that.

        The novel has been described as a re-working of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”. The sea allusion is now clearer, but I bet not many other parallels are spotted by the average reader. “The Tempest” is not much read in schools, so most of us have no more than a nodding acquaintance with it. There is a good game to be played for those who like to spot-the-literary-parallel. My game-playing ability goes as far as equating Charles with Prospero marooned on his island (“We are such stuff as dreams are made on” is very apt) and James with Ariel who works magic for Prospero. But this has about as much value as saying West Side Story is a reworking of Romeo and Juliet: true and interesting, but unnecessary, other than to point up the recurring theme through different lives. Like West Side Story, The Sea, The Sea stands on its own merits.

        One can’t say that the reader feels any emotional involvement with the characters. They are too strange, too exotic, and in many cases downright unlikeable. They are not there to be empathised with, they are the author’s playthings as she weaves a cat’s cradle of interrelationships at different levels. We, the readers, are also dragged into her net, and led by the hand to see things how and when she wants us to. If she were to be accused of distancing herself and her readers from her characters I’m sure she would have replied in existentialist terms that none of it is real! “The Tempest” was a romantic comedy. Is she inviting us to laugh at these comically exaggerated characters?

        And how does it all end? Well despite what I said about the narrative being unimportant I will leave this hanging. Suffice it to say that several themes I have alluded to above are drawn together, but it still surprises.

        So a complex and complicated book working on many levels and beautifully constructed. It will not appeal to everyone – in fact several people I have recommended it to have told me in no uncertain terms what they think of my opinion! But I guarantee you won’t forget it.

        Cover price £7.99, Amazon price £5.59. 528 pages.

        Note: Dooyoo has registered the title incorrectly in the catalogue as "The Sea". I've asked them to change it.


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          24.02.2006 12:02
          Very helpful



          An interesting read although it's never going to be a classic.

          The Sea, The Sea.

          Iris Murdoch wrote her Booker Prize-winning novel, The Sea, The Sea, in 1978 and it is hailed as her best novel. It was her 19th book and she had been short-listed for the Booker Prize several times before. Having watched the film and read the book, which tell the life story of Iris Murdoch in the past few years, I have been interested in reading some of her writing for some time. The Sea, The Sea is the first of her novels that I have had the pleasure to read.

          NB: Dooyoo have added this book title as simply The Sea. Whereas the title of this book is The Sea, The Sea. I will e-mail them to point out this error and hopefully this will be changed.

          The Storyline.

          The narrator of The Sea, The Sea is sixty-something year old, Charles Arrowby. Despite his years Charles comes across as a much younger and vibrant character, mostly due to his many everyday oddities. Charles has spent his life in the theatre as a director, and is a famous figure in the media. Charles certainly thinks a lot of himself and his self-focused natures comes across throughout.

          Charles has recently retired and has moved from London having bought himself a house by the sea. The house is called Shruff End and it is situated "upon a small promontory" standing alone overlooking an unspecified area of the South English coast. The house is dilapidated, lacking electricity and modern conveniences but it is just what Charles wanted. It is from Shruff End that Charles begins his autobiography and his new life.
          Charles soon discovers that one of the people living in the small town is his first love, a women called Hartley (or Mary), who had sworn to marry him in their adolescence. When Charles and Mary turned 18, however, Hartley told him she didn't want to marry him and she ran away. Charles searched fruitlessly for Mary in his youth but she covered her tracks well. He had never forgotten her….

          After discovering that Hartley lives in the village Charles rapidly becomes obsessed with her as a symbol of his lost youth and happiness. He is used to being able to have any women he has ever wanted and he convinces himself that she must still love him. Hartley is however, married to Ben, but Charles convinces himself that Ben is a bully and that Hartley is desperately unhappy and awaiting his rescue. Charles simply won't accept that they he and Hartley can't be together, and this leads into an odd psychological drama during which Charles even goes to the length of kidnapping her and keeping her locked away in his house for several days…

          Although the majority of the book primarily focuses on the relationship between Hartley and Charles there are a steady stream of visitors to Shruff End and thus a host of other characters. Of greatest interest is Mary and Ben's adopted son, Titus, who sought out Charles to see if he was his biological father and ends up staying indefinitely. Ex-lovers of Charles, Lizzie and Rosina also feature and bring with them many tears and tantrums. Peregrine and Gilbert, friends from the theatre also arrive and finally, James, Charles cousin, towards whom he is jealous and resentful. Shuff end is therefore, at point, a hive of activity and Charles and his guests primarily spend their time drinking into the early hours of the morning.

          My Opinion.

          The books starts as a diary of Charles everyday life. During these chapters a great deal of the book also tells of the menial things Charles does. There are large sections of the book devoted to what he eats (scrambled egg and beetroot anyone or dried apricots soaked in water with biscuits?), his forays around the town and his naked swimming trips.

          The diary format, however, is soon lost as the events that occur at Shruff End happen too fast for Charles to keep up his writing daily. By the end of the book the narrative changes to that of a recount of past events. This is a bizarre approach but it works and the gradual transmission between writing styles is barely noticeable to the reader.

          The Sea, The Sea is primarily a book about relationships, about Charles inability to let go of his first love and about his obscure relationships with a number of ex lovers and friends. Despite his high self opinion, Charles is an insecure character. But he is likable for his bizarre ways and his completely illogical rationality when it comes to both Hartley and the other characters in the book.

          The sea is nearly ever-present, always in the background and also playing a more major role at times. In addition to the numerous swimming trips, there is an attempted murder whereby one character is pushed into the sea, a drowning and the sighting of the sea-monster. The latter is a small and obscure part of the book and the only really unbelievable part. Thus I thought it was a shame to include it as it distracts from the main focus of the book.

          The book is fairly slow, not a great deal happens in the 500 odd pages of small text, although it is well written using a lovely poetic style and very small chapters throughout. I found The Sea, The Sea relatively easy to read although it did take me a while to get into the storyline at first. I'd say it took me about 3 weeks to read, because it does demand attention especially while you get used to the style.

          About the Author.

          Iris Murdoch was born in Dublin in 1919. In the 1940s Iris received a first-class degree in classics from Oxford and in 1947 she took up a postgraduate studentship at Cambridge, studying philosophy. She is well known as one of the most acclaimed British writers of the twentieth century, having written 26 novels, 4 books of philosophy and 5 plays.

          Iris developed Alzheimer's disease in the mid-1990s and died in Oxford on February 8, 1999, survived by her husband, John Bayley who has written an autobiography of Iris, which is also an interesting read.

          Irish Murdoch's other novels include The Black Prince and The Sacred and Profane Love Machine. Her novels have been awarded countless prizes over the years.


          I enjoyed reading The Sea, The Sea, and I intend to read some of Iris Murdoch's other works. It isn't the easiest book to read and I did struggle a little to get into it initially. It is worth persisting though as the main character is a splendid and interesting chap who I liked despite his irrationalities. The Sea, the Sea is never going to be hailed as a classic but at the same time Iris Murdoch is a reputable author and as her best known book The Sea, The Sea is worth a read. Four stars from me.

          Book Details.

          The Sea, The Sea is available to buy from Amazon from around £3.50, although it is retailed at £6.99.

          Paperback 528 pages
          Publisher: Vintage
          ISBN: 009928409X


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        • Product Details

          Charles Arrowby, leading light of England's theatrical set, retires from glittering London to an isolated home by the sea. He plans to write a memoir about his great love affair with Clement Makin, his mentor, both professionally and personally, and amuse himself with Lizzie, an actress he has strung along for many years. None of his plans work out, and his memoir evolves into a riveting chronicle of the strange events and unexpected visitors-some real, some spectral-that disrupt his world and shake his oversized ego to its very core.

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