This is the second book written by Iris Murdoch that I have read. It received the Booker Prize in 1978. Her first book, Under the Net, which I didn’t care for so much, was like a TV sit com, with the protagonist doing a lot of stupid stuff and the repercussions thereof. The Sea, The Sea was more like a theatrical farce, with characters popping in and out, and I could almost see the stage directions: [Enter Rosina stage Left].
It is the memoir written by well-known actor , playwright and producer, now retired, Charles Arrowby. He introduces us to a cast of friends and former lovers, some of them are both, his cousin James, (who may or may not be a government spy and/or a Zen Master), and the family of his first love and obsession.
He says he has only one love, Hartley, his first, which developed in school. At age 18, when he expected them to marry, she tells him she cannot marry him, and dumps him. She marries someone else and disappears. He has never gotten over her, and she has been his obsession all these years.
He decides to withdraw from the world, buys a strange house on the cliffs outside of a very small town on the southern coast of Britain. It has no electricity, and some odd vibes about it, but he likes it enough. One day while walking in the village, who does he see but the old missing love of his life! She and the husband have retired to a house by the sea in the vicinity. What a striking coincidence! She doesn’t want anything to do with him, but he is convinced he can win her back, and so pursues her in a manner we would consider today to be stalking.
Meanwhile, various of his friends and former lovers keep showing up to visit, then he learns that his obsession, Hartley, has an adopted son who disappeared when he went off to school, and this son appears on the cliffs outside his house, hoping to meet Charles because he thinks Charles may be his biological father. Charles takes him in after assuring the boy that he is not his father, but wishing to act as a mentor and father figure to him.
Charles is so convinced that he can convince Hartley to come to him that he comes up with a plan to kidnap her and hold her in his house until she ‘comes to her senses’.
OK, see what I mean about the theatricality of this storyline? Oh, and there is much more. Much more.
Charles’ inability to recognize the egotism and selfishness of his own romantic ideals is at the heart of the novel, as are the revelations of the egotism, ambitions, jealousies and revenges of his circle of friends.
The book’s title probably comes from the shout of triumphant exultation given by the roaming 10,000 Greeks when, in 401BC, they caught sight of the Black Sea from Mount Theches in Trebizond and realiszed they were saved from near-certain death, according to Xenophon’s Anabasis,. “The Sea! The Sea!” (Thalatta! Thalatta!)
Paul Valéry’s poem The Graveyard by the Sea contains the line: La mer, la mer, toujours recommencee (The Sea, The Sea forever restarting). We can think this might refer to the eternal unchanging human nature, ever different but like the sea, always the same.
I rather enjoyed this book. It was fairly long, and was filled with beautiful descriptions of the sea and the cliffs, the sky and the weather, which were not at all tedious but lent a kind of grounding as a counterpoint to the farcical goings on of the characters cavorting about.