I had never read anything by Iris Murdoch before and her novel The Sea, The Sea comes up on many lists of great books as well as being a Booker prize winner so I used the opportunity of the 60 Books from 60 Years challenge to read it for the first time.
Charles Arrowby has been a well-known figure in the London theatre (it appears that he wasn’t so successful in America) and he has decided to retire and write his memoirs. He purchases an isolated house by the sea and starts to write, mainly about the women with whom he has been involved. His fantasy of the ideal retired life is challenged, however, by the fact that the house is damp and inconvenient and by the visits of various people from his past. Charles has had a whole string of past relationships and the people from them start to become involved in his new life. Charles has had one idealised relationship win his life, when he was a boy, and by coincidence his lost love Hartley is living in the nearby village so he decides that he must rescue her from her unsatisfactory marriage and that they will be together.
Charles is a monster. He behaves appallingly throughout this novel. He is amazingly selfish and when anything happens he only thinks about how it relates to him. He is insanely jealous of his relationships and his friendships. Hartley doesn’t want to be rescued from her marriage but Charles will not take “no” for an answer. He deliberately makes her husband angry, a man that he thinks is abusing Hartley, thinking that this will make her leave him. In the end he kidnaps Hartley and holds her prisoner to try to get her to change her mind or to break her marriage irretrievably so that she has no choice. He lies to everyone and he has broken up marriages before. When Hartley’s son visits him he creates a strange intimacy with him and, although the son is an adult, says that he wants to adopt him. At no time does he ever actually listen to what anyone says unless it fits his view of things.
I struggled with this book because I disliked Charles so much and I really didn’t care about his life but I did make it to the end. The author who has introduced some possibly supernatural elements in the early part of the book intensifies this aspect nearer to the end and there are some events which can only be understood if one of the characters has some special powers – I really didn’t see the need for this aspect of the story at all and found it a bit silly.
I am really not sure what the author meant me to take away from this book. I found reading about one man’s selfishness and jealousy unpalatable. His attitude and his actions were petty and nasty and he is not redeemed in any way by the end of the story. Having read this book by Iris Murdoch I do not intend to read any more of her work.