My Year in Re-Reading After 40 #5: The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch
Court Merrigan revisits Murdoch’s 1970s classic
Electric Lit relies on contributions from our readers to help make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive. Please support our work by becoming a member today, or making a one-time donation here.
I read Christian Lorentzen’s piece on questioning whether it’s really the story that keeps us reading stories the other day. I was particularly struck by this part:
“The thin traces the plots of even the most memorable near universally read books can leave in our minds. If a work of fiction has any force to it, we close the book with a head full of images, lines, and emotions.”
Looking back at the first four entries in My Year of Re-Reading, I see that I can’t much remember the plots, or the names of the characters; what I’m chasing when I re-read is that experience, the one that remains lodged in the brain years later. A year or five from now, I’ll no doubt have forgotten those plots … again.
Let’s try it out on some famous books. How closely can I recite their plots? Not at all, it turns out. A random sample (with help from Wikipedia):
• Midnight’s Children: a guy gets lost in a swamp during a civil war in Bangladesh? (That happens, but the book is totally not even about that.
• Wuthering Heights: a jealous jilted ex-lover goes and gets rich in order to get revenge on the object of his affection’s daughter, a more twisted Great Gatsby? (I mean, sort of …)
• The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: a nerdy Dominican kid learns who he is growing up in New York thanks to some charm and Lord of the Rings? (Yeah … not really.)
• Freedom: lol, j/k, like I’d read this. There are enough ponderous bores in real life without reading one, too.
Despite the fact each of the first three books deeply moved me, I can’t even recall basic plot points about them. Lorentzen’s point that emotion and characters rather than plot forming the glue of what we love about the books we love seems self-evident to me. The best books envelope us in a fictive dream more real than reality. But like a dream, they fade with time, leaving only the glimmer of impression. How often does the shadow of a passing girl or certain peppery scent wafting on a spring breeze jar us suddenly back into a dream we once woke from smiling?
Which brings me to The Sea, The Sea. I love this book, unreservedly. I also couldn’t tell you the first thing about what happens in its pages. Some English dude — a poet, maybe? — takes a lot of walks along the craggy English coast in a sweater, drinks wine, and obsesses over a girl. I also can’t remember the names of the characters, or what they want, or why, or if they get it or not. Actually, I’m not sure much happens at all. I’m also one hundred percent sure I don’t care.
I recall looking up from the pages of The Sea, The Sea upon a first read to find the world atilt and vaguely unreal. Certainly dimmer in comparison to the world Iris Murdoch summoned, certainly a rougher and vastly less beautiful place. I had to get up from the couch, I had to fix something to eat, I had to sleep and the next morning there would be work and all the quotidian demands of the workaday world, and it all seemed horribly unfair that I couldn’t just crawl back inside those pages and stay there for good or at least a long, long while.
I don’t recall what, exactly, about the book propelled me to such fantastical heights, but I’m aiming to find out with this re-read.
Reading The Sea, The Sea felt rather like a magnificent High Mass I once attended in a Midwestern cathedral in a rundown Rust Belt city, replete with incense and organ chords echoing up to the rafters which seemed to ripple with ominous flapping. An odd sense of unreality attached itself to the proceedings, the prayers of the bishop at the altar, the clanging of the bells, the creaking of pews as the congregation engaged in Catholic calisthenics, stand, kneel, sit, stand, kneel, sit. Oh, the Mass was real enough to taste and smell, and the grand old cathedral with its pews worn smooth by generations of worshippers stood as solid as a human architectural construction can be. But watching those priests and bishops and their Hosannas before the glow of the altar and the congregation with their Missals and Christ crucified overlooking all, I was seized by an odd sense of detachment. As though I were observing myself from a distance.
That’s the double bind The Sea, The Sea put me in: I was reading the words, all right, but somehow I wasn’t quite there. At 40, I’m too old and life is too short to construct a bunch of sentences about the various “meanings” I could extract from the text. Faced with having to have something substantial to say about this book, so pregnant with feeling and impressions, I can do no more than reach for analogies, it seems. No narrative thread has presented itself; no clever insights. Only tenuous, weak analogies.
In point of fact, I’ve been struggling for nearly two weeks now to come up with something meaningful to say about this book, which seems an odd thing to say about a book you love. I mean, ordinarily I’d say that my interest level in reading 502 pages about a poncy retired English playwright would hover at somewhere around less than zero; in truth, I plowed through The Sea, The Sea in only a few days (which is something of a miracle of speed with two children at home … did I mention it’s soccer season again? Somehow children’s soccer season seems to encompass roughly 47 weeks a year). Which is additionally remarkable because, as I suspected, not a whole hell of a lot happens in this book.
Oh, Charles Arrowby, gets in some scrapes obsessing over his long lost and now rediscovered childhood love. Nearly drowns, in fact, and would have, too, had his saint-like cousin not levitated down into a tidal surge to save him (I think). A young man dies, an old man dies, an old woman (Arrowby’s ex-lover) flees to Australia. Wine is drunk, friends from London come and go, betrayals and reunions abound. A bit of a muddled mess when it comes to plot, really. And what’s more, and more relevant, is that nearly two weeks later, the details have already escaped me. Because this marvelous hurricane of a book requires no foundation of mere plot to remain lodged in one’s consciousness.
A curious feature of The Sea, The Sea is that it is hard to summon individual sentences or even paragraphs to stand forth as representatives. The writing is not quotable, if you will, in the way that someone hilarious like Lorrie Moore or someone inspired like James Baldwin. Rather, the propulsive force of the words piled one upon another pummel you into submission, your brain a galley slave to Iris Murdoch’s imagination. This makes for looooooooong paragraphs, full of twists and perspective shifts, leavened by foreshadowing and symbolic gestures, but not pointing to any reality but that of the book itself (and let it be said, I chose a paragraph alluding to a “terrible thing” happening to show that you don’t even need to know about the terrible thing, which turns out not to be that terrible anyway, to appreciate and savor the prose):
After that, and until the terrible thing happened, the evening seemed quietly to break up, or to become diffused and gently chaotic like the later stages of a good party. Or perhaps it is all just confused in my memory. There was some light over the rocks, though I do not recall where it came from. Perhaps the clouds were still giving off light. A moon had made its appearance, randomly shaped and spotty, large and pale as a cloud itself. The fierce foam at the edge of the sea seemed luminous. I wandered looking for Lizzie, who had vanished. Everyone seemed to be walking about on the rocks, precariously holding glasses in their hands. An owl was hooting somewhere inland and the intermittent voices of my guests sounded equally distant, equally frail and hollow. I also wanted to find James, because I felt that perhaps I had been rude to him. I wanted to say something to him, I was not sure what, about Aunt Estelle. She had shone somehow upon my childhood. Che cosa e amor indeed. I went to the cliff and watched the waves pounding it. There was a soft growling of thunder. I could see the glowing whitenesses of the wave-crests out to sea. Gilbert’s babbling baritone started up not far off. Stay dainty nymphs and speak, shall we play barley-break tra la la? Then later on, in another quarter, Titus also by himself could be heard rendering Jack of Hazeldean. There was something absurd and touching about the solipsistic self-absorption and self-satisfaction of these drunken singers. Then at last I heard Lizzie’s voice distantly singing Full Fathom Five. I listened carefully but could get no sense of direction, so loud was the accompaniment of the restless rushing sea. Then I thought, how strangely her voice echoes. It seems almost amplified. She must be singing inside the tower.
Such baroque writing ain’t normally my cup of tea; but done this way, it’s easy to get swept up along in the tide, and I was only too happy to do so. Murdoch is a such virtuoso, you’d feel compelled to read her Fitbit updates (9,389 steps! Nearly there!). The writing reminded me of nothing so much as Proust, whose In Search of Lost Time I once read in its entirety. The prose rolls and roils your brain, leaving you a little dazed in its wake, and somewhat at a loss for words (ahem). I think that’s why I struggled for so long after re-reading to find something worth saying about this book.
As Christian Lorentzen intuited, emotion trumps plot. Or character.
But while we’re on the topic, let’s talk about Charles Arrowby. A horrid little man, the book’s protagonist has managed to, despite wealth and experience and age, attain exactly no wisdom. Selfish, sexist, condescending, utterly self-unaware. He wrecks the lives of others to keep himself amused, rather as a toddler will trash a dinner table just for the fun of seeing a mess. In his romantic life, Charles Arrowby makes mistakes worthy of a swaggering sixteen-year old; in his career, those of a petulant seventeen-year old; in his daily life, those of an ill-formed eighteen-year old college freshman living on his own in a dorm for the first time. By page 200 or so, when you start to realize how goddamn dumb Charles Arrowby is about damn near everything in the world he inhabits, it is not so much infuriating as it is irritating, like a splinter lodged in the flesh of your palm and you’ve got no needle.
Charles Arrowby is the worst sort of narcissist, so unaware of his own self-centeredness that he almost seems written as an object lesson. Kids, the moral of the story is don’t be a selfish asshole!
Except Iris Murdoch could hardly have had so prosaic an end in mind. For all the petty rancor of its main character, the book as a whole is anything but petty or rancorous. In this lies the book’s strange magic, I think, and try as I might, I don’t know how else to put it.
Someday, years from now, the spell will have worn off again, and I’ll re-read it once more, and once more, be enchanted.
The aforementioned difficulties with finding quotable quotes in The Sea, The Sea have not been surmounted upon review of the pages I dog-eared. Stripped of their context, the following quotes, while still great, have lost their original impetus; they are the desiccated fossils of a far greater creature. Take them in that spirit, because they’re still fuckin’ great.
For use the next time someone asks you why you aren’t married yet:
I wanted a wife once when I was young, but the girl fled. Since then I have never really seriously thought of marriage. My observation of the state never made me fancy it.
The speech all writers secretly dread they will one day hear:
You never did any good for mankind, you never did a damn thing for anybody but yourself. If Clement hadn’t fancied you no one would ever have heard of you, your work wasn’t any bloody good, it was just a pack of pretentious tricks, as everyone can see now that they aren’t mesmerized any more, so the glitter’s fading fast and you’ll find yourself alone and you won’t even be a monster in anybody’s mind any more and they’ll all heave a sigh of relief and feel sorry for you and forget you.
A sentence so nearly-maudlin you or I would never dare write … and yet, and yet …
The grass on the other side of the road was a pullulating emerald green, the rocks that here and there among the grass were almost dazzlingly alight with little diamonds. The warm air met me in a wave, thick with land smells of earth and growth and flowers.
Next: More fantastical yet.