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16th March
written by Steph

The Sea, The Sea was my first book by Iris Murdoch, and I’m not ashamed to say that I approached it with my tail between my legs.  I was intimidated.  Having never read anything by Murdoch before, I was certain I was in for a challenging and demanding read; I worried I wouldn’t be up to the task, that Murdoch’s writing would be too avant garde or erudite for my mere mortal brain.  I summoned my courage and decided to tackle it, but I was scared it would conquer me. So imagine my surprise when I discovered that The Sea, The Sea, while dense and demanding was actually pretty painless to read!  I don’t think anyone could call Murdoch an easy read, but my fears that she would be inaccessible and opaque were pretty ill-founded.  In fact, the thing I struggled with most while reading this novel was myself.  I had to keep reminding myself not to psych myself out and to keep reading, repeating to myself “You can do this!  There’s nothing to fear here!”  It’s crazy how much our preconceptions can sway us and influence our reading experiences.  I was never fully able to relax while reading The Sea, The Sea, but I did make it all the way through, and ultimately found it a rich and rewarding reading experience. The conceit behind the novel is that retired playwright/actor/director Charles Arrowby has moved to a seaside home with the intention of finally writing his memoirs.  The novel is told in the form of a diary, and readers are treated to his recollections of the past as well as his day-to-day activities and musings.  Charles spends a lot of time pondering his past, especially his former romantic dalliances and how these have shaped his life and who he is as a man.  In particular he spends a lot of time thinking of Hartley, his childhood sweetheart who thinks was his one true love and is the one who got away.  Charles hasn’t seen her for well over 50 years, and yet he finds he cannot get over her, and it is only a matter of time before his obsession with Hartley becomes one that threatens to consume and take over his entire life, leaving nothing but destruction and devastation in its wake. I think one of the things that surprised me most about my first Murdoch novel was how soap operatic it was!  This isn’t to say the novel was fluffy and insubstantial – far from it – but there was just so much interpersonal drama, with jealous ex-mistresses, runaway brides, orphans, abusive husbands, and even attempts at murder.  For some reason, I didn’t expect Murdoch to write a novel that was so unabashedly human, revealing our basest instincts and urges, or petty foibles and feelings.   At times, with all the random comings and goings of people, the book felt almost like the movie Clue with people running about hither and thither with general chaos resulting.  And that is certainly not a bad thing, because how often do you compare a Booker Prize winner to the film Clue? Not often enough, in my opinion! Now of course it’s easy enough to get caught up in the plot here, since as I said, there’s tons of drama, but really the reason you read this novel, and the reason why I know I’ll need to re-read it, is because of all the ideas that are swirling about, much like the frothy sea Murdoch is always referencing.  One of the greatest themes running through the novel is that of jealousy, but The Sea, The Sea is also a novel about family, memory, and of course the power of love (both positive and negative).  For me, I found Charles’s reminiscences about Hartley to be incredibly intriguing, this notion that her love kept him honest and true, and once it was removed, he set out to destroy himself… and yet Charles’s presence in Hartley’s life was itself a destructive force.  His salvation was also a damnation. Charles is a hugely flawed character, and yet he is never a caricature, never unbelievable.  It is probably safe to say that none of the characters in this book are entirely sympathetic, but they are compelling and they feel very real.  I admit that at times I felt the book way heavy on me, and I think it could probably be a good hundred pages shorter since it does meander at times, but it is powerful and it leaves a mark. When I was finally finished with it, it felt weird to no longer spend any time with Charles and his pals, even if I didn’t particularly like any of them.  Maybe this is just part and parcel of reading longer novels – you spend so much time reading them, you can’t help but feel invested – but I also think that Murdoch has created a particularly engrossing book here.  I didn’t always agree with the actions and behaviors of various characters, but I did find what they did understandable, even if their choices would not be my own.  Murdoch doesn’t shy away from highlighting the vainglory and other flaws that reside deep within us; some readers might be turned off by the rather harsh perspective she provides, but I felt she did this skillfully and without judgment, and I personally appreciated the accuracy of her insights. Once more I’m forced to say that this is a novel about which there is probably tons more left to discuss, but I hardly think one reading is sufficient to grasp it all.  I do intend to read this again so that I can better ruminate on some of its themes, but I’d also like to read more Murdoch in the future.  This novel was a struggle for me at times, in part because it was quite a bit longer than my usual reading choices, and that in itself was intimidating.  There were times I considered giving up because my own fears, though unfounded, were getting the better of me, but in the end I’m really glad I persevered.  There were times I felt over my head, knowing how rich and thorough a novel this is, but ultimately I really did learn that Murdoch is not a scary writer, though she is immensely talented.  Hopefully when I read my next book by her, I’ll find it easier, simply because I’ll know that I’ve succeeded in reading something by her already. So fair readers, are their any authors that make your knees tremble and hands quiver with trepidation at the thought of approaching any of their works?  Surely I’m not the only reader who has a literary inferiority complex! Rating: 4 out of 5


  1. I haven’t read anything by Murdoch yet either. I’m really pleased to hear that this one is accessible. I am put off by the length of it, but I will now approach it with less fear!

  2. 03/16/2010

    How wonderful that you’ve tackled your first Murdoch. She is brilliant but I totally understand what you say when you mentioned her writing is dense, demanding and not very relaxed. I can never seem to remember the plot of her novels because they are so complex and full of different characters. One does have to be in the mood for Murdoch.

  3. 03/16/2010

    I read The Bell by Iris Murdoch a few years back. I hadn’t realized she was supposed to be a difficult author, so I wasn’t intimidated, and I didn’t find her writing to be too difficult. The story itself was a bit boring though, and reading your review makes me think I probably missed a lot…

  4. 03/16/2010

    I love this line: “When I was finally finished with it, it felt weird to no longer spend any time with Charles and his pals, even if I didn’t particularly like any of them.” You are so tolerant of characters with foibles, much moreso than I. I usually want them fixed by the end of the book! :–) (If I wanted to know people who never get fixed, I could stick with real life, or worse yet, just look in the mirror!) I’m glad you finally overcame your reluctance to tackle an author you had been wanting to try!

  5. 03/16/2010

    @ Jackie: I wonder if I might have been less intimidated by Murdoch if the book I started with had been a bit shorter. This isn’t the longest book ever, but it is longer than what I generally read. Still, the writing was strong and I made it!
    @ Mrs. B: I am sure that with time I’ll forget much of the plot of this one, though I think I will remember specific themes and ideas. And I’m looking forward to eventually reading another book by her, and hopefully I’ll be able to relax more!
    @ Amanda: I don’t know where I got the idea that Murdoch was difficult, but it was a huge obstacle for me to overcome. In the end, I do think parts of this novel dragged, but I’m glad I stuck with it. I think she’s probably an author where plot is not her primary objective.
    @ rhapsody: I don’t know why I am willing to suffer awful people in fiction, because I have no tolerance for them in real life! I guess one of the things I like about reading is how deeply authors can probe the human condition, even if what is revealed is not all that wonderful!

  6. 03/16/2010

    I am hugely intimidated by Virginia Woolfe, and have not yet read any of her works because I fear that I will be too obtuse to understand them. I have thought of trying To the Lighthouse or maybe even Orlando, but I am still working out my insecurities in that respect.

    I am glad that you had such a good experience with Murdoch. I have only read one of her books (Under the Net) which I found to be a really thought provoking and deep read. I think you would like that one as well. It was pretty accessible, and I thought it was a pretty enjoyable read. I do plan on reading more Murdoch in the future, and have been thinking about tackling this one. Good to know it’s engrossing and that even though the characters aren’t lovable, they stay with you.

  7. This is the year I will read something by Iris Murdoch; I keep repeating that across the blogosphere in the hope that I make it happen… it was supposed to be last year. I’m going to begin with The Bell, as it is shorter and less intimidating, before moving onto The Sea, the Sea.

    I fully understand when you talk about authors being daunting and yet when you do pluck up the courage to read them you find them completely accessible and even enjoyable; I was intimidated by Coetzee and then found Disgrace so easy and enjoyable to read and felt similarly about Kafka. I have a number of books and writers on my TBR that freak me out: Proust and Zola come to mind immediately; books in translation often daunt me more than those in English do.

  8. 03/16/2010

    Murdoch is one of those authors I find intimidating! I have no idea why. Bloomsbury Bell gave a great review to The Bell a few months ago though, so that’s probably where I’ll start.

  9. 03/16/2010

    I’d hardly call your mortal brain “mere.”

  10. 03/17/2010

    @ zibilee: If I haven’t posted about it on the blog before, I am right there with you in terms of the Woolf intimidation factor. This is exacerbated by the fact that every time I’ve tried one of her books, I’ve failed MISERABLY.
    Glad to hear you’ve also had success with Murdoch in the past. I’d like to try either Under the Net or The Bell, but not sure which one I’ll try next. Maybe something entirely different!
    @ Claire: I think The Sea, The Sea is oft considered to be Murdoch’s masterpiece, so it might be best to work up to it.
    I didn’t have an intimidation issue with Coetzee, I think because I hadn’t heard too much about him before I picked up Disgrace, but there are tons of other authors, like James Joyce, William Faulkner, Charles Dickens… just to name a few! 😉
    @ Teresa: Yes, I have no idea what planted the seed in my mind that Murdoch was hard to read, but I rue the day that ever happened! I don’t see much about her across the book blogosphere, so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised if others feel similarly!
    @ softdrink: Thanks for the compliment, but pretty much every day I come up with more evidence that my little grey cells are merely mortal…

  11. 03/17/2010

    Woolf was my great fear in terms of author’s to tackle but that fear has been completely blown out of the water this year so I am keen to tackle some others now and hope they turn out just as well! This book sounds wonderful – plenty to keep a reader enticed! I haven’t really thought of reading any of her books before but I might think twice now…

  12. 03/18/2010

    I haven’t read The Sea, The Sea, but I did read two other Murdoch’s and enjoyed both. I had similar worries before diving in, and was happily surprised to find her work both intelligent and accessible. I will definitely try to read The Sea, The Sea this year at some point.

  13. 03/18/2010

    @ Karen: Oh, I have yet to conquer my Woolf fear. Sometimes I wonder if I ever will! I hope that you do try some Murdoch; I think you’d really like her!
    @ verbivore: I’m going to go through your archives and check out your Murdoch thoughts. I don’t see her covered an awful lot in the book blogging world, which is a shame… I’m certainly interested in reading more of her (less lengthy?) novels!

  14. 03/18/2010

    You’re definitely not the only reader with an inferiority complex! And Iris Murdoch, though she really appeals to me, also completely intimidates me. This review gives me heart, though. Hopefully I won’t find her completely inaccessible either.

    Other writers that intimidate me include Woolf (though things got better after Orlando), George Eliot, Proust, Dickens, and the list goes on and on…

  15. 03/18/2010

    I was assigned to read Murdoch in college before I had heard anything about her, and I think that was fortunate because I didn’t have time to get intimidated. I read The Sea, The Sea a few years after college and didn’t love it, but appreciated the story. I’m so glad you tackled this and enjoyed it! No need to be intimidated by any book, I say!

  16. 03/19/2010

    @ Nymeth: Given that many of the authors on your “intimidation list” are also on mine, I think you should feel good when you finally give Murdoch a shot! I think you’ll really enjoy her, and won’t find her nearly as scary as you think!
    @ Dorothy: I find reading things for assignment is very different than reading on my own, because I know that I HAVE to read it, and so I don’t even consider abandoning ship. But you’re right that there’s no reason to be scared of any book! Now if only I can apply that philosophy to James Joyce… 😉

  17. 03/19/2010

    I have never read any Iris Murdoch. Your review encourages me to give it a try.

    RE intimidation, I could name any number of Russian classics for you 🙂

  18. 03/20/2010

    I read The Sea, The Sea with an on-line group several years ago. Was totally unfamiliar with Murdoch and didn’t ‘know enough’ to intimidated. I ended up loving the book, and have The Bell waiting on the shelf. AS Byatt intimidates me.

  19. 03/21/2010

    @ Nish: I haven’t read extensively when it comes to Russian authors, but I’m hoping to tackle a few this year, and maybe that will abate any intimidation that might be developing! I hope so!
    @ JoAnn: I think one of the best things in reading is coming to an author as fresh as you can and just being open to the experience! So glad to hear you enjoyed Murdoch in the past… I’ve only read one Byatt novel, but I’d like to try more… not sure when I will though!

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