Friday, 16 May 2014

THE SEA, THE SEA by Iris Murdoch

This is a book I very much admired, though I did not always enjoy it.

It’s a truly odd little novel, about an old theatre director who has decided to retire to the seaside. Sounds innocuous enough, but it slowly turns into a bizarre meditation on the creation of self, on selfishness, on obsession, and finally - weirdly - on religion.

The book is something of a diary, and the old man appears rather mean and egotistical at first. Then however he runs into the woman who jilted him when he was a teenager, who apparently retains for him some kind of idea of perfect happiness, and he pursues her to the point of stalking, and then beyond, to the point of kidnap. It’s strange and abusive, but it’s also about what it means to truly believe.

So it’s interesting philosophically; but I enjoyed it more I think for the accuracy of its observation, and the beauty of its style, than its actual content. This is Murdoch’s seventeenth book, and it shows. This lady knows what she’s doing. Take this, about a friend of the old man, who pretends to be very loud and brash:
. . . is one of those people who have a strong concept of the life they want to lead and the role they want to play and lead it and play it at the expense of everyone, especially their nearest and dearest. And the odd thing is that such people can in a sense be wrong, can as it were miscast themselves, and yet battle on successfully to the end . .
I can immediately think of several people in this category, probably including myself. The book is also interesting on the nature of the theatre, that being the old man’s profession. Here’s a pretty accurate summary:
The theatre is a place of obsession. It is not a soft dreamland. Unemployment, poverty, disappointment, racking indecision (take this now and miss that later) grind reality into one’s face; and, as in family life, one soon learns the narrow limitations of the human soul.
“As in family life” – hilarious. And here’s an interesting perspective on men in groups:
I confess I went to Peregrine not only for a drinking bout and chat with an old friend, but for male company, sheer complicit male company: the complicity of males which is like, indeed is, a kind of complicity in crime, in chauvinism, in getting away with thing, in just gluttonously enjoying the present even if hell is all around
And lastly, here’s a charming description of a happy person:
Gilbert exuded the secret satisfaction of one who has come unscathed through a fascinating adventure which he looks forward to gossiping about in another context.
Suddenly in retrospect I think I may have kind of loved this book after all.

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