​The Sea, The Sea – A perfect holiday read

It’s been a long time since I’ve written about a book, but that’s because I’ve been busy travelling and there’s this particular book, The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch that I was nose deep in. I took my time to finish it, reading at the most leisurely pace possible. Of course being 500 pages strong, this isn’t exactly an overnight read, and while I can speed read, I don’t prefer it. Especially not with books that are based in the English countryside against the backdrop of the sea.

A prolific British writer and philosopher, Iris was made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1987. This is her first book that I’ve read, and while I’ve never come across any of her books on the usual must-read lists (as far as I can remember), this book, her nineteenth, won the Booker Prize in 1978.

While being accorded such an illustrious award speaks much for itself, I picked this book at the annual book fair since it alluded to gothic fiction that I often find myself attracted to. Not to mention, the mystical sea that is almost a character in itself in the narrative, and a touch of mystery thrown in. I’ll be honest, romance and love stories don’t hold my attention for too long, but this is a story of love and obsession that builds up over the years and keeps growing dangerously.

The story is narrated as a memoir written by Charles Arrowby, the main protagonist. A popular theatre director, Charles retires to a lonely house ‘Shruff End’ by the sea in the village of Narrowdean in search of some solitude and peace. He, as he says, is wifeless, childless, brotherless, sisterless, and wanted a spot far from the hue and cry of London. He wanted to focus on himself as he thought that now the time was right to write something personal and reflective, having enjoyed an illustrious career in theatre, and retreat into a world of his own. To simply sit and watch clouds. The small yet beautiful stone-built cottages in the village, a general shop and few hillside bungalows made an ideal setting for him. He had no access to The Times or even batteries for his radio, but the lack of these everyday items did not trouble him much.
“I am glad to intuit that the place is not infested with ‘intellectuals’, a hazard everywhere nowadays.”

‘Woke intellectuals’ are a hazard even today.

An avid swimmer, he takes to the sea quickly and enjoys this to the hilt. Of course, the coast is rocky and he has to jump off precarious rocks, but he does so with happiness and many times, naked. Being a rocky coast, this part does not get too many tourists, a fact that he made full use of.  Early on I realised how Charles loves his food. Being a celebrity in his field, you’d think he would appreciate the taste of some fine wine or be hooked to caviar or some other rather expensive food item. But Charles turned out to be just as I hoped he would, someone who appreciates the simpler things in life. No wonder he retired to a rundown house by the sea.

His descriptions on food had me salivating. And he said it in his own words…

“In the days when I wrote in water I imagined that the only book I would ever publish would be a cookery book!”

In due time, Charles’ perfect world of solitude and the sea is destroyed by the many characters of his past turning up at his house, one by one, to wreak havoc. People whom he wanted to escape, people who brought back the screaming thoughts of theatre, the culture, of past misgivings, jealousy, hate and vanity. Be it his cousin James, with whom he has quite a complicated relationship, or his past lovers Lizzie and Rosina, friend Peregrine (Rosina’s ex-husband) and Gilbert (who’s probably a little in love with Charles, but is in a living situation with Lizzie). You see how complicated this gets?

Charles seems to be the perennial bachelor, someone who wants everyone but can never give himself fully to anyone. Perry even goes as far to say that Charles actually despises women, thinks of them as chattel. He’s had quite a few dalliances, chief being Clement, a woman older than him who met him when he was quite young and probably shares a voice inside his head. But Lizzie, a soft hearted creature who is still madly in love with Charles, keeps hankering him to love her the way she loves him, to live the rest of their lives together. Boy, was she mistaken.

“Oh why do women take everything so intensely and make such a fuss! Why do they always demand definitions, explanations!”

But none quite created the impact on him like a past ‘flame’, Hartley, who just happened to live nearby.  Mary Hartley was the great love of his life. And when he bumped into her one day, there began a tale of obsession that took new heights.

Winslow Homer’s Two Figures by the Sea

The story delves deeper into his relationship with each character, including the house Shruff End and the sea, and in the process it takes you right into the heart and mind of Charles. One starts to understand the kind of person he is. Iris has created such rounded characters that I think this book should be studied minutely by students.

The way Iris describes emotions, thoughts, feelings… especially between Charles and his cousin James, was beyond most authors. It spoke my mind, my feelings and emotions that I have carried around with me for years. These were feelings, mind you, which popped in me when I was a kid, a kind of a personal sensibility that I clung on to, and she expressed them perfectly and how. I was nothing short of stumped. Sometimes, the most difficult aspect in writing is to explain/detail the ordinary, the everyday, the daily humdrum and make it interesting. And she’s done that ever so marvelously.

In simple terms, pick this book up, to find yourself transported to another world, that’s free from the clutter of the city and close to the rhythmic life of an English countryside.

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