The Sea the Sea won the Man Booker prize in 1978. I am convinced that were it nominated today it could successfully compete against any novel that has won in recent years. It is one of those novels that is paced so very well it has the feel of a smooth running internal engine on automatic pilot. I just loved everything about it, the characters, the story, the setting and the ever-present sea.
Charles Arrowby is a retired actor, playwright and director who, having entered his early sixties has decided to take stock of his life by writing a memoir. He sells his expensive London apartment to buy a large ramshackle house that has no phone, electricity, hot water and only rudimentary plumbing. The property has the rather unattractive name of Shruff End. It is situated a mile outside the village of Narrowdean and perched on a promontory with a broad view of the Atlantic Ocean on the west coast of England. His plan is to live a simple, contemplative life with the aim of sorting out his personal history. The novel is narrated in the first person singular as if you are reading Charles’s journal on a day-by-day basis. An internal mixture of ideas is presented and tossed together like a salad. The reader follows Charles’s domestic activities while he interjects stories from his past interspersed with the description of some of the oddest meals you could imagine, such as olives, bread and fried zucchini accompanied by a bottle of Spanish plonk. He feels he must hide away from his London friends and old lovers in order to gain some perspective on his life. It is clear from the start that he is lonely and trying to talk himself into enjoying his hermit like lifestyle because he keeps looking for letters from old friends in film and theatre. (…letters because this is the late 1970’s and there is no such thing as e-mail, fibre-op or even rudimentary cell phones) Eventually he writes a letter to a former lover letting her know where he is living and essentially entices her to leave her settled domestic situation behind to come find him.
Charles Arrowby is a selfish, totally self-centred, inconsiderate individual who, while being jealous of anyone who tempts away his old lovers does not know what to do when they return to him. Yet everyone likes him and is charmed by his antics. I liked him too, despite his flaws. He possessed a kind of childish appreciation of the universe; loved to swim in the ocean, collect interesting rocks, and lie outdoors in the night to stare at the stars. He was even capable of conjuring up the odd dragon or sea monster in his overactive imagination.
At the centre of the story there is a kidnapping. In one corner of the village of Narrowedean, a middle class retirement community has grown up. Here, quite by coincidence lives Hartley, the first girl Charles ever loved back in the impressionable days of his adolescence. She had disappeared out of Charles’s life, encouraged by her relatives who warned her to have nothing to do with him because he had chosen the bohemian lifestyle of an actor. Hartley has not aged as well as Charles; she is wrinkled and overweight and has let her hair turn grey. She is married to something of a brute of a husband but makes no complaint about her situation. As the object of Charles’s love she does not even possess the redeeming quality of having a lively personality. She is portrayed as a tired old housewife beaten down emotionally by the disappearance of her only child. Charles becomes obsessed with rescuing her from her situation and the story takes off from there. When Hartley turns down every effort Charles makes to save her he entraps and kidnaps her keeping her locked up in Shruff End while a troop of his friends mill in and out of the place trying to entice him to leave his damp mouldy, barracks of a house and return to London. What follows is: mayhem, attempted murder and death. That said, I must add, it is all darkly funny.
My copy of The Sea The Sea has an introduction that explains that at the time Iris Murdoch wrote this book Zen Buddhism was very much part of the popular culture. This idea may have helped in creating some of the bones of the story but it is the character of Charles Arroby that gives the novel its energy. Charles does not see how tired Hartley is or how she has aged because he is obsessively trying to regain something of his own lost youth. In between the entries of his diary/memoir we learn that Charles had a mentor who promoted him to stardom; a woman many years his senior named Clement who was a famous actress herself. Slowly it becomes clear that while Charles had a great deal of affection for Clement he wonders if he let her steal his youthful soul as the price for launching his acting career. This is in the background as he continues to harass Hartley who represents young, innocent love that can never be recaptured.
I have been trying to sort out why this is such a good novel and have decided that it is because the author stuck so faithfully to certain constant themes. The introduction relates the title, The Sea The Sea ,to a quote from the poet Mallarmé but I ignored all that because I could see the sea as a metaphor for the world Charles Arroby chose to dive into, a confusion of beauty, creativity and monsters of the deep. Then there is the theme of lost youth and the existence of forces within the universe we cannot understand. Filling out the novel are a half dozen or so unforgettable characters, each one entirely individual and interesting and funny in their own rite so that they each could have been the subject of their own novel… although none could surpasses the personality of Charles Arrowby.
It takes an artist to write a good novel and this one stands out as not just a satisfying read but also a work of art.