Iris Murdoch, 1978
the thirty‐fifth book in the visitor
suggested by Isaac Naveh
This is the second novel by Iris Murdoch that I’ve read; the first was The Green Knight, back in grad school. I remember virtually nothing about it—as I recall, there was a large cast at the center of which were three sisters, the plot was very concerned with whom each character might pair up with, and any time someone hadn’t been seen for a few hours everyone else started freaking out about whether the missing person had committed suicide. This may sound like I was therefore not particularly looking forward to reading Murdoch’s Booker Prize‐winning The Sea, The Sea, but in fact it was one of the books that most caught my eye when I was finalizing my visitor recommendations list: The Green Knight was actually pretty good, and this was one of the rare pieces of literary fiction among all the sci‐fi with which you folks out there loaded my list.
The first fifth or so of the book is titled “Prehistory”, and it made me think this would indeed turn out to be a winner. We learn that we are reading the first draft of the memoirs of Charles Arrowby, a recently retired theater director who is very impressed by his own celebrity. (I guess in the U.K. theater directors are celebrities.) He meanders back and forth between discussing, (a), his upbringing and his affairs with various actresses over the course of his career, and (b), the day‐to‐day minutiae of his life as he settles into his new home in a rustic seaside village. Much of the (b) material is devoted to his plans to write a cookbook showcasing “the inspired simplicity which is for me the essence of good eating”: “What is more delicious than fresh hot buttered toast […]? Or plain boiled onions with a little cold corned beef if desired?” But gradually we get hints that all is not entirely right here in the present. Our narrator suffers hallucinations (or are they?) of sea monsters, and finds that mirrors in his house have fallen off the walls for seemingly no reason. I loved the contrast—these hints of the supernatural creeping in at the margins of what is otherwise a set of reminiscences about making off with friends’ wives and instructions on the proper way to consume an orange—and was looking forward to seeing how the story might evolve. Then “Prehistory” gave way to “History” and this intriguing narrative structure was basically dropped.
In its place was a somewhat more conventionally told story: Arrowby discovers that his adolescent love, a girl named Hartley who ran off forever as their wedding date approached, happens to live in this very village. Like him, she is over sixty now, the elderly wife of a disabled traveling salesman, not even from the same world as the legions of actresses who regularly drop by Arrowby’s place to throw themselves at him. Nevertheless, his obsession with her returns with a vengeance, and he plots to steal Hartley away from her husband. From the first page The Sea, The Sea had struck me as distinctly Nabokovian, and this development strengthened that impression: Arrowby turns into an out‐and‐out stalker, convincing himself that Hartley’s husband is a tyrant holding her prisoner in an abusive marriage, and in justifying his skulking around, his disregard of boundaries, and his eventual kidnapping of Hartley, he sounds very much like one of Nabokov’s pompous, fastidious monsters. Then comes another twist, as it turns out that Hartley’s husband is a tyrant holding her prisoner in an abusive marriage, yet she begs and begs to return to her cage. At this point pretty much all of Arrowby’s acquaintances from the “Prehistory” section show up, and the book settles into more or less the same groove as The Green Knight, or at least my dim memories of it, with a big cast and a lot of ink spent on how the relationships among its members will be reshuffled (while I wonder whether I’m actually supposed to care), and a few Big Events that don’t prevent the story from ending in an anticlimax.
Final grade: a C, a C
(Okay, not really. I don’t use a letter‐grade scale, and I liked the book a little more than a C would imply. But it’s late and I couldn’t resist. Profusest apologies.)