The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 13: The Sea, the Sea (Iris Murdoch, 1978)

Books left: 13. Weeks left: 21 (not ideal)

I let loose my own demons, not least the sea serpent of jealousy.

Iris Murdoch - The Sea, the Sea


Celebrated theatre director Charles Arrowby abandons his glittering London life and glamorous friends to retire in obscurity in an English country coastal town with the intention to write his memoirs and live a simple life.

But the sudden appearance of an old love – not to mention an increasingly perplexing stream of visitors – threatens the peace he thought he found.

The story begins with happy meandering about his new life, which revolves around swimming, pottering about, observing the local flora and eating.

Many passages are devoted to food (resulting in some of the most amusing culinary quotes I have seen, which though too long for this forum would be spoiled by cutting) and to Charles’ new, spartan surroundings, for instance

… A large remarkably hideous green vase, with a thick neck and a scalloped rim and pink roses blistering its bulging sides.  I have become very attached to this gross object.

Compared to all of this, the story of how and why he came to be in this lonely seaside shack is at first cursory and almost entirely enveloped by his meditations, quite besides the food and the decor, on the sea in all its moods.

It is evening. The sea is golden, speckled with white points of light, lapping with a sort of mechanical self-satisfaction under a pale green sky. How huge it is, how empty, this great space for which I have been longing all my life.


The sea is a choppy dark blue-grey, an aggressive and unpleasant colour. The seagulls are holding a wake. The house feels damp.

But the sea is not as calm and benevolent as it seems, and neither is he. Each have horrors lurking beneath the surface and the turn events quickly take is all the more startling because of the book’s gentle beginning; they plunge suddenly into a madness that have me reading with eyes wide and toes curled, filled with shock over each successive twist.

Charles is revealed as an obsessed anti-hero, and his view of people as possessions becomes more and more sinister with each turn of the page.

The demon of jealousy befouled the past and left my mind no place to rest. Jealousy is perhaps the most involuntary of all emotions. It steals consciousness, it lies deeper than thought. It is always there, like a blackness in the eye, it discolours the world.

Yet I want for Charles what he does for himself, identifying with him against my will as happens similarly with Nabokov’s nastily compelling predator in Lolita. I am nervous throughout, seeing him hover on the brink of some unnamed disaster. At one point, flabbergasted by what I am now getting into when I thought I had been reading a nice pretty novel about the ocean, I actually shake the book and shout at Charles, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!”

This rather alarms the Ministry, sitting next to me at the time.

Despite my disgust, I am held in thrall and beside myself with suspense over how it could all possibly end – though it is clear at least that it’s not, at any rate, going to end well.

I had wakened some sleeping demon, set going some deadly machine; and what would be would be.

As it turns out the book ends not with a bang but with a whisper, like the sea settling after a storm, and I race through its 25-page denouement with fascination and not a shred of doubt that Murdoch richly deserved the Booker Prize the work won her.

Its magisterial use of language and the awful fatality in its relentless description of a great, impossible love reminds me of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby; but equally it is its own story, not to be diminished by likening, and I daresay overall a more enjoyable read than the tale of poor doomed Gatsby.

Keep or kill? Look, it’s probably obvious that I’m keeping it, BUT, look at all the M-author sacrifices I’m making instead, in order to appease the vengeful gods! These are good ones, too, and I won’t deny that there’s a little twinge of reluctance. Sometimes I feel a bit like Smaug, sitting on his pile of gold, that he’s not going to use, but doesn’t want anyone else to touch.

Pile of books by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Andrew McGahan, Toni Morrison and Andrei Makine.

Check my gumption.

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