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Daisy Johnson on Iris Murdoch's The Sea, The Sea

Posted on 3rd July 2019 by Mark Skinner

Monday 15 July marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Iris Murdoch, one of the most brilliant and singular voices in twentieth-century British fiction. To commemorate this key date in the literary calendar, Vintage have reissued half a dozen of Murdoch's finest works in sumptuous new designs, with exclusive introductions from some of the brightest stars in the contemporary literary firmament.

Here Daisy Johnson, acclaimed author of Everything Under and Fen, discusses the themes, style and characterisation of Murdoch's Booker Prize-winning masterpiece, The Sea, The Sea.        

When I was asked to write this introduction, I came to the task with trepidation. Everyone said good things about The Sea, The Sea but for years people had told me I would love specific books which I had then gone on not to enjoy. I think often of the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes in which two weavers promise an emperor the finest outfit around, so fine that it is invisible to anyone who is unfit to see it. I began reading The Sea, The Sea and immediately wished I had read it sooner. I was prepared to write an introduction out of necessity, with a critical eye, but I was unprepared to love The Sea, The Sea as much as I did. I hope that you love it too.

The novel comes to us in the form of a journal – an almost-maybe memoir – narrated by Charles Arrowby, an ageing actor who has moved from the city to a house by the sea. He writes, to begin with, ramblingly, often distracted. His days are long and glorious, he swims and describes in detail simple – but very specific – meals, he talks about how glad he is that he has made the move. The descriptions of these meals are some of my favourite moments in the book: ‘spaghetti with a little butter and dried basil. (Basil is of course the king of herbs.) Then spring cabbage cooked slowly with dill. Boiled onions served with bran, herbs, soya oil and tomatoes, with one egg beaten in. With these a slice or two of cold tinned corned beef.’ He is unreliable – one of the great unreliable narrators – but we do not know that yet. The journal format means that Charles is entirely in charge; we know as little or as much about him as he wants us to. 

Later in the book Charles is less rambling and the peace in the house on the cliff is destroyed. Often I read with my teeth gritted and my hand ready to cover my eyes. Murdoch’s plotting is pitch-perfect, her sense of how a person reads a book exquisite. We watch Charles slowly and irrevocably ruin his life and the lives of those around him. At times we laugh out loud or gasp, often we hate him and sometimes we pity him, and a lot of the time we understand him despite everything. 

Throughout the book water runs like a spell or a curse. The sea of the title is not just a background or vista, it is a character. At times it seems to reflect Charles’s moods, his unhealthy obsessions, his bouts of serenity. The rope Charles has tied to a rock to haul himself from the water after swims is swept away again and again; the sea is sometimes docile and at others raging, storm-swept. The tides come and go just as the journal sometimes seems to do, dragging us along different routes and funnels, forever changing direction. The sea takes everything, and this book sometimes appears as warning as well as yarn. We can try but the tide will always bring the water back. 

In a time when fiction seems to be growing resolutely weirder, bending and breaking the boundaries between genres, reaching for the strange and the uncanny to better understand the world we live in, Iris Murdoch is the perfect companion. Her writing inhabits an underbelly of darkness that we dip in and out of, always watchful of. The sea broils with monsters, there are ghosts or poltergeists or intruders. The home here is not homely or safe. Bedrooms become prisons, rooms in the city are piled high with abandoned furniture, doors do not keep anyone out. If ghost stories are about what comes back, what returns, what will not stay down, then The Sea, The Sea is a ghost story with the same fierce, growing momentum that horror has. 

Weirdness, here, wins out. We long for a succinct ending, a conclusion in which to draw together the story. The novel falls into fragmentation, language betrays Charles and us; the journal cannot continue forever.

The Sea, The Sea seems, in part, to be about what it is to grow older and look back on a life both well and badly lived. Again and again Charles professes that marriage is a cage, demeans his friendships and familial relationships. He tries to escape to the coast, but everything he has ever known (first and last loves, betrayed friends, misunderstood relatives) follows him there, sometimes in weird, almost ridiculous moments of coincidence. The house by the sea could almost be seen as some underworld place of judgement where everything we have done is paraded before us, all of our decisions gone over again and again. Charles is offered, if not retribution, then an opportunity to make better decisions. Of this he is incapable. He is like Estragon and Vladimir, waiting for a character who never comes and never comes again and again and again. 

Iris Murdoch was shortlisted for the Booker Prize six times, eventually winning with The Sea, The Sea in 1978. It is not a book of our times although it does, still, feel relevant to our discussion of toxic masculinity. Charles’s litany of former lovers almost all reappear and have something to say for themselves, but it is Charles who narrates the story and we are carefully reminded of this throughout. One of the great joys of the book is to see beyond the things that Charles tells us, to observe the overwhelming dominance in the way he uses language, how he wields love like a weapon. In the end, perhaps, we understand that he is the ghost who moves through the house and through his own life, futile in his misunderstanding. The women who he has hurt often get their revenge because they are happy or content or simply living in a way that he does not seem to be able to do. In one scene a woman crouches on the cliffs and throws rocks at the carful of men until the windscreen cracks and the vehicle has to be abandoned. The life Charles has tried to build by the sea is riven and we are, in the end, glad of it.

The narrative style of the novel meant that often I expected to look up and see Charles (or Iris) sitting across the table drinking retsina and eating canned fruit, eyeing me with both suspicion and greed, glad of a good listener. I tried out some of Charles’s meals and at times, after I had put the book down for the day, felt as if I could still hear him, offering observations about the river outside the house, the state of the rooms in which I live.

I live in Oxford, the same city where Iris and her husband lived for a long time. One sunny Saturday in February I walk along the river and canal to Iris’s street. It is possible to walk almost entirely from my house to hers without leaving the water. The house is hidden by trees and I skulk around, trying to get a good view. It is difficult to know what I went there to find. Her ghost or some slither of the inspiration she found to write such a book. Curtains in the houses opposite flicker. Down the end of the road the heat haze looks almost like a sea monster, there and then gone, rising from the concrete water. My partner crosses the street and takes a photo of me standing on the pavement outside the house. I had not expected to feel anything – had already earmarked a pub to make the trip worthwhile – but standing there there’s a flutter of something, momentous, tingling. We hang around for as long as we can without seeming suspicious and then walk back down to the water, stop for a drink. I tell my partner about Iris and what I have come to love about her work. I relate a story I discovered in the Guardian about Iris and John losing a large and expensive pork pie in the wild, beautiful untidiness of their house.

I think about getting lost in the library at my university when I was younger. I spent a lot of time crouched in the stacks, searching for particular books or simply searching, picking things at random or because I liked the spines, the sound of the names. There were automatic lights which went off if you kept still too long and sometimes tiny birds got in and flew around above the shelves. I was not a discerning reader, found it difficult to tell which books I liked and which I enjoyed because I’d been told I should. Still, I began in those lonely days, to create a canon not from the books I was expected to read but from the ones which meant something to me, whose writing moved me in some way. Now, later, hopefully a better reader, I think of the importance of creating a canon without limitations, with authors who do not all look or sound the same, created because of the writing we love not the writing we should love. Everyone’s canon will, of course, look different but The Sea, The Sea holds a steady position in mine. It is a joy to think not of the language Murdoch eventually lost, but of the language she gave us.

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