Just finished The Sea, The Sea this evening. It was extremely well written, which kept me interested, which is good because Murdoch obviously never intended to make her main protagonist likeable. Or anyone else in the novel, come to think of it, so it wasn’t going to draw me in because of these wonderful characters I might have liked to have in my life at any time. Of course, that’s sort of beside the point, because for one thing, I don’t think this is of concern to Murdoch in any of her novels, besides which I can think of lots of novels that sucked me right in even if those peopling them were unpleasant (including the only other Murdoch novel I’ve read so far, A Severed Head which I found hilarious), but I never felt I could really enter into this one. Partly maybe because Charles Arrowby is writing what is a cross between a journal, diary and novel, and as he does so he reminisces over his life, which somehow kept brining up all kinds of unpleasant memories of my own failed relationships with family, friends and ex lovers. For all I know that is actually a testament to how good a writer Murdoch is, that she can make me feel this novel isn’t so much about her vain, arrogant, incredibly manipulative and selfish protagonist, but is more about me.
Arrowby, a famous ex theatre actor/director, is now retired to a house without electricity next to a cliff by the sea and has plenty of time on his hands to observe the changing colours of sea and sky and reflect on his past. He has never forgotten his first chaste love, who dumped him without explanations, even though they had promised to marry each other when they were of age. He calls her Hartley (but she is actually a more commonplace ‘Mary’) and he’s always imagined she was what kept him from falling in love and marrying any of his mistresses over the years, so that when he finds Hartley—now married since long ago—is inexplicably living in the same small village, he becomes obsessed beyond reason and is certain he will somehow manage to convince her to leave what he assumes to be an unhappy marriage and make her come to live with him, be it by force if necessary. The fact that Hartley is now actually quite an old woman and that every description he gives of her renders her completely unattractive both physically and in terms of character (dull, dim and depressed come to mind), and that he somehow manages to convince himself he’s even more in love with her because and not in spite or her lack of graces gives us ample evidence of just how far gone he is and how deliberate he is about honouring his own delusions. All quite funny, in the way Shakespearean tragedies can be funny sometimes, which is quite a deliberate comparison since Arrowby is a great lover of Shakespeare and Murdoch sought make many parallels with The Tempest in this novel. I’m glad I read it, and there will be more Murdoch in my future to be sure, but it was certainly not an easy read by any measure, and even quite painful in parts.