Friday, February 22, 2008 by Laura
The Sea, the Sea
Charles Arrowby is a London theatre director who has recently retired to a seaside cottage in the south of England. He plans to write his memoirs, with particular focus on his lover-mentor, a woman named Clement. The book is written in the first person; Charles chronicles both day-to-day living in his cottage, and describes his life and loves. Vanity and jealousy are central themes. Charles spent his life immersed in theatre, entangled in complex relationships. His cousin James grew up in a more privileged environment and was a perennial cause of envy. Hartley was Charles' childhood sweetheart and, having been rejected by her as a young adult, Charles has been unable to deeply love anyone else. He toys with the affections of two actresses, Lizzie and Rosina, and fancies himself as having power over them when in fact, it is exactly the reverse.
The plot thickens when Charles meets up with Hartley, who surprisingly lives in the village near his cottage. She is married, with an adult son. But this does not stop Charles from pursuing her, and trying to re-create the happiness he felt as a teenager. Meanwhile James, Rosina, Lizzie, and others make frequent visits and try to talk sense into Charles. As Mary Kinzie writes in her introduction to the Penguin classic edition, Charles "violently and bullheadedly persists in all the wrong directions." None of his plans work out as he hopes. And as these plans unravel, he keeps trying to find another way to achieve his dreams. A climax of sorts occurs about 100 pages before the end, in which Peregrine, a theatre friend, calls him on his negative and manipulative behaviors: "You're an exploded myth. And you still think you're Genghis Khan! Laissez-moi rire. I can't think why I let you haunt me all these years. ... You never did anything for mankind, you never did anything for anybody except yourself." (p. 395)
Despite these character traits, Charles is not completely despicable. Iris Murdoch had a tremendous talent for portraying the middle-aged to older man and all his foibles, in a way that made the man mostly likeable. The Sea, the Sea also includes some interesting plot threads: Charles' pursuit of Hartley; Hartley's marriage; Hartley's son Titus; Charles' relationship with James, and so on. All in all, a satisfying read.
My original review can be found here.