As I walk down Chiswick high street, air filled with the sweet scents of Greggs sausage rolls, jasmine flowers, and bus exhaust, I smile in contentment. The sun is out, everyone’s in their shorts, and I’m enjoying a lovely midday walk. Yes, my Birkenstocks have created yet another blister on my foot. Yes, when this section of the footpath heats up it releases a wave of vaporized urine, but it’s summer! Yay!
What makes this moment even sweeter, is that I have just so happened to plan my journey so that I wander past the best store in the universe - Waterstones.
It would be a crime not to have a peek! The staff has created gorgeous new seasonal displays, and I don’t have anywhere to be. The lack of funds in my bank account doesn't matter right now. It will be toast for dinner.
Forty-five minutes, several Goodreads searches, and an embarrassingly high bill later, I’m holding my new book: The Sea, The Sea, by Iris Murdoch. I am ridiculously excited to start this book. So excited in fact, that I have decided to blog my journey through its pages over the upcoming weeks.
Without further ado, welcome to Blog One: First Impressions and pages 1-50.
With the invention of Goodreads and other online communities such as BookTok, it is difficult, these days, to find a book you truly know nothing about. Usually, when I ‘wander’ into bookstores, I have a list 50 miles long of books I’m hoping to find.
This wasn’t the case with The Sea, The Sea.
I was searching for another novel, (Your Driver Is Waiting by Priya Guns) when I stumbled upon Murdoch’s short but chunky book. The cover is beautiful, with a seemingly hand-painted gauche image of a faceless woman surrounded by leaves. The blues of her top and the greens of the foliage meld together, making her seem lost at sea.
Written in 1978, The Sea, The Sea appears to be about the nightmares that haunt washed-up playwright Charles Arrowby. Arrowby has moved to a coastal home in the middle of nowhere to become a self-described hermit and write his memoirs. His days of swimming in the navy sea, eating poorly cooked meals, and writing, are interrupted by the sudden arrival of his childhood sweetheart, Hartley. She brings with her a wave of memories of a distant life, as well as a crowd of forgotten faces. In response, rather than following through with his initial goal of learning “to be good,” Arrowby decides to “demonstrate how very bad he can be”.
It is this line that grabbed my attention. I can already feel Arrowby’s personality throughout the page: pompous, arrogant, self-sacrificing, and completely convinced of his misery.
I am expecting a tale eerily similar to that found within the pages of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. A man so caught up in his attempts to be elusive, important, unique, and intelligent, that he becomes insufferable. His journey of self-hatred is only interrupted by his long-lost love; will she be the one to finally bring him down from his self-flagellating pedestal?
The setting of the book particularly excites me. Arrowby’s prison, (sorry), castle, resides on the remote coasts of England. His crumbling, stone tower home seems to have risen from the ground itself. It stands, “... upon the very rocks themselves,” and is “... mysteriously damp … exposed, and isolated”. The tower, Shruff End, is placed on a peninsula, with the sea constantly lapping against its door and slowly eroding the floorboards.
Whilst it is still quite early on, it appears that Murdoch intends to use Shruff End as a metaphor for Arrowby himself. She takes care to emphasize its isolation, its age, and its slow death. The tower is described as rotting from the inside, with all the downstairs woodwork being “damp” and having a “salty smell”. The lack of windows ensures that very little light is provided, and once inside, one seems to lose all contact with the outside world.
These qualities of Shruff End are qualities of Arrowby himself. He is isolated from society, with his inner battles slowly making their way up to the surface, rotting away at his insides. He has lost touch with the outside world and lives in his cave of darkness. His past, the sea, is creeping its way up to his doorstep.
Arrowby’s life is a careful collection of careless actions. Each thought, movement, and word is constructed just so, as to seem perfectly imperfect. Take, for example, his eating habits, which he so kindly extensively details. He enjoys eating in a picnic style, rather than meals that take all day to prepare. Arrowby details this shift from the expensive dining habits of his past to his newfound appreciation of simplicity:
“When I was a young director I was idiotic and conventional enough to think that I had to entertain people at well-known restaurants. It gradually became clear to me that guzzling large amounts of expensive, pretentious, often mediocre food in public places was not only immoral, unhealthy, and unaesthetic, but unpleasurable.”
Arrowby explains that good food is found in simple meals enjoyed in solitude. He believes that food is “... spoilt at dinner parties by enforced conversation. Thus, he takes to preparing food, rather than cooking it, and enjoys it alone with little distraction. Arrowby emphasizes that this simple, easy manner of cooking is the best way to enjoy the food in its truest form. He informs the reader of this in the manner of a priest bestowing a sermon; he seems to believe that he has truly found something revolutionary here.
It is important to note that Arrowby’s ‘simple’ lunches are always multiple courses filled with ingredients such as olive oil that he imports from London and local cheeses as he would not dare touch a “foreign cheese”. This particular meal I am referencing takes fifteen lines to be explained.
Arrowby’s attempts at casual, plain living exemplify his desperate need to be viewed as cool. I am reminded of Ian McEwan’s character Cecilia in Atonement, who spends a significant amount of time arranging wildflowers so that they seem to have been plucked and oh so effortlessly thrown in the vase by her.
Ultimately, The Sea, The Sea has enraptured me already. Murdoch’s writing is thick and rich. As a reader, you are required to chew through each page slowly, savoring each flavourful detail. Her descriptions of the ocean are well developed, so much so that she has turned it into a character of its own. Murdoch’s highest accomplishment, however, is that she has persuaded me to care about Arrowby’s character. He should be completely intolerable, yet there is something darkly humorous about his plight that he becomes endearing. I am genuinely concerned to see if he will build stairs next to his cliff so that he can exit the sea more safely!
I cannot wait to see what happens next in The Sea, The Sea. Whatever it is, I sincerely hope it doesn’t include any more descriptions of Arrowby’s obsession with anchovy butter. Once is enough Murdoch.
See you next week,
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