Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Come With Me My Love To the Sea, the Sea of Love...

Iris Murdoch's The Sea, the Sea is a deceivingly simple story. On the surface it is very much a potboiler but underneath it is really about love and friendship and human connection. Charles Arrowby, famous theatre director, decides to retire and buys himself a funny little house by the sea called Shruff End. His friends don't believe that he'll last in his new solitude for more than a month. Charles is determined to prove them wrong and for a few weeks he does. He takes well to his solitary life and spends his days swimming in the sea and clambering over the rocks watching tide pool life and collecting unusual rocks to line his patch of lawn. He begins writing a book, a memoir about his life, the book which we are reading. As he delves back into his past on the page, it begins to catch up to him in life. First he gets a letter from Lizzie, an old flame, then Rosina, another conquest, shows up at his house afraid that he will take Lizzie back. This just stirs the cauldron. What really gets it boiling is Charles' realization that the old woman he's noticed slinking through the village a few times is Hartley. Hartley and Charles were childhood sweethearts. Charles had planned on being with her forever. But when Charles went off to school Hartley left him and managed to effectively disappear. Charles heard rumors that she had married someone else but he didn't believe it. He continued to search for Hartley but to no avail. And as his career began to take off and he began living with Clement, a woman 20 years his senior, he stopped looking for his lost love. He did not, however, stop thinking about her. By the time Charles recognizes her in the village he has built up in his mind an undying love for her of mythic proportions. For her part, Hartley never forgot Charles either. But Hartley is married, though not entirely happily, and she has a son, Titus, who is adopted and who has left home and not told his parents where he is. Charles decides that he is going to rescue Hartley from her unhappiness, they will find Titus, and they will all live together happily ever after:

It was my task and my privilege to teach her the desire to live, and I would yet do so. I, and I only, could revive her; I was the destined prince.
But Hartley frustrates Charles' plans by not wanting to be rescued. Titus also shows up but disappoints Charles when he discovers that Titus does not like Hartley, nor will he help Charles "rescue" her. So the drama from the London theatre moves to Shruff End and Charles discovers that he cannot direct his players as easily in life as he could on the stage--they seem to have their own agendas and refuse to go along with his. Charles' cousin James makes an apt observation about Charles' behavior:
We are such inward secret creatures, that inwardness is the most amazing thing about us, even more amazing than our reason. but we cannot just walk into the cavern and look around. Most of what we think we know about our minds is pseudo-knowledge. We are all such shocking poseurs, so good at inflating the importance of what we think we value. The heroes at Troy fought for a phantom Helen, according to Stesichorus. Vain wars for phantom goods. I hope you will allow yourself plenty of reflections on human vanity. People lie so, even we old men do. Though in a way, if there is art enough it doesn't matter, since there is another kind of truth in the art.
This is can also be read as the guiding statement for most of the characters in the book. The only people who are genuine and not poseurs of some sort at one time or another are James and Titus. I began the book thinking Charles an interesting character and liking him very much. As the story progressed I began to dislike him more and more but was still fascinated by him. Then at the end I liked him again. Part of what redeemed him for me was this:
Can one change oneself? I doubt it. Or if there is any change it must be measured as the millionth part of a millimetre. When the poor ghosts have gone, what remains are ordinary obligations and ordinary interests. One can live quietly and try to do tiny good things and harm no one. I cannot think of any tiny good thing to do at the moment, but perhaps I shall think of one tomorrow.
Makes me smile every time I read it. The book is really wonderful but be sure if you are going to read it you are able to pay attention. It is not a book that should be read if you are distracted. You don't want to miss the astute observations regarding love and friendship and memory. Nor do you want to miss the pleasurable moments:
As I lay there, listening to the soft slap of the sea, and thinking these sad and strange thoughts, more and more and more stars had gathered, obliterating the separateness of the Milky Way and filling up the whole sky. And far far away in that ocean of gold, stars were silently shooting and falling and finding their fates, among those billions and billions of merging golden lights. And curtain after curtain of gauze was quietly removed, and I saw stars behind stars behind stars, as in the magical Odeons of my youth. And I saw into the vast soft interior of the universe which was slowly and gently turning itself inside out. I went to sleep, and in my sleep I seemed to hear a sound of singing.
If in my entire life I manage to write one paragraph as beautiful as that I will consider myself blessed. This is the first book by Iris Murdoch that I have ever read and I am glad I did. I will definitely be reading more of her.