Thursday, January 5, 2017

Iris Murdoch's The Sea, The Sea (Part 1--Introduction)

I started reading Iris Murdoch's, The Sea, the Sea yesterday. I'm about 50 pages in and so have nearly finished the first section, "Pre-history." This is the third Iris Murdoch book I've read. My first encounter with her was when I borrowed The Black Prince from a friend while serving as a volunteer in the Peace Corps. I had just heard of Murdoch after having read about her in Harold Bloom's book Genius. She was one of the 100 figures Bloom chose to represent literary genius. Bloom's description of her as a romance writer in the mode of Spenser's Faerie Queene and the High Romantic poems captivated me and made me very eager to pick her up. While in the Peace Corps good books were somewhat hard to come by. All of us were constantly sharing and exchanging books. The friend I borrowed The Black Prince from had just finished it and found it somewhat disappointing. He felt the combination of narrative and philosophical asides were jarring and preferred authors who showed their point rather than explained it. He said Kafka's short story, The Hunger Artist, was a perfect example of how to show it and not tell it. He had also just read Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim which he loved and felt to be another exemplary case of showing it.

I loved it though. The first books I had been truly obsessed by had been philosophical novels though, Dostoyevsky's novels and Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain foremost amongst them. Many scenes from The Black Prince have stayed in my memory. The protagonist himself is memorable as as the perfectionist author who, if memory serves me correctly, only finished one novel and has been laboring for years to complete a second. His friend and rival is a successful author who has consistently publish well-received books. I have always been of the opinion that great artists are always outsiders and generally unpopular with rare exceptions like Shakespeare, Byron, Austen, and Dickens. My Peace Corps friend pointed out the irony in Murdoch herself being a prolific author of popular books. The protagonist also has an aversion to music. There is a vivid scene of him running from the theater, tormented by what sounded to him like screeching and screaming. This is, oddly enough, repeated in The Sea, the Sea, when Charles Arrowby confesses to hating the sound of the human voice. And then there is his infatuation with his rival's teenage daughter, whom he imagines as a kind of surrogate for Hamlet.

I didn’t read another Murdoch novel until at least 6 years later. I had met a doctor who was passionate about her. Out of the blue he approached me while at a Christmas party and said, “You have to watch this video.” I was surprised to see it was Iris Murdoch being interviewed on the BBC. It was an old video, I think from the 70s, but still popular. If you search for Iris Murdoch on Google it is one of the first videos to come up. Murdoch was discussing her role as a professional philosopher and novelist and what she saw as the relation between philosophy and art. The doctor friend and I talked a bit about what we each knew of Iris Murdoch. I confessed to having only read one novel and decided it was high time to start another. 

Shortly after I picked up The Good Apprentice. Like The Black Prince, my second Murdoch book did not fail to disappoint. It was immediately gripping and sustained its intensity throughout. The image of the two brothers, both struggling to attain goodness--one through sin and the other through discipline--has stayed with me. I remember the household of the brothers' father as seeming something out of the Faery Queene. The father, I cannot remember his name now, was a great artist, reveered by the women of the house (his wife and daughters?). The women had an orderly way of keeping everything together, leaving items at the bottom of the stairs and only bring them up when they were already heading that way. I remember the mother discussing the father's art phases, especially his heroic phase. The whole seen was very magical and supports Bloom's argument that Murdoch is more of a fantasist than the realist she claimed to be. Lastly, I seem to remember a character having a nightmare that was very vivid to me. Somewhere in the middle of the novel. I should look up the scene, as it has left a deep impact on me. 

So, what do I make of this third book? So far it is very intriguing. Murdoch has done a wonderful job of patterning images of the sea. The environment is very vivid and varied enough to easily sustain my interest.  Charles as a Shakespeare's Prospero retiring to his craggy cliffside home. He expresses an interest in permanence, but I think it is fair to question his sincerity. He seems thoroughly content to live a life "writ on water." His mistress, Lizzie is in part the kind of directness and permanence that his nature is both drawn to and also repelled by. 

I am thoroughly enjoying the book. Iris Murdoch is the kind of author I would like to be. I enjoy an author who deals so directly and clearly with ideas. There is both narrative drama as well as rich complexity of thought. I will admit that I do feel aware of the effort involved in her creation. It does not distract me from appreciating the book though. With an ambition as large as hers it is forgivable to fall short of perfection. When I say I am aware of her effort, what I mean is that in striving for a Shakespearean resonance she is almost doomed to fail. There are also allusions to Wordsworth and a general atmosphere of Romanticism in the opening. These are all very general reflections and I will be sure to be more systematic in my next post. I'll conclude with Bloom's reading of Murdoch as a writer of romance:


Connie said...

I finished The Sea, the Sea late last night. It took me two weeks to read the prehistory but after that I could hardly put the book down. I finished the rest of the book in just over 24 hours. I would recommend it but somehow I wish the ending could have been different.

Perscors said...

Wow, way to go Connie! I will write more soon. Maybe you should wait a few days for the rest of us to finish. I will probably finish this weekend. Once we are all done you can send detailed thoughts, reflections, questions. Very cool you finished so quick!