The Sea, the Sea – Sarah Churchwell on the making of a monster

In Iris Murdoch’s novel The Black Prince, a popular writer named Arnold Baffin defends his regular production of books he knows are not as good as he’d like them to be: “Every book is the wreck of a perfect idea. The years pass and one has only one life. If one has a thing at all one must do it and keep on and on and on trying to do it better.” Character here presumably speaks for author, although one also suspects that poor silly Baffin’s platonic conception of a perfect idea is probably less perfect than he thinks. It’s a good bet that Iris Murdoch’s perfect ideas were better.

A published philosopher whose first book was the first book in English on Jean-Paul Sartre, Murdoch wrote novels of ideas about love, as well as the occasional love letter to ideas. Obsession is everywhere in her fictional landscape, but characters are as likely to be obsessed with art as with sex. Adulteration is the game: nothing remains pure, certainly not fidelity to other people, or to social conventions, even the most deeply held. Her characters are most faithful to their conceptions of themselves, which are almost never shared by those around them. In her essay “The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited”, Murdoch wrote that the most important thing for a novel to reveal, “not necessarily the only thing, but incomparably the most important thing, is that other people exist”. It was a point she made repeatedly outside her fiction: “In the moral life the enemy is the fat relentless ego,” as she wrote in “On ‘God’ and ‘Good’”.

Although Murdoch consistently denied that her fiction explored her philosophical preoccupations, the project of forcing flawed protagonists to see beyond the blinkers of their own egotism defines most if not all of her 26 published novels, among which two of the best are A Severed Head (1961) and The Sea, the Sea (1978). Both are narrated by self-regarding middle-class men with aspirations to aesthetic mastery. Fastidious and complacent, less wise and less kind than they like to think, they find their lives thrown into turmoil by their inability to recognise the agency, and desires, of those around them. These desires are always in part, but never exclusively, sexual: they are also a will to power. “Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real,” Murdoch declared in “The Sublime and the Good”. “Love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality.”

Truth is not the same thing as realism, Murdoch tells us again and again: “People lie so, even we old men do,” as the narrator’s cousin tries to tell him in The Sea, the Sea. “Though in a way, if there is art enough it doesn’t matter, since there is another kind of truth in the art.”

Murdoch’s novels are not merely cerebral exercises in ideas about moral philosophy, ethics and aesthetics, although those ideas shape her fiction. They are also shot through with the dark energies of occult forces, variously figured as Eros, the id, the unconscious, the repressed, the monstrous, the supernatural, the libidinous: all that the conscious mind cannot comprehend stalks her hapless protagonists, as their precarious fantasies of control are exposed for the delusions they are. Murdoch’s fictional experiments, as admirers such as AS Byatt have written, fuse realism with the mystical, producing a very English magical realism at the point where 19th-century realism meets myth and fable. For Murdoch, artistic form was a temptation and compensation, a remedy for the contingent messiness of life, but also a consolatory falsification. She wrote that the novel was caught between the “journalistic” and the “crystalline”, the loose baggy monster that Henry James saw in the 19th-century novel, and modernist experiments in controlled, limited artifice. What feels to the characters like the forces of contingency battering away at them is just as likely to be their author’s implacable design, creating ruthless comedies of manners, and various manners of comedy. Around her intricate plotting orbit satires of art and morality, accountability and guilt, ethics and erotics.

Murdoch has been compared to James more than once in her interest in the moral consequences of relationships, of romance and society. Her sense of social and psychological satire owes much to his, as when her protagonist in The Sea, the Sea chooses The Wings of the Dove to read, “another story of death and moral smash-up”. But James’s careful social realism is quite alien to Murdoch’s sense of the ludicrous in her plotting, the sheer pleasure she takes in her own designs, while her willingness to tell stories from the viewpoint of her protagonists’ immoral casuistries makes them like reading The Portrait of a Lady from the perspective of Gilbert Osmond.

One such figure is the appalling Charles Arrowby, the complacent centre of The Sea, the Sea, which won the Booker prize in 1978. A failed playwright and actor, the tyrannically selfish Charles only found success in the theatre as a director, when he could exert his will over those around him (indeed he announces early on that any director who isn’t dictatorial isn’t doing his job). Charles fancies himself a Prospero, an old sorcerer abjuring a life of power and magic, but Murdoch gradually reveals that his most successful tricks were practised on himself. Charles has retired to a house by the sea, where he intends to write his memoirs. Insisting upon his need for solitude, he is irked when no letters come from his friends, and decides with characteristic high-handedness to summon a former lover, Lizzie, who once played Ariel to his Prospero, to keep house for him. He treats women as useful labour-saving devices, explaining, for instance, that he never learned to drive as long as he had girlfriends around: “Why keep bitches and bark yourself?” He confesses that he has been accused in the press of being a “power-crazed monster”, a charge of which he sounds slightly proud. Like the narrator of A Severed Head, Charles is convinced of his own tenderheartedness, but Murdoch carefully shows the rage, misogyny and jealousy that fuel his self-absorption.

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