Wednesday, February 01, 2012

The Sea, The Sea - Iris Murdoch

The book that this novel reminded me of most was Alex Garland's The Beach. Those who have read both the books will wonder why, because they have nothing in common except vaguely similar sounding names. One is about a famous play director who decides to retire and settle down on the cold and grey coast of Britain, while the other is about a group of hippies who set up an alternative community on a remote island in Thailand. One won the Booker in 1978, while the other was written almost twenty years later. On the surface of it, no two books could be more dissimilar. 
The similarity, I think, is that both books chronicle the slow disintegration of the main protagonist's mind. In The Beach, it's a disintegration of the wild sort - the human mind slowly loses the rules and principles that it would normally live by in society, and becomes wild. In The Sea, The Sea, on the other hand, the disintegration is within the bounds of human understanding - a man trying to come to terms with sudden anonymity, and with the sudden re-entry of an old flame into his life.

But let's start from the beginning. Charles Arrowby is the play director in question, who has decided to withdraw from the glamour of the stage in London, to a quirky house in a remote village on the sea coast. He plans to read, to write his memoirs, to enjoy the sea, to cook for himself. Little does he realize that he will soon run across the old love of his life - 'Hartley', a girl who left him when he was seventeen, for no reason that he could understand. 

The book is divided into three parts - 'Pre-history', the bit before Charles runs across Hartley, in which he is writing his memoirs; 'History', in which the main events unfold; and the Epilogue, what happens after. 'Pre-History' is a slow read - Charles describes his house, his daily swims, his food - and we wonder why. The author is slowly building up the atmosphere, but to what end?

And then, in 'History', the book kicks off. A few more characters come in. And finally, from them, we get a better understanding of Charles - how insanely jealous he can be, how he breaks up relationships just to feel the power of it, how much he hates women. Were these characteristics, we are forced to wonder, caused by Harley's inexplicable abandonment of him? 

In 'History', Charles describes his increasingly desperate attempts to get in touch with and talk to Hartley - asking her son to stay at his place, asking her over and then lying about how late it is, and finally - kidnapping her. The reader becomes increasingly aware that there is something wrong with Charles. Surely his actions are not those of a rational man? 

His friends try to counsel him - not least his cousin James, a retired Army man. James seems to be another person who has had a tremendous influence on Charles' personality. Of the two cousins, James was always the more privileged one - whether in terms of money or liberal parents or grades at school. But it is finally Charles who has achieved country-wide fame, and that makes him feel superior to James. But one can't help feeling that there is a peculiar symbiotic relationship between the two, almost as if they would not exist without the other.

The strongest element of this novel is the complex characterization - whether it is Charles or Hartley's husband, or James or Charles' many friends. The only character who is left a bit blurred, intentionally or otherwise, is Hartley herself, the center of all the action. Perhaps it's because we only get to know her through Charles, and he is a bit ambivalent about her himself. On the one hand, he proclaims over and over again that he loves her. Then again, he can't help focusing on her imperfections - how old she has become, her inept makeup, her large body. He can't help contrasting his own youthfulness with her old age. 

The novel ends on a strange note, with a mysterious Eastern touch. Has Charles found himself at last? Is he content with himself at last? Read to find out.
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