Iris Murdoch was a prolific novelist with no less than twenty-six published titles to her name, several of which have been adapted for radio or television. Although many of her early novels were well received, it was during the 1970’s that she found wide critical claim. First, with The Black Prince (winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1973), then a year later with The Sacred and Profane Love Machine (winner of the Whitbread literary award for Fiction) and finally with The Sea, The Sea (winner of the Booker Prize in 1978).
I caught up with The Sea, The Sea a couple of years after its publication whilst on a short holiday on the island of Poros, rapidly turning its pages when not engaged in swimming, catching up with my doctoral research and exploring the delights of the Peloponnese such as the famous theatre at Epidaurus.
Many regard The Sea, The Sea as one of Murdoch’s finest novels and I would concur in that judgment. However, I also believe that its successor, Nuns and Soldiers, is of similar if not perhaps of equal merit. Certainly the latter’s less-than-warm reception at the time of publication has always struck me as somewhat perverse. However, let us not go off-piste!
According to Wikipedia:
“The Sea, The Sea is a tale of the strange obsessions that haunt a self-satisfied playwright and director as he begins to write his memoirs...Charles Arrowby, its central figure, decides to withdraw from the world and live in seclusion in a house by the sea. While there, he encounters his first love, Mary Hartley Fitch, whom he has not seen since his love affair with her as an adolescent. Although she is almost unrecognisable in old age, and outside his theatrical world, he becomes obsessed by her, idealizing his former relationship with her and attempting to persuade her to elope with him. His inability to recognise the egotism and selfishness of his own romantic ideals is at the heart of the novel.”
Murdoch was of course a philosopher as well as a novelist. In The Sovereignty of Good, published in 1970, she eschews the prevailing trends in moral philosphy at time, tempered by European existentialism on the one hand and analytical philosophy in the English-speaking world on the other. Instead, she argued for a renewed or re-understood form of Platonism where “the progressive education of the virtues” necessarily involves engaging in practices which “turn our attention away from ourselves toward valuable objects in the real world”.
As for the writing itself, these two contrasting passages perfectly demonstrate the range and quality:
“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 these 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.”
“Of course reading and thinking are important but, my God, food is important too.”