Thursday, June 26, 2014

Lying on the shores of The Sea, The Sea

It's not clear how unreliable the unreliable narrator of Iris Murdoch's novel The Sea, The Sea is. I know he's lying to me, but he also seems to be unaware of some facts about his new home on the seaside. The old house is called "Shruff End," a name he briefly ponders and then dismisses. What Charles Arrowby doesn't seem to know is that shruff is an obsolete word meaning rubbish, or bits of trash that can be used for tinder. He bought the house from an old woman named "Mrs Chorney." chorney is Russian for "black." It's also closely-related to chyort which means "the devil." Arrowby has already let it slip, between the lines of his memoir/diary/whatever, that he's not a nice man (he refers to women as "bitches" and lets us know that he's always had plenty of women around who were happy to act as his chauffeur, which is why he's never learned to drive a car). Shruff End, the old house Arrowby has drained his savings to purchase, is not at all a nice house, which is something that Arrowby is not telling his reader. There is a damp smell and it's hideously furnished with broken-down old furniture, but really the smell isn't so bad and the furniture, you see, it's really after all quite charming and endearing in a funny way. A watch tower, or possibly an old lighthouse tower, is falling into ruin at the edge of the property and Arrowby hasn't the money to have it repaired but he'll save up for that, don't you worry. He describes the house in great detail but the place becomes more confusing and sinister the longer he talks about it, as if it's some location out of Lovecraft, where an eldrich horror lurks beneath the floorboards. We are told a great deal about the freedom Arrowby feels here in his house with its private beach overlooking a lonely bay. There is no electricity or hot water, but of course Arrowby is fine with that. He's roughed it before, you know. He is happy being alone, though he's always lived around or with people. It is difficult and dangerous to get into the water from any of the local beaches, but he'll hire someone to install a handrail to assist him getting down the rock face at his own beach. No problem at all, you see. Everything is fine, if you don't count Arrowby's clear lack of purpose in living from day to day, his complaints that nobody writes to him and there's not telephone service, and of course there was that hallucination (was it a hallucination?) on his second day, of the immense serpent made of sea water, rising up out of the bay and then dissolving away again. Arrowby supposes he has found sanctuary. He insists upon it. No, everything is perfectly lovely, alone in the decaying house at the edge of nowhere, at the edge of the sea, the sea.

6 comments:

  1. I have read (somewhere -- perhaps in something by Harold Bloom) that Murdoch's philosophical preoccupations in terms of theme tend to dominate any possible singularity (does that mean interest?) in plot and characterization in her novels; however, I might be incorrectly remembering what I read. In any case, I wonder what you think of that assertion. I think I also read that all Murdoch novels are more or less the same novel; in other words, if you read one, you have read them all. Well, perhaps all of that is unfair and inaccurate recollection. Now, since I have not read any Murdoch, I suppose I am being irresponsibly provocative in my questions. But, still, I am curious about your thoughts. Those thoughts, you see, will help me decide whether or not I get around to reading Murdoch myself.

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  2. Well, if you use the right level of abstraction, every novel is exactly the same; there's absolutely no difference between Charles Dickens and those 50 Shades of Gray novels, right? Certainly plot is not the central force of Murdoch's novels. Is that supposed to be a weakness? Murdoch surely was interested in ideas, and those ideas are often foregrounded, but her books that I've read are novels, with stories and characters and drama and conflict and all the stuff of life. Maybe not all the stuff of stereotypical novels, but that's a bonus for me. You would be best served by picking up a Murdoch novel and seeing if you like it. Even if it was Bloom who made those preposterous claims about Murdoch (because Bloom is an idiot in his own special ways, just like everyone else).

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  3. Oh, this is where the Bloom stuff started. Thanks a million. Anyway, the novel sounds terrific. I did not realize Murdoch could be so wonderfully nuts.

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    1. Sorry about the spillover onto your blog. The Sea, The Sea continues to be an unhinged sort of book, full of symbols and codes for the reader. I am half convinced that it's a comedy.

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    2. Murdoch is always part comedy. I think it's useful to remember that she liked A Midsummer Night's Dream.

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    3. There is a lot of comic irony in this book. It's swimming in it, so to speak. It borders on Nabokovian in a lot of ways.

      BTW, I've been enjoying the Mann posts, but I have not shifted myself to say that on your blog. The static/active observation is pretty good, and I have a question about that, if I can get it formulated enough in my head to type it up over there. We'll see. I'm awfully scattered lately.

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