Iris Murdoch. 1978. The Sea, The Sea Vintage Classics edition, 2012. 584 pp.

The early part of this novel is a bit like Iris Murdoch showing off about her knowledge of men, perhaps a kind of “men for dummies” manual, darkly imagined. But then she had multiple affairs with both men and women through her long marriage to Prof. John Bayley, some of which he witnessed for himself. Whether this makes her more or less suitable to write a manual on men is debateable but anyway this is very much a product of the 1970s given the language and attitudes women appeared to have of themselves (it is necessary to constantly remind oneself that the author is a woman).

Subsequently the novel opens up petal by petal, but not into a flower, instead a train wreck, like a Leonard Cohen song turned into a nearly 600 page novel but with many un-Leonard-like unpleasant episodes. Iris Murdoch seems to have allocated all the emotions and pathologies she perceives in love, marriage and other human relationships to different characters who collide in different ways. Usually with catastrophic (but contrived) results.

But the true end is an appendix, where Iris Murdoch draws together scattered clues into a mystical Tibetan conclusion. Or non-conclusion. The introduction to this edition by Julian Burnside suggests this is the intended interpretation, bringing together the main character, theatrical womaniser Charles Arrowby and his alter-ego cousin, cultured calm James Arrowby. James Arrowby has mystical powers learned when serving in Tibet and supposedly the drawing together of these opposing personalities in a kind of closing of the circle might be the intended reading of the novel. Fine, but in that case about 540 of 584 pages amounts to a very long-winded red herring.

There are also some revealing asides which, even though they are uttered by Charles Arrowby, surely reveal Iris Murdoch’s own very English food preferences: “a boiled onion is food fit for a king”, and her other character are only allowed to cook Italian or French meals so that Charles can denounce the products as “smelly” food.

This will be the end of my excursions into the novels of Iris Murdoch.