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venerdì 25 novembre 2011

The sea, the sea (wonderful Iris Murdoch)

I bought this book when I was pregnant, back in 2008, sometime in the spring. I tried to read it several times, because I knew it had to be a great book, and because I wanted to like Iris Murdoch. Yet I regularly got stuck, not because I was bored, but because I couldn't stand the main character, who is narrating the whole story in first person, in the form of his memoir. I simply couldn't stand him, that is, Iris Murdoch's fictional character felt as lively and plausible as any existing human being you can instinctively perceive as unpleasant. This fact alone tells very much of Murdoch's amazing gift with words. She can really create, re-invent herself completely to give voice and life to the character she's building. Last January I took The sea, the sea again from its place in the bookshelf, and made another attempt at reading it.... and just couldn't stop. I devoured and adored it. I still think Charles Arrowby is sort of a bore sometimes, when he abounds in detailed, extra-precise accounts of his meals and food tastes. Like this passage, for instance:

"For lunch, I may say, I ate and greatly enjoyed the following: anchovy paste on hot buttered toast, then baked beans and kidney beans with chopped celery, tomatoes, lemon juice and olive oil. (Really good olive oil is essential, the kind with a taste, I have brought a supply from London.) Green peppers would have been a great addiction only the village shop (two miles pleasant walks)could not provide them. (No-one delivers to far-off Shruff End, so I fetch everything, including milk, in the village.) Then bananas and cream with white sugar. (Bananas should be cut, never mashed, and the cream should be thin.) Then hard water-biscuits with New Zealand butter and Wensleydale cheese. Of course I never touch foreign cheeses. Our cheese are the best in the world. With this feast I drank most of a bottle of Muscadet out of my modest `cellar`. I ate and drank slowly as one should (cook fast, eat slowly)and without distractions such as (thank heavens) conversation or reading. Indeed eating is so pleasant one should even try to suppress thought. Of course reading and thinking are important but, my God, food is important too. How fortunate we are to be food consuming animals. Every meal should be a treat and one ought to bless every day which brings with it a good digestion and the precious gift of hunger."

I mean, writing this at page 8 on an over 500 pages book can really discourage a big share of readers. Yet, from a wider perspective, Iris Murdoch has been amazingly good at standing in the shoes of a 60-year-old unmarried man, just retired from a glittering theatrical career in London to an isolated cottage by the sea. He has plenty of time to enjoy the simple pleasures of life, like food, swimming, watching the sea, thinking. And it is plausible that he can express his feelings through words much better than many people, because working in the theatre means constantly facing and dealing with emotions; plus, he is quite cultivated, which means it doesn't sound strange to read wonderfully written and deeply evocative descriptions of the sea, and of his own states of mind. Here are some:

"I am still almost shy of my emotions, shy of the terrible strength of certain memories."

"I loved my father so intensely at that moment and was at the same time conscious (I was ten, twelve?) that I could not express my love, and that perhaps he did not know of it, how much it was. Did he ever know?"

"It is after tea and I am sitting at the drawing-room window watching the rain falling steadily into the sea. There is a terrible grim simplicity in this grey scene. Apart from an iron-dark line at the horizon the sea and the sky are much the same colour, a muted faintly radiant grey, and expectant as if waiting for something to happen. As it might be flashes of lightning or monsters rising from the waves."

"And I felt upon the empty darkening road a shuddering sense of my utter solitude, my vulnerability, among these silent rocks, beside this self-absorbed and alien see."

"....and there was a new extremely anxious excitement and a sheer plucking physical longing to be in her presence, the fierce indubitable magnetism of love."

"Time had suffered a profound disturbance, and I could feel all sorts of dark debris from the far past shifting and beginning to move up towards the surface."

"The past and the present are after all so close, so almost one, as if time were an artificial teasing out of a material which longs to join, to interpenetrate, and to become heavy and very small like some of those heavenly bodies scientists tell us of."
Charles Arrowby buys this cottage in a remote place by the sea. He expects to be alone (not lonely) and to relax,leaving career, friends, and lovers far away in London. Yet the people he left behind appear one by one, threatening his peaceful isolation. And, quite absurdly, he happens to meet his childhood sweetheart Hartley, now turned into a secretive, dishevelled middle-aged woman. He become utterly obsessed with her, and at this point I won't say anything more, in case someone might want to read the book. I'll just add that, as is often the case with Iris Murdoch's fiction, events ramble on and on, becoming increasingly absurd and exaggerated as Iris Murdoch explores the extreme possibilities and consequences of our actions and feelings.

After reading this book, I wasn't able to read anyone else but Iris Murdoch for a few months, and I even re-watched the film about her life. She was born in Dublin in 1919 and published her first novel, Under the net, in 1954, two years before meeting and soon marrying John Bayley. They were a happy, loving couple all through their life together. The film Iris is actually based on his memoir. In 1995 she started to develop the first symptoms of the Alzheimer disease, which she first attributed to a writer's block. She died in 1999.

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