Booker Prize Winner 1978
Taking his cue from The Tempest’s Prospero, playwright and director Charles Arrowby leaves London for retirement in a coastal village to ‘abjure magic and become a hermit’. Both seduced and unnerved by his new setting, he begins a journey of self-discovery by writing the story of his colourful theatrical life. Finding himself in the same village as Mary Hartley, the first love of his adolescence whom he perceives is now locked in a brutal marriage, he becomes obsessed with the idea of forcing her to elope with him.
Arrowby’s journal forms the narrative – a master – stroke that enables Murdoch to revel in her character’s egocentricity and fussy, florid language. It is testament to her enormous talent that she conjures up a true monster of modern literature, yet one who remains strangely sympathetic. As Arrowby’s schemes unravel and his memoirs evolve into a chronicle of strange events and almost gothic terrors, he comes at last to gaze ecstatically into ‘the vast soft interior of the universe . . . in calm of mind, all passion spent’. But just how far along the road towards realisation has Arrowby actually come?
‘Dazzlingly entertaining and inventive’
The Sea, The Sea is uncompromisingly intelligent in scope and execution, superbly paced yet full of unexpected turns and quirks. It is also incisive on the issue of moral goodness, a subject to which Murdoch devoted so much of her life both as a writer and as a philosophy don at Oxford.
‘The Sea, The Sea … is to be approached as fruit of the author’s maturity, the crest of her creative wave’
The Sea, The Sea, won the Booker prize in 1978 (the year that the prize money doubled to £10,000). Murdoch was already a celebrated writer, but her success was no long-service award: The Sea, The Sea is perhaps her most ambitious novel. It is worth wondering whether such an unabashedly intellectual performance – spiced with ruminations on Eastern religion and meditations on self-consciousness – would be so readily received thirty years later. Murdoch’s is a wonderfully histrionic novel. Literally so, for it is the half-memoir, half-diary of Charles Arrowby, a famous theatre director, who has recently retired to an isolated house on the coast. An avowed bardolator, his narrative is rich with Shakespearean allusions and quotations. Like Shakespeare’s Prospero, he means to brood in selfregarding isolation, but finds a cast of characters from his former life turning up on his doorstep. All throw themselves onto the stage – for such is what the novel seems – with actorly gusto. They arrive to swear devotion or wreak revenge or both. He finds that his childhood sweetheart is living with her ill-natured husband in the nearby village, and becomes obsessed with reviving their teenage amours. The results include at least one attempted murder and some high-octane, blackly comic confrontations.
As taken from, The Booker Effect, by John Mullan.