I’m sorry not to have posted for a little while. I’ve been on holiday in Jersey, happily surrounded by the sea. And by rather a fortuitous coincidence, I happened to be reading Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea. Thanks to Jude Law.
One day, a few months ago, Jude Law comes into the bookshop and I find myself serving him. He takes it upon himself to make conversation and says that he is reading a newly published collection of Iris Murdoch’s wartime letters, A Writer at War.
I am completely floored by the encounter, and stand there bright red, grinning and staring at him. I may have bad facial recognition (see this post for a rather embarrassing encounter) but there is no mistaking Jude Law. ‘Iris Murdoch,’ I think, ‘I must find something interesting to say about Iris Murdoch.’
But, as it happens, I don’t need to, as Jude Law continues to talk about her without needing any of my input. Apparently she is his favourite author and he has read absolutely everything that she has written. He says that she is so modern, and I’m so dazzled that I am unable to come back with anything other than, ‘Yes, um, so modern.’
I’m quite fond of this little story. It’s one of those stories that I use to try and prove that working in a bookshop is not only really fun but also rather glamorous. But it came back to haunt me the other day, when I was recounting it to a new acquaintance at a dinner party.
This young lady was unimpressed by my anecdote. She found it hard to believe that I had nothing to say about Iris Murdoch. (Mind you, she didn’t have a whole pile to say about her either.) I tried to reassure her that I had indeed read a couple of her books – but annoyingly it was a little while ago and I couldn’t say very much about them. My case was worsened when someone else started talking to me about Lee Child, and I found myself chatting to him about this rather less highbrow thriller writer and his character Jack Reacher.
‘I see you are better versed in Lee Child than Iris Murdoch,’ she said, somewhat archly.
I tried to explain that I hadn’t actually read any Lee Child, but this didn’t seem to help things.
So I resolved to read some more Iris Murdoch. Frankly I love my Jude Law story, and I’d hate to be too scared to retell it for fear of being criticised for my lack of Murdochian wherewithal. The next time that happens I’ll be able to drop in something about Prospero or Buddhism or something else suitably silencing.
Well yes Prospero and Buddhism do feature in The Sea, The Sea but so do boiled onions and the flavour combination of almonds and apricots. And, strangely, I found myself eating these two rather idiosyncratic dishes while I was in Jersey.
Charles Arrowby, the narrator of The Sea, The Sea, is a famous old theatre director who decides to retreat from his London life of fame and glory to a funny little house by the sea. He has rather eccentric tastes in food – insisting, for instance, that boiled onions are a dish fit for a King – and a great deal of unfinished business with a menagerie of ex-lovers.
The book is written as though Charles is writing his memoirs and indeed the Prospero thing is because Charles (in his typically self-inflated, self-absorbed view) compares himself to Prospero abjuring his magic and retreating from the world. I imagine Iris Murdoch having a little snigger at the image of such a silly pompous man trying to look sufficiently magisterial as Prospero, with cloak and staff.
The book is about retreating from the world, or trying to. Because, inevitably, Charles doesn’t manage to retreat from the world – his world follows him up to the little house by the sea, so that as the book draws near its climax several people are staying with him – so many, in fact, that there isn’t room for them all in the house and one has to sleep outside.
But Iris Murdoch also gives us James – Charles’s cousin – who is a counterpoint to Charles throughout the book. He is a soldier turned Buddhist, who goes about his life in London with a great deal more composure that one imagines Charles has ever had. He has spent a great deal of time in Tibet, and has even mastered some ‘tricks’ from his time out there, such as being able to increase his body temperature just by sheer concentration. He pops up at different points in the novel and, just as Charles is always overblown, melodramatic, ridiculous, James is always calm, poised, focussed. He is no hermit – and indeed Charles’s theatre friends all take to him – but he is always slightly withdrawn, slightly removed from the situation. It is as though James has managed to retreat from the world while still being part of it. This is something in which Charles never succeeds.
I suppose that my little retreat from the world wasn’t entirely successful either. While I, like Charles, swam in the sea every day, went on long walks, and left my phone off most of the time, I also spent most of the time chatting away to, playing games with, and generally larking around with the fiancé’s family. And it was so much more fun doing everything with a big crowd of people, rather than in self-absorbed isolation. Luckily for me, the crowd of people wasn’t at all like the swarm of angry/loving/crazy exes, that invades Charles’s seaside house.
In fact, it was when I got back to London and was trying to get lots of things done, wandering the streets from cobbler to cleaner to bike fixer, without anybody to natter away to, that I felt momentarily alone.
I know that the anonymity of a city is a cliché, and so is the fact that this can result in urban life being a lonely experience. But this anonymity can also feel like a haven of solitude, something that can be reassuring and quite grounding. And so I agree with Iris, in her example of James as opposed to Charles.
Who needs to head off alone to a little house by the sea in order to retreat? All one needs to do is go for a walk through Soho, where the cacophony of background noise can be rather soothing. And, if one really succeeds in zoning out, all that noise can sound just like the lapping of the waves of the sea.