Recalling Iris Murdoch

Iris Murdoch died on this day in 1999 after a bout with Alzheimer’s.

Late last year, researchers announced that a computerized comparison of her final novel with others including The Sea, The Sea — winner of the 1978 Booker prize, and perhaps Murdoch’s magnum opus — revealed that the author’s vocabulary was shrinking, and that she may have been suffering from Alzheimer’s well before she was diagnosed. According to the CBC, “The team chose Murdoch because she did not allow editors to make major changes to her manuscripts.”

I first encountered The Sea, The Sea last fall, and it skyrocketed onto a vague mental list of my top five novels of all time. But it’s not for everyone.

Although I’ve recommended the book to several friends, I’ve had only one taker who, when we last discussed it, said she’d stalled. It’s a slow, contemplative narrative, intensely psychological, and while I was pulled along by the language and compelling plot, and by the moral dilemmas presented, I can see how the book might be slow-going.

Its narrator, Charles Arrowby, has retired from his life as a Shakespearean actor and director and retreated to a ramshackle house on the edge of the sea to live a simpler life, escape from and reflect on his prior life of excess, and write his memoirs. More than a little ridiculous, terribly self-obsessed, but not wholly unsympathetic, Arrowby envisions himself a modern-day Prospero.

Here’s a bit from the start of the book, the first paragraphs of a section labeled “Prehistory”:

The sea which lies before me as I write glows rather than sparkles in the bland May sunshine. With the tide turning, it leans quietly against the land, almost unflecked by ripples or by foam. Near to the horizon it is indigo. Near to the shore, where my view is framed by rising heaps of humpy yellow rock there is a band of lighter green, icy and pure, less radiant, opaque however, not transparent. We are in the north, and the bright sunshine cannot penetrate the sea. . . .

I had written the above, destined to be the opening paragraph of my memoirs, when something happened which was so extraordinary and so horrible that I cannot bring myself to describe it even now after an interval of time and although a possible, though not totally reassuring, explanation has occurred to me. Perhaps I shall feel calmer and yet more clear-headed after yet another interval.

I spoke of a memoir. Is that what this chronicle will prove to be? Time will show. At this moment, a page old, it feels more like a diary than a memoir. Well, let it be a diary then. How I regret that I did not keep one earlier, what a record that would have been! But now the main events of my life are over and there is to be nothing but ‘recollection in tranquillity’. To repent of a life of egoism? Not exactly, yet something of the sort. Of course I never said this to the ladies and gentlemen of the theatre. They would never have stopped laughing.

The theatre is certainly a place for learning about the brevity of human glory: oh all those wonderful glittering absolutely vanished pantomimes! Now I shall abjure magic and become a hermit: put myself in a situation where I can honestly say that have nothing else to do but to learn to be good.

As the story progresses, of course, Arrowby finds plenty to do, and most of it isn’t so good. Most of it is dastardly.

A few tidbits for fans:

  • On being asked “how long she took off between books,” Murdoch “is said to have replied ‘about half an hour.'”
  • According to A Dictionary of Literary Biography, she “shun[ned] word processors and typewriters and always [wrote] her entire drafts in longhand. The novels [were] planned entirely in her head before she [began] writing.”


You might want to subscribe to my free Substack newsletter, Ancestor Trouble, if the name makes intuitive sense to you.