”Even a middling novelist can tell quite a lot of truth. His humble medium is on the side of truth. Whereas the theatre, even at its most ‘realistic’, is connected with the level at which, and the methods by which, we tell our everyday lies. This is the sense in which ‘ordinary’ theatre resembles life, and dramatists are disgraceful liars unless they are very good. On the other hand, in a purely formal sense the theatre is the nearest to poetry of all the arts. I used to think that if I could have been a poet I would never have bothered with the theatre at all, but of course this is nonsense. What I needed with all my starved and silent soul was just that particular way of shouting back at the world. The theatre is an attack on mankind carried on by magic: to victimise an audience every night, to make them laugh and cry and suffer and miss their trains. Of course actors regard audiences as enemies, to be deceived, drugged, incarcerated, stupefied. This is partly because the audience is also a court against which there is no appeal.”Schruff End. Charles Arrowby’s place by The Sea.
Charles Arrowby has retired from the theatre to a damp, drafty, but dramatic home by the sea. His plan is to live on his own, read, and eat well while he writes his memoirs. He is famous, certainly well known enough to be recognized on the street from his days acting and directing on the stage. He wants to be anonymous, but as I can tell anyone from personal experience the last place one can be anonymous is in a small town. ”I could have told you the country is the least peaceful and private place to live. The most peaceful and secluded place in the world is a flat in Kensington.”
I found myself liking him. I especially enjoyed reading about him figuring out this life of reading, eating, and writing. It sounds ideal. As the plot advances it will take many shattering blows for me to let go of the Arrowby I liked and replace him with a man that is on the verge of lunacy. Charles may miss the drama of the stage, but he doesn’t miss it for long because his life becomes a stage play. It all starts to unwind when he goes to the village and sees his first love, Hartley appear as if by magic. As it turns out he is the only one that calls her Hartley everyone else calls her Mary. He knew her briefly before the war and during the war, as happened with many people, he lost track of her. Her life is a Mary life not a Hartley life. Charles can not accept the person he sees before him. She must metamorphosize and he is the man to make it happen”I saw: a stout elderly woman in a shapeless brown tent-like dress, holding a shopping bag and working her way, very slowly as if in a dream, along the street, past the Black Lion in the direction of the shop. This figure, which I had so vaguely, idly, noticed before was now utterly changing in my eyes. The whole world was its background. And between me and it there hovered, perhaps for the last time, the vision of a slim long-legged girl with gleaming thighs.”Oh good lord!
Now Clement, who he actually talks the least about of all his lovers seems to be the woman that made him into the successful man he is today. ”Clement was the reality of my life, its bread and its wine. She made me, she invented me, she created me, she was my university, my partner, my teacher, my mother, later my child, my soul’s mate, my absolute mistress.”
Clement made him feel so good that he did not attempt to find Hartley. She kept him from his one true love by...being...so...terrific. The Poor Bastard.
Lizzie visits him, another one of his ex-lovers. She has decided to move in with their mutual friend Gilbert. ”Lizzie is half Scottish, half Sephardi Jew. Although she has the most adorable breasts of any woman I ever made love to, she is not really beautiful, and never was even when she was young, but she has charm.”
Unfortunately Lizzie is still in love with Charles and even though he really doesn’t want her back he doesn’t want her with Gilbert either. ”Jealousy is born with love, but does not always die with love.”
Rosina shows up as well yet another ex-lover. They can’t let him go any better than he can let them go. She is a famous actress almost as obsessed with Charles as Charles is becoming with Hartley. She breaks into house not once, but several times and soon knows all there is to know about this silly Hartley business. It seems that Charles broke up her marriage and then casually tossed her aside, but Rosina as it turns out is not the type to be so casually flung anywhere. She is more likely to pick Charles up and fling him into the sea or run over him with her car or brain him with a rock.
Charles seems to have a most powerful effect on women, but his charms are having no influence on Hartley. Despite being resoundingly rebuffed his fantasy continues to grow. ”Her large brow, which looked white in the candlelight, was puckered and pitted with little shadows, but the way she had turned up the collar of her green cotton coat behind her hair gave her a girlish look. Perhaps that was what she used to do with her mackintosh collar in the days when we went bicycling. And even as I was listening intently to her words. I was all the time gazing with a kind of creative passion at her candlelit face, like some god reassembling her beauty for my own purposes.”Own purposes indeed. ”She did not have to join my grand intimidating alien world. To wed his beggar maid the king would, and how gladly, become a beggar too. The vision of that healing humility would henceforth be my guide. This was indeed the very condition of her freedom, why had I not seen this before? I would at last see her face changing. It was, I found, a part of my thought of the future that when she was with me Hartley would actually regain much of her old beauty: like a prisoner released from a labour camp who at first looks old, but then with freedom and rest and good food soon becomes young again.”Okay so he is losing all grip on reality, but isn’t that what actors do? They make the role their own and transcend the script.
This book won the Booker Prize in 1978. This is the first Iris Murdoch I’ve read and I’ve got to say how impressed I am by her writing style and ability. I can’t believe I’ve never read her before.
She wrote twenty-five works of fiction until 1995 when she began to experience the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease which she at first attributed to writer’s block. There is something so sad about a woman who thinks her writing ability has simply shut down only to learn that her body is failing her. She had more stories to tell us, but unfortunately they became locked up in the corridors of her mind with doors without knobs and crooked, meandering hallways. Iris Murdoch
When we first meet Charles he seems like a man that we would love to know, a favorite uncle or a friend to grab a beer with occasionally. As we get to know him better his selfishness, his egotism, his dramatic persona turns him into a person that I would avoid as if he were sporting bubonic plague. Murdoch brings us along, masterfully, through the dementia of Charles’s growing obsession with possessing something that frankly no longer exists. By the end he has proved to be as chimeric as the youthful Hartley. ”Last night someone on a BBC quiz did not know who I was.”