Beautiful, haunting, magical “love” story by Iris Murdoch, whom I’ve avoided all my life for some reason thinking that she only wrote terrible romance novels. I stand corrected, Iris Murdoch is an awesome writer. This book is a treat, with lyrical descriptions of the sea that laps near the cliff-side cottage that the narrator, Charles Arrowby, purchases as a retreat for his retirement from the London theater business. He settles in to write his memoirs, his memories of the theater, only he digresses into character sketches of the lovers and friends he’s had over the ages. “Before I lit the lamps tonight I spent some time simply gazing out at the moonlight, always an astonishment and a joy to the town-dweller. It is so bright now over the rocks that I could read by it. Only, oddly enough, I note that I have had no impulse to read since I have been here. A good sign. Writing seems to have replaced reading.”
Odd things begin to happen to Charles– spotting a sea monster out on the water, mirrors and vases smashed by a supposed ghost in his house (turns out to be via Rosina, the jealous ex-lover who fumes that he cannot be with anyone if he is not with her). Adjusting to life in the sleepy village is a bit difficult for the Londoner, finally having to ask for his mail at the post office and hearing that it’s being put into the dog kennel near his house just like the previous tenant always liked. He finds he must order wine through the Raven Hotel, disliking the sweet cider served up at the Black Lion, the local pub where conversation hushes as soon as he comes in the door and loud prolonged laughter follows him as soon as he leaves.
He continues to mention his first and only love, a woman he grew up with who discarded him when he went to become an actor in London. Suddenly, people begin arriving to visit from his previous life, he has apparently tried to rekindle a romance with Lizzie who is living comfortably in an arrangement with Gilbert, a gay actor. They both arrive, involving a dramatic scene as inevitable with theater folk. Then Charles spots an old woman in the headlights of Rosina’s speeding car– it’s Hartley, his first and only love, turned old woman. Turns out she lives in the village with her husband, is slightly curious about him but has no idea the passion that Charles believes is simmering beneath the surface. He ends up pseudo-adopting their son Titus (who was also adopted, suspected to be Charles/Rosina’s son), then kidnapping Hartley, then finally releasing her after cousin James brings him to his senses.
It’s all very dramatic and madcap. One of his friends attempts to kill him by pushing him down the cliff but James summons superhuman strength and saves him. His first love, apparently, is cousin James, who ends up dying and leaving his enormous property to Charles. “I remembered that James was dead. Who is one’s first love? Who indeed.” Very dense, complicated, magical story worth every twist and turn.
The main history ends with four seals swimming close to the rocks as a benediction. Charles continues in the postscript: “That no doubt is how the story ought to end, with the seals and the stars, explanation, resignation, reconciliation, everything picked up into some radiant bland ambiguous higher significance, in calm of mind, all passion spent. However life, unlike art, has an irritating way of bumping and limping on, undoing conversions, casting doubt on solutions, and generally illustrating the impossibility of living happily or virtuously ever after…”
His thoughts in the postscript on the journal: “Perhaps it is a sign of age that I am busy all day without really doing anything. This diary has trailed on, it is company for me, an illusion of occupation… Of course this chattering diary is a facade, the literary equivalent of the everyday smiling face which hides the inward ravages of jealousy, remorse, fear and the consciousness of irretrievable moral failure.”