Bleak House Book Club #3 February: The Sea, The Sea

Retired theatre producer Charles Arrowby yearns for peace and solitude in order to write his memoirs. He buys a rundown house on the coast, away from the glitter and glamour of London. But his friends won’t leave him alone and he soon runs into a face from his past and his obsessions begin.

'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.'

On a Sunday morning at the end of March, two days after returning from our Devon Experience, I hosted the third meeting of the Bleak House book club at my London flat, to discuss Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea. I must admit to taking the easy way out, following protagonist Charles Arrowby’s advice to ‘cook fast, eat slowly’ and stocked up on hot cross buns, Welsh cheese and French bread from Melrose and Morgan, served with a side order of champagne and lots of coffee.

What we thought

The Sea, The Sea was my choice for book club. I first read Iris Murdoch’s Booker prize winning novel around twenty years ago and loved it. I was very keen to read it again but it turned out to be somewhat controversial.

Firstly, there was surprise and, dare I say, disdain for having to read a book with a male protagonist. I found this fascinating, if the aim of the book club is to celebrate and explore women writers, should we be only reading books about women? As with many things at the moment around culture, it seems to always bring me back to Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘A Room of One’s Own’ where she discusses how women have always been represented in literature in all their multi-faceted glories, even in books written by men, but are almost entirely missing from history. Interesting, then, to read a book written by a woman about a man.

Once we’d got over that, and got over the fact I’d inadvertently chosen a book five hundred pages long (sorry!), it became more of a discussion about what an absolute arse Charles Arrowby is. I think I was alone in secretly being a bit charmed by him, even if he is a pretty unreliable narrator.

The book is a real page-turner, I found myself longing for a week-long beach holiday where I could get lost in the book and finish it in almost one sitting. It is really enjoyable to read and funny.

The Women

One of the themes we really enjoyed about the book was the study of women ageing. This isn’t a book about 25 year olds, it’s a book full of older women navigating life in many different ways. There are a lot of conversations happening at the moment about how older women are reduced in modern fiction and films to mothers, wives and grandmothers, and here is book full of women with successful, independent, interesting lives and so perhaps, after all, this isn’t actually a book about a man.

The Food

Charles Arrowby is a foodie, and the descriptions of the simple meals he makes from the meagre offerings at the village store (this is the 1970s, of course…) are tantalisingly delicious. Baked beans from a tin with chopped celery, tomatoes, lemon juice and olive oil, the ‘liberal use of a tin-opener’, dried apricots eaten with cheese, his food has made me want to eat more simply and I wish that there were a Charles Arrowby cook book somewhere. (This article from The Paris Review is a good place to start, though.)

'Oranges should be eaten in solitude and as a treat when one is feeling hungry.'

The Sea

The star of the book for me, is the sea. Iris Murdoch’s descriptions of the ever changing seascape, from the still, tranquil, green waters to the tempestuous, threatening and swirling waters of Minn’s Cauldron captivated me twenty years ago and never left. Whenever I swim on a crazy, wild beach it is always of Charles Arrowby that my thoughts turn and re-reading this book has reinforced it’s place as one of my favourite books.

'One of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small treats, and if some of these can be inexpensive and quickly procured, so much the better.'

Despite being a controversial book in book club, and people finding it uncomfortable to read a book where you just don’t like the main character or want him to succeed in his endeavours, it’s a brilliant bit of escapism and anyway, I still can’t help but like the massive egotist that is Charles Arrowby.

Have you read the book? What did you think? 

How to join the book club

The online Bleak House Book Club is open to everyone. Every month or so we hold a meeting for the in-person book club and then discuss the book here on my blog so that anyone can join in, no matter where you live.

You can share your thoughts by commenting here or by posting a photo of the book your instagram account. If you post on your account or stories, do tag and use the hashtag #bleakhousebookclub as I’d love to join the conversation.

The next book…

Book #4 (April) is Daphne du Maurier’s much loved novel Frenchman’s Creek. I will be posting about this in mid-May. I hope you join us in reading and discussing it. 

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