I finished The Sea, The Sea. I'm now about halfway through Conradi's biography of Iris Murdoch, plodding through a particularly shapeless part, detailing a love life that is various and interesting but somehow, in Conradi's hands, never quite comes into focus. I'll learn more I suspect by reading more novels. (I like Conradi, by the way, but I think he might not be ruthless enough to be a really good biographer.)
Everything that comes from fifties and sixties feels icky and ungainly to me: our species lost some crucial sense of proportion, some instinct for beauty, during that time. We never recovered it, I guess, but the absence hurts most in those early years, when it comes along with some sense of what we had lost. Murdoch comes from those decades, essentially: that's where she came of age. But she stayed slant to it, which is as much as anyone can ask.
(It's the intellectual world that I inherited, twenty years later, as an undergraduate in the backwater of Washington State: it was Sartre who proved your virility back then. Remember? I owned a fat paperback copy of Being and Nothingness. I probably even read it: I read everything, back then. How lost that world is now!)
Anyway. Murdoch. One way to take The Sea, The Sea is as a mordant joke: the narrator in fact does precisely what one is supposed to do -- fall in love once and for all, with a passion that never wavers -- and the result is somewhat grotesque, forty years down the road, when all the tokens of status and influence have shifted. The narrator is quixotic, or maybe just demented: it's hard to say. One way to read the novel is as a sort of romantic dystopia: okay, so this is what perfect love is supposed to be? Let's play it out, then.
In each of the three novels I've read now -- The Bell, An Accidental Man, and The Sea, The Sea -- there is at least one supernatural event that remains unexplained: something that pleases me, even in my current violently anti-superstitious mood. It is necessary to be reminded, repeatedly, that we do not understand how this thing -- human life -- works. That we are almost certainly horribly deceived, and that under the influence of that deception we are probably committing crimes and cruelties that we do not comprehend.
It is reassuring to read someone from my own withered time who has the conviction that the intimations, as Wordsworth would call them, have to be attended to. There are monsters in the sea, and angels in heaven. The fact that we must be mistaken about them does not mean we can ignore them.