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On the Centennial of Iris Murdoch’s Birth, Remembering a 20th-Century Giant


On the Centennial of Iris Murdoch’s Birth, Remembering a 20th-Century Giant

“The Sea, The Sea” also happens to be intelligently and sympathetically concerned with four of my favorite things: swimming, eating, drinking and talking, not necessarily in that order. It is an ideal beach book — especially if you enjoy the cooler and pebblier and spookier northern sort of beach.

Arrowby is hunger-obsessed (“Of course reading and thinking are important but, my God, food is important too”) but in an unusual and somewhat dogmatic way. He likes simple food, homely little picnics, and he often resorts to a can opener.

He complains about haute cuisine because it’s expensive and pretentious and a bore, and we all drink so much we barely experience it anyway. What’s more, it “inhibits hospitality, since those who cannot or will not practice it hesitate to invite its devotees for fear of seeming rude or a failure.”

Murdoch drops offbeat little maxims as she goes: “Basil is of course the king of herbs”; “Only a fool despises tomato ketchup”; “Meat is really just an excuse for eating vegetables.”

Not all of Murdoch’s novels are food-minded. My point is that, whatever human topic she is considering, she has a great deal to say that is funny, pointed, dead-on. She fills us to our ears not just with ideas but teeming humanity. “The Sea, The Sea” also contains a lot of commentary about the theater, and about social class.

Charles, the insecure and unreliable narrator of “The Sea, The Sea,” will make nearly any reader squirm. Were he alive today, he would be a candidate for a bug-zapping #MeToo cancellation. He has slept with (and lied to) many women under his professional control, and some of his comments are plainly misogynistic.

Beautiful women, the morning after, tend to look like prostitutes to him. He also remarks, “There is something strange and awful about the distorted open mouths of singers, especially women, the wet white teeth, the moist red interior.” That sentence, with its obvious sexual panic, should probably be sung to “The Vagina Dentata Cantata,” a made-up ditty in Sigrid Nunez’s terrific novel “Naked Sleeper.”

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