The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch. Viking, 502 pp. $10.95.

The Sea, The Sea opens in a contemplative mood. Charles Arrowby, a famous playwright and director, has at the age of sixty retired from a frantic career to an eccentric house on a promontory overlooking the sea. What he wants, or so he says, is to live quietly, looking back on his life and writing about it at random. For awhile he does so. In loose diary form he writes of the place where he is living, his daily routine, his elaborately simple cuisine — making this one of the tastiest books in recent memory — and dwelling at some length on people and episodes from his past. The reader settles into this pace, and looks forward to a long comfortable novel.

Arrowby’s meanderings conceal the classic simplicity of his story. His paternal grandfather had two sons, Adam and Abel. Abel became a barrister, married a vibrantly beautiful wife, and led a life that radiated elegance, excitement, and worldly success. His one son was named James. Adam took a minor government post and married a woman whose anxious face mirrored a life of hard work and near-poverty. Their son was Charles, the book’s narrator. Adam was a man of simple pleasures, and, except for his wife’s anxiety, was content with his lot. Charles loved his quiet father, and their relationship was more like that of two intimate friends than of father and son. But he was haunted by the presence, the very existence, of his uncle’s family. Their visits left him feeling shoddy and poor, inferior to James, and he longed after his vision of the beautiful Aunt Estelle. Sometime in his childhood, some part of him decided to pursue that vision, and various other circumstances led him to seek it in the world of the theater.

In doing so he abandoned the one great chaste passion of his life, a girl named Mary Hartley Smith. Theirs had been a young adolescent friendship, of constant companionship, a brother and sister closeness, hard hugs, dry fervent kisses. When he left for London the first time she seemed to realize that a part of him was leaving her forever, and she ended their friendship. He went on to a tempestuous and famous affair with an older actress named Clement Makin, then to a series of affairs that seemed to punctuate and reward the successes of his career, until finally, as his narrative begins, he has decided to retire to his quiet life by the sea.

The early days of his retirement are not without their disturbances. A mirror inexplicably shatters; he thinks he sees a face at an interior window; and at one point he is actually convinced he sees a large snake-like monster in the waves of the sea. He writes casually to an old flame named Lizzie Scherer, who is living with another friend named Gilbert Opian; her passion is rekindled and she comes to the seaside to seek him out. Another one-time lover, Rosina Arbelow, also shows up, largely out of jealousy, and Charles has occasion to speak to her former husband Peregrine, whom Charles had stolen her from. The theater world is beginning to creep in on him, and at least a part of him wants to put all that away and contemplate an earlier, simpler time. Then one day on the street he sees a “stout elderly woman in a shapeless brown tent-like dress”; astonishingly, it is the girl from the days of his youth: it is Hartley. Charles has retired to contemplate his dead past, and the past has risen up to greet him.

The vast bulk of the novel concerns Charles’ elaborate and obsessive attempts to win Hartley back. The narrative is immediate: in the interesting form which Iris Murdoch has chosen to give her book, her narrator is telling the story as it happens, discussing his plans before he knows how they will turn out. It is a mad plot. Hartley’s marriage is far from perfect, but the last thing she wants to do, at the age of sixty, is abandon it for her childhood sweetheart. Her husband is a violent man, and violently jealous of her old relationship with a famous play director. Lizzie appears at the worst possible moments, pursuing Charles. Rosina’s jealousy follows. Out of work as an actor, Gilbert comes to work as a kind of servant for Charles. Peregrine shows up, and Charles’ cousin James. All these characters become enmeshed in an elaborate web, but the most complicating factor is Hartley’s son Titus, who — as the central conflict in Hartley’s marriage — reappears after a long absence and comes to have a vital relationship with Charles, with James, Gilbert, with nearly everyone in the book. The long central episode of The Sea, The Sea is as far from the long comfortable reading experience that it originally seemed as any book could be.

It is dangerous to find too much meaning in a first reading, but much of the novel seems obviously and intentionally symbolic. The sea might stand for the vast seething world of success and failure, which is placid one moment and treacherous the next — men drown there — and the sea monster, “as if one’s stinking inside had emerged and become the universe,” the egotism and self-centeredness that arise in such a world. The book is largely about that monster. Charles doesn’t understand Hartley’s life and doesn’t try to; he is pursuing an obsession and wants to possess her as an object, the palpable form of a dream. Everyone around him can see this, the reader better than anyone else, yet Charles has no idea that his plan to run off with another man’s sixty-year-old wife is anything other than cold hard reality. Choosing such a man to narrate her story was a daring maneuver on the part of Murdoch. He is so wrong, and sees so little, and the reader wants to shout at the book, shake it, throw it away — the danger is that he will throw it away — but essentially Charles is never convinced. The plot comes to its violent ends, and things are more or less resolved, but Charles is never won over; it seems an admirable bit of realism, when so many literary characters find an easy awakening, that he never does.

Perhaps most surprisingly, the novel eventually returns to its earlier softer tone, and resolves itself thematically in Charles’ prelationship with his cousin James. Charles does seem to realize that his egotism, and all his striving, have cut him off from that primal relationship; he was too busy trying to surpass James ever to get to know him. The novel ends in mystery, far from the certainty with which it began, yet the reader is convinced the story is at an end. An expert in Buddhism, James speaks at one point of the belief in an afterlife in bardo, where one lives in torment among the demons of his own particular imagination. Iris Murdoch seems to be saying that nearly all of us, in this life, live in such a state. and it is only as we see beyond our projections that we achieve anything like freedom.