I am astonished that I was able to concentrate on this long, lyrical, philosophical, tragicomic novel at the beach. I reread it this weekend. It is not quite linear, the scenes broken up by the memories of the hero, querulous, mad Charles Arrowby, a retired actor and director who has left London to live by the sea. He is obsessed with solitude, with writing in his diary, and near the beginning of the novel he sees a sea monster. This is not his only viewing of the monster, but it is a portent.
Many passages in his diary are poetic and philosophical (characteristic of Murdoch). The descriptions of the sea, the tower, the swimming near a dangerous rocky area, his musings on theater and love. Everything is obsessively detailed. He does not want to see his theatrical London friends, but they pursue him, seeing a charm in him that we do not. He is very tired of the theater life.
"The theater apes the profound truth that we are extended beings who yet can only exist in the present. It is a factitious present because it lacks the free aura of personal reflections and contains its own secret limits and conclusions. Thus life is comic, but though it may be terrible it is not tragic: tragedy belongs to the cunning of the stage."
His friends arrive comically in droves, and he keeps trying to turn them away. Somehow they won't go. His cousin James, a retired military man, is brilliant and gentle, the opposite of Charles's memories of him, and stays despite Charles's brusqueness. Charles's former lovers, Lizzie, a plump, mediocre actress who now lives with a gay man, and Rosina, a beautiful, violent actress, keep showing up. Lizzie's gay partner, Gilbert, also temporarily moves in. He loves slavishly playing butler. The characters have many sadomasochistic interactions, as is typical in Murdoch's novels, which always disconcerts me.
Charles becomes fully absorbed in the present when he meets Hartley, the love of his youth. She is old and gray, and "a bearded lady," as Rosina says, but she and her husband have retired to this village. She was engaged to Charles and ran away from him years ago, but he has remained "in love" with her, or so he thinks. She is unhappily married: her husband Ben is obsessively jealous of Charles.
So Charles takes Hartley hostage. This is truly shocking, horrifying for Hartley. He is insane, passing for sane. He thinks Hartley stays in her marriage because she has Stockholm syndrome. He believes he can cure her if he keeps her long enough. His friends keep arriving, and at first don't interfere too much with the situation. He is mad, but they are mostly mad, too. Rosina is entirely mad. She tries to kill her ex-husband.
It is only when Charles goes too, too far that they confront him.
Charles's diary, which evolves into a novel, recounts his madness. The theater is a part of it. Love, or a kind of love, is the nucleus. One of the best books I've read this year: a very good Booker winner.