False Gods

The Good Apprentice

by Iris Murdoch
Viking, 522 pp., $18.95

Iris Murdoch
Iris Murdoch; drawing by David Levine

In The Good Apprentice, Iris Murdoch’s twenty-second novel, the hero learns one of life’s most painful lessons: how the gods of youth turn out to be false. Real gods never make an appearance in The Good Apprentice but we are provided with several self-styled magicians deluded into believing they might be stand-ins. The omission of gods suggests there are none, and by a grand philosophical extrapolation that God doesn’t exist either (though he is talked about endlessly). Yet the absence of gods, or of God himself, in no way diminishes their, or His, importance. Miss Murdoch has long held the complicated notion that it is as much a lie to pretend not to need a god as it is to believe in one. Edward Baltram, the young initiate to whom the title refers, travels a great distance between two deities, one whom he creates, and the other who has created him—the first is his friend, Mark Wilsden, and the second his father, the eccentric bohemian painter Jesse Baltram.

The Good Apprentice opens with a startling incident: Edward feeds Mark a sandwich laced with drugs and watches him fall asleep in ecstasy. (Edward, though undrugged, half in love with Mark, is in ecstasy, too.) Murdoch describes Mark’s appearance:

With his longish head he looked like an Egyptian king. He looked like a wide-browed, huge-eyed god. He was a god, he had become divine, he was experiencing the Good Absolute, the vision of visions, the annihilation of the ego.

The phone rings. Edward is invited to a nearby assignation by a girl, goes, is seduced, rushes back (in less than half an hour) only to find the room empty and a chair next to an open window. Mark’s body lies broken in the courtyard below.

Mark’s death is the beginning of Edward’s agony. He descends into that special hell reserved for people who unintentionally destroy what they love most out of the best of motives—Edward had wanted Mark to take on the visible aspects of the god he seemed to be. And Edward is doubly tortured in having allowed sex to lure him away from love. Mark’s death and Edward’s seduction, closely connected in Edward’s psyche, as they were in life, become, in retrospect, elements of an evil tinged with the frivolous. He suffers a nervous breakdown.

Edward’s inferno introduces us to the people who populate one of its circles—or half circles, rather, for though they have the recognizable attributes of the British upper middle classes, they are notable for being divided in half—half Jewish and half Scottish, like Edward’s uncle, the psychoanalyst Thomas McCaskerville, or half committed to one man and half to another, like Thomas’s wife Midge, a former fashion model, now thickening slightly inside her still fashionable clothes, who is having an affair with Edward’s stepfather, Harry Cuno. Or Edward’s half brother Stuart. Nominally divided by the very…

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