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 hyphen that separates one part of their being from another, emotionally or intellectually split as well, these partial shades flit through the London streets and suburbs, desperately trying to make themselves whole, and only half succeeding.

Then, too, the novel is divided in tone; it is half a comedy of manners and half a serious examination of the muddled values afflicting a society dying by inches of boredom—that spiritual vacancy at war with Murdoch’s conception of the “good”* which may be its most persistent enemy. Murdoch, as a writer and a thinker, would agree with Proust that “everything is at least twofold.” She says as much through Edward, though the thoughts are clearly hers:

At so many points anything being otherwise could have made everything be otherwise. In another way, it’s a whole complex thing, internally connected, like a dark glove, a dark world, as if we were all parts of a single dream, living inside a work of art. Perhaps important things in life are always like that, so that you can think of them both ways.

One of the ways is Stuart’s, who believes in the first idea—that through his efforts, no matter how small, he can begin to reform the world. Having left a promising university career in order to “do good,” he finds it is not so easy to make the virtue he thinks he represents tangible. Because his goodness remains conceptual and is not entangled in human love, he is kept from any true knowledge of it. And Edward, who must suffer and act, encounters all the traps experience can offer—proliferating imbroglios that nullify his original intentions. Edward’s complications are those of the heart; and Murdoch’s implication is that in regard to virtue, without love, monks can pray, philosophers split hairs, and ministers decree, all to no avail. The Good Apprentice reveals, ultimately, the double meaning of its title: Stuart is an apprentice of the “good,” and Edward “the good apprentice.”


After Mark’s death, Edward attends a séance in order to communicate with his dead friend, hears a message he interprets as a call for help from his father Jesse, and sets off for Seegard, a sort of demented Taliesen West and self-created fief that Jesse has built in the marshes close to the English coast. And here Edward finds Jesse, once a self-proclaimed prophet-king, deposed and possibly senile. He is never sure whether Jesse has truly sought him out, recognizes him, or is merely shamming. Jesse, protean, bisexual, larger than life, a guru-magus who once held everyone in thrall, is now disrupted and reduced. Lying in state in a tower, yet capable of ambiguous resurrections, he is tended by his wife and Edward’s two half sisters, Bettina and Ilona. Cut off from civilization in a slowly disintegrating utopia, they are members of a cult led by a disappointingly mortal god.

Jesse, another kind of deity from the one Murdoch depicts in Mark, is a god of the ego. Fatuous but compelling, he hovers on the outskirts of evil. A great painter, indifferent or destructive to everyone who has ever loved him, he is as magnetically attractive as Satan in Paradise Lost.

At Seegard, Edward discovers Mark’s sister Brownie, and falls in love with her. On his way to a tryst he thinks he sees Jesse’s body trapped in a river, and, desperately trying to rescue him, finds he cannot lay hands on a material body. His vision may merely be a compound of shimmer and fantasy, another mistaken reality in the swirls and mists surrounding Seegard. But that drowned figure—and how many drowned corpses are scattered throughout Murdoch’s novels!—proves to be real: the rites and propitiations of Seegard are a screen for madness and death.

Brownie, original and healing, ends up married to someone else. Edward loses his friend and his father to death, his lover to a rival. By coming to terms with loss, he manages to save himself. Threatened by collapse from the novel’s beginning, Edward embarks on a journey of salvation. The Good Apprentice can be read in many ways and one of them is as a self-help gothic: How to survive a nervous breakdown.

Edward’s apprenticeship is less a matter of self-discovery than of slowly uncovering unwelcome truths in the people around him. The novel is a book of unveiling rather than one of introspection. Edward may be the most sympathetic young man Murdoch has ever created. Like Hamlet, he fixes himself in the reader’s mind as entirely sympathetic in spite of the evidence piled up against him. He is in tune with the “good,” no matter how weirdly camouflaged, all the way. Because a schoolboy prank turns lethal, it is possible to conceive of Edward as a killer, as he originally conceives himself, but he is saved by a quality as simple as a good heart. We believe in it.

In the character of Edward, Murdoch is not talking about the “good” (which is what she does with Stuart), but means us to feel it through every tremor that pressure and contrariety force upon it. Edward’s salvation is ultimately to accept godlessness and stay good. Though the setting of his quest is contemporary London, he has the quality of a protagonist forced to slay dragons, rescue maidens, and set free the oppressed. An anomaly, he is a believable modern romantic hero out of a nineteenth-century romance taking trains in the twentieth.

Murdoch establishes her authority as a novelist in three distinctive ways: first, in the ingenuity of her plotting, although not always in its working out. (Ilona, Jesse’s daughter and Edward’s half sister, appears at the house of the medium Edward has consulted. Having danced in a stately fashion on the dromos at Seegard, she has become a stripper in Soho. The transcription from the sacred to the profane is neat, but who can believe it?) Then, too, Murdoch’s interpolations of thought on this and that subject are almost all of them provocative and astute. This short passage on psychoanalysis, nominally running through the mind of the doctor-magician Thomas McCaskerville, for instance:

Where the individual mind is concerned the light of science could reveal so little; and the mishmash of scientific ideas and mythology and literature and isolated facts and sympathy and intuition and love and appetite for power which was known as psychoanalysis, and which of course did sometimes “help people,” could make the most extraordinary mistakes when it left the paths of the obvious. Wild guesses, propelled by the secret wishes of the guesser, could initiate long journeys down wrong tracks.

Or this—when Thomas discovers that his wife Midge is having an affair with his best friend Harry—on the component of jealousy, rarely mentioned, that struggles with incredulity:


He could not think about Midge, in relation to her he was a raw mass of suffering. His mind, unable to sustain coherent understanding, fell apart into craven incredulity, bleeding deprivation, sobbing childish misery, tragic attitudinising, cold cruel curiosity, and rage. He was astounded to discover how much anger he was capable of.

…He had trusted her so perfectly, with a perfect childlike simplicity which reigned here, and here alone, inside the achievement of his marriage. And then his terrible anger would conjure up the hateful pair, the tormenting they who had so utterly destroyed his joy and poisoned his mind and crippled him with pain….

…That Midge, his own dear loving private Midge, could have planned and executed a long cold-blooded deception….

Finally, Murdoch’s descriptive powers, astonishing at their best, have the force of the realist and the fabulist combined, rather than of the surrealist or mere fantasist. Mapped inch by inch, so detailed are her landscapes that we think we could walk through them, and none has ever been more sensuously alive and present than the river marshland described in The Good Apprentice. In each Murdoch novel, a version of the pastoral is revived. In the Seegard section, the skewed structures of the place rise right off the page. Poltergeists, fogs, visions that appear and disappear, menacing tree men always close by hacking at the woods, an abandoned railway and a swollen river—these Murdoch brings to life with the hand of a master. Her insights and landscapes outlast the skeletons they hang on, which is why it seems less important than it might that she has repeated herself so inventively through thirty years of novel writing.

If only the other two sections of The Good Apprentice had the authority of the Seegard section. But Murdoch’s narrative and descriptive powers often seem at war with an expository awkwardness that sets its mark on the novel almost from the beginning. Long before Edward arrives at Seegard, a dinner party serves to introduce the major characters. Running from pages 18 through 33, and stiff as a saw, it moves its cardboard actors across a room more chalk and inkwell than roast and trifle, and, in setting out its themes, has the naive, expository tone one fears in every amateur playwright:

“So religion is the answer,” said Ursula to Stuart, “that’s where we started.”

“Yes, something that keeps love of goodness in people’s lives, that shows goodness as the most important thing, some sort of spiritual ideal and discipline, like—it’s so hard to see it—it’s got to be religion without God, without supernatural dogmas, and we may not have time to change what we have into something we can believe in.”

Granted Stuart is meant to be a prig, the seminar tone attaches to everyone, and yet this scene is immediately followed by a marvelously revealing and natural one of two women talking in a bedroom. You take your Murdoch where you find it.

The usual complaints leveled against Murdoch—of inventing the incredible and asking us to believe it, of too loud a creak in the stage machinery—seem to me misplaced. The trouble lies elsewhere. After the recent Murdoch five-hundred-page blockbusters, Nuns and Soldiers (1980) and The Philosopher’s Pupil (1983), precursors to the present one, the reader, keenly aware of the tone of the polemical, is often made too sure of the lesson being taught. Do we need to be told so schematically and so often that the “good” exists, even though it comes not in a pure, unadulterated form, but as a spectrum, or a scale, shining its hue here, sounding its note there, surprising us always by being the very clue to the composition as a whole?

And all too often, conversely, the reader is left uncertain of the ultimate point, so garbled are the ambiguities. Edward seems to sum up this misgiving late in The Good Apprentice:

Had it all been proved an illusion?…was it an irrelevant interval, a corrupt mystery, a good enigma, a journey to the underworld? He felt now that, whatever it was, it was a huge business, so huge that it would take him years and years to think it out.

The problem Murdoch poses here—how to live a spiritual life after absorbing the bad news that God is dead—has no resolution. Her position is an odd one, poised between theology and psychoanalysis: she is a Christian without a God and an Eros fundamentalist without being a Freudian. Love, in The Good Apprentice, is only sometimes a saving grace, and is always in allegorical opposition to death. Both Mark Wilsden and Jesse Baltram are figures equally representative of Eros and Thanatos.

Murdoch is contemporary in her ability to connect ancient fables with the surface of modern life. The inferno is never more than two steps away from Glyndebourne. She has also restored the story to the center of the novel—the story in its hypnotic bedtime-story sense of “I will a tale unfold.” In place of experiments of language, there is language itself, but language used expansively, as if to exhibit, say, to Charlotte and Emily Brontë just what the nineteenth century missed.

A précis of a Murdoch novel is uncommonly reductive. Like the condensed soup of an opera plot, the spellbinding can be made to sound ridiculous. The interior magic derives in part from the obvious delight she takes in the act of novel writing itself, a pleasure peculiarly at war with the Platonism from which it springs, since Murdoch herself would be banned from the Republic as a species of poet.

I think her closest counterpart may, oddly, be an American one, James Merrill. Whoever thought that after Faulkner and Joyce the novel would get a shot in the arm in a new version of good old-fashioned storytelling? That after the Beats and Life Studies poetry would be regenerated by form? Both writers have possible versions of life and the afterlife wholly unexpected in our time: a poet’s vision of reincarnation and the beyond sprung from an Ouija board, and, in Murdoch’s case, convictions both Christian and Godless emerging from the higher reaches of Platonism. Both writers are obsessed by love and art and have stamped out new versions of the occult and the magical. Though in tone and background no two writers could be more different than Murdoch and Merrill, the first a master of expansion, the second of compression, each has given life to discarded formulas by twisting them in a highly original way.

Murdoch’s uniqueness lies in the way she manages to make the visionary real. In the last scenes of The Good Apprentice, she invokes the Shakespeare of the late romances. Like Prospero saying goodbye to magic, Thomas McCaskerville gives up psychoanalysis. The long, complicated journey we have taken ends around a kitchen table with the two half brothers and their stepfather in genuine harmony—that pacific amity in which complex works of art simplify themselves into plainness and resolution. The Good Apprentice is Murdoch’s stab at The Tempest, a work that could only come late in a career, and as it sums up the major themes of the Murdoch canon it forgives everyone, including itself, the delusion of inventing reality.

This Issue

June 12, 1986