The Good Apprentice
Edward’s friend is dead, and it’s Edward’s fault, and he’s nearly killed himself with grief and guilt, longing only for a forgiveness that will never be granted. Stuart is not a religious man, doesn’t believe in God, but has decided suddenly to dedicate his life to celibacy and helping people, though he has no particular clarity about what form that might take. Midge is having an affair and is tortured by her indecision about which man is truly good for her, which man defines her, which man would release her to true happiness. Thomas believes himself a good psychiatrist, but lies to himself about retiring, is obsessed with his patients, and is completely unaware that his wife has taken a lover. The Seegard women are mystically devoted to a simple lifestyle in deference to the ill man who has either imprisoned them or been imprisoned by them…
Yes, this is an Iris Murdoch novel, with the deeply philosophical and psychological hallmarks of all her works. People striving and failing to apprehend goodness is the center of the story, for which an accurate capsule might be Edward’s despairing cry, somewhere around the middle, “He’s religious, you’re scientific, neither’s any good when one’s in hell.” Like the novelist I recently quoted here, I read Murdoch because “I like her characters’ preoccupation with the state of their souls and the nature of goodness—their own, other people’s, the world’s…. I’m interested in how shockingly difficult it is to be good.” In The Good Apprentice, the question of who is doing good or learning where to find/achieve goodness is so central to the plot that which character is, in fact, the “good apprentice” would be difficult to argue definitively.
Stream of consciousness is not for everyone, but Murdoch presents her characters so thoroughly and authentically that I lose my sense of self while reading, buffeted and tortured and relieved with them as I encounter their reality. At times it is exhausting, but this serves to render the encounter more authentic, rather than tedious. And their thoughts live on in my mind long after I put away the book. Hers are profound exemplars of character-driven novels, and worth every effort the reading requires.
I previously reviewed Murdoch’s The Bell here. She is currently one of three writers I am “deep reading” (i.e., reading through their entire lists), the other two being Shirley Hazzard and Kazuo Ishiguro. Nuns and Soldiers and The Sacred and Profane Love Machine are already in my stack.
Have you read Murdoch? Are you a fan? She seems to be one of those writers whom readers either love or hate, with no middle ground. The Good Apprentice confirms my impression that I will continue to resonate with her work. I’d love to read reviews others have written, so please include any links with your comments.