It’s funny what you remember and don’t remember about books you re-read, isn’t it? I’d remembered very clearly Stuart being described as a white grub, and scenes at Seegard, and I recall finding Middge an attractive character (something of which I’m less sure this time round) but I had no memory of most of the actual plot as such! Anyway, a bit of a late review and I hope my regulars are poised to share their thoughts, and anyone else happening along feels moved to share theirs, too.

If you’re doing the readalong or even selected books along with me, or of course some time afterwards, do share how you’re getting on and which have been your favourites so far.

Iris Murdoch – “The Good Apprentice”

(28 December 2018)

Edward and Stuart are brothers-but-not-brothers. Edward has just been instrumental in the death of a friend and wants to blot out all experience and stop living in hell  “How does one live after total wickedness, total failure, total disgrace?” (p. 10). Stuart is inexperienced but wants to do good in the world. Their father/step-father is one of a group of super-Murdochian middle-class characters (the analyst, the doctor, the academic, the “women’s lib” writer) and their offspring who circle the boys, trying to help. Meanwhile, near the sea but seemingly distanced from the sea, Seegard sits with its colony of weird women, waiting for whoever ends up visiting.

This is one of the books where you definitely have to draw a diagram of the relationships, pretty well as soon as you discover that Stuart and Edward are brothers only in vague name, having different mothers AND fathers. Add in a few aunts and cousins and you can easily get very lost. And then everyone’s mothers seem to know everyone else’s mothers! I found my diagram from last time and added to it – dotted lines are links not by marriage or birth and I imagine it’s incomplete!

There are little feminist bits again which I’ve never (how?) noticed before. Sarah Plowmain’s mother is into “Women’s Lib Journalism. She’s a fire-eater” (p. 6) and later writes a piece decrying Mother May’s position as a little woman serving a great man and being spiteful about his conquests. We don’t have the horrible ageing women we’ve had in other books, Mother May’s network of fine lines being attractive and Midge, for all of her weight gain, being very attractive and well-dressed. Thomas has been doing a lot of thinking about the menopause in a rather startling passage, with a very modern conclusion: “In fact, he thought, there is no typical menopause, there are as many menopauses as women” (p. 387) so although he’s been complaining about women pinning their neuroses onto this time of life, he is humane about it. Harry is seen grabbing and shaking Midge until her head cracks against a chair (but he doesn’t get to keep his relationship with her).

In our usual themes Willy is trying to write a book on Proust but has been unable to finish it. Harry HAS finished a book but it’s a novel (“a terrible shameful secret”) and it’s being rejected by publishers. Red curly hair is a theme at Seegard (and Midge has a many-coloured mop that is also familiar) and not only Ilona but Bettina chops her hair off. There are stones throughout: the “lingam stone” of which Edward knows the meaning and Ilona claims not to, the stones around the country cottage and the paperweight stone Thomas has from Scotland. Spiders appear as Bettina teases one at Seegard, and Edward claims his head is full of poisonous ones. There are not many people seen out of windows or through them, but Harry enters Midge and Thomas’ house via a “tree-shaded back alley through a gate into the walled garden” (p. 181). Stuart chases Meredith in London but there’s no one flitting in a white dress. Water is there in the form of the sea by Seegard, not accessible by Edward until he trusts his own sense of direction, and mists.

There’s lots of doubling – Stuart and Edward / Mark and Brownie, with Edward and Mark the favoured children. Two locations, London and Seegard. Two families for almost everyone. Two hot air balloon appearances. Two fingers on lips expressions for Midge and Meredith. Two sightings of Jesse drowned, one real, one a vision. Two encounters with the Tree Men. Willy’s father is killed camel riding, Harry’s sailing. Jesse and then his old friend Max die, probably on the same day, and the two deaths are seen in the papers. Ilona can dance in the glade and then can’t dance in the strip club (is this Seegard as enchanter again? see below).

Of course the theme of religion hangs over the whole book – or precisely what to do when religion has faded from the world, Edward can’t take absolution from a priest and Stuart can’t become a monk, so what are they to do to make their way through the world? The introduction by David E. Cooper makes much of this, and is right to.

There is humour in this big and very sad book. The “Willy and the camel” thing is pretty weird, his father having been killed by one – Harry mentions someone “drinks like a camel” and Willy leaves suddenly and later when Midge wants to get rid of him, she comments “What a fine coat … it’s camel-hair, isn’t it?” (p 432). This is such an odd one it does feel like something – a dare? – that has worked its way in from real life. Some of the descriptions of discomfort – Edward in his wet clothes at Mrs Quaid’s (“His trousers were wet and seemed to have shrunk, he felt cold, a smell of damp wool arose from the collar of his jacket” (p. 64)

Who is the saint and who the enchanter? I’m not sure we have a saint. Stuart, though, is striving like mad to be one, suppressing all urges, absorbing people’s emotions and trying to find his place to do good in the world. However, Meredith says he’s not messy, so he can’t be a saint yet. Maybe a saint in waiting. Interestingly at very least Midge tries to turn him into an enchanter, making out he’s sat there in the back of the car with a monolithic disapproval of her and Harry’s affair and has made her fall in love with him, while he says, “I don’t think I did that” (p. 353). Edward is trying to find his own redemption, although he does manage to “take a pain away from her into himself” when Brownie tells him what people have been saying about Mark’s death (p. 334). Thomas has been moving behind the scenes, as we discover he was behind Edward’s invitation to Seegard and also sends Brownie to find him in his old room by letter, and has been busy reading letters between Harry and Midge. He knows Edward is going to run and that he will know where to (but that’s because he’s instigated it!). But he’s more like N from “The Philosopher’s Pupil”, moving things around to help, and he’s not set up as an enchanter by anyone. He also thinks he should give up “this ingenious skill, this power, bending and contorting people’s lives like a Japanese flower arranger” (p. 390). He does, however, avoid “inflicting my suffering on [Midge] in the form of rage” (p. 437). Jesse is a sex god and attracted many women, but doesn’t really seem to have used his powers much, and Mother May is more like the controlling nun in “The Bell” and a wardress.

However, there is a source of enchantment in Seegard, appearing and disappearing in the landscape, acting as a place out of time where no one ages, and described as starting to fall apart as Edward leaves it for the last time. Nature also has some kind of guiding or enchanting role, from the murmuration of starlings Edward sees on the way to Seegard to the robin that interrupts Harry and Thomas.

In links to other books, Stuart is described early as “a plump white grub with a big head emerging from an apple” (p. 28) and we remember that I noted in my review of “The Philosopher’s Pupil” the description of George post-stones as “weak and pale like a grub in an apple” (p. 547). The Post Office Tower pops up, for Edward when he’s walking out of Mrs Quaid’s and everything is glittering and lovely. When Edward is in counsel with Thomas, a demon looks through his eyes reminding Thomas of flayed Marsyas, who crops up a lot. Thomas himself is another psychoanalyst who believes he’s a fraud, like Blaise from “The Sacred and Profane Love Machine”. Midge describes Harry as living in a “net” and she is in one of lies (p. 99). Thomas says he likes to see Midge sewing and someone else in a book a few ago said that – anyone remember? The idea of ordeal, which came up in “Philosopher’s Pupil”  and “Nuns and Soldiers” and will be more prominent in “The Green Knight”, is mentioned here – “[Edward] has gone upon a pilgrimage to face an ordeal, his very own. He will be alright” (p. 225).

And in a link to quite another book, we have a little Lord of the Rings mention, when Edward, very near the end of the book, considers wearing Jesse’s ring on Ilona’s chain “round his neck, like Frodo” (p. 554). This greatly cheered me!

Thoughts on re-reading – I don’t remember Stuart and Thomas being my favourite characters last time but they are this time. Poor old Thomas, trying to be logical and being accused of being cold, and poor lost Stuart, not his father’s favourite and patiently running around trying to help!

Please either place your review in the comments, discuss mine or others’, or post a link to your review if you’ve posted it on your own blog, Goodreads, etc. I’d love to know how you’ve got on with this book and if you read it having read others of Murdoch’s novels or this was a reread, I’d love to hear your specific thoughts on those aspects, as well as if it’s your first one!

If you’re catching up or looking at the project as a whole, do take a look at the project page, where I list all the blog posts so far.