Take that white thing away

Nicholas Spice

  • The Good Apprentice by Iris Murdoch
    Chatto, 522 pp, £9.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 7011 3000 8

‘A novel must be a house,’ wrote Iris Murdoch in 1960, ‘fit for free characters to live in.’ The Good Apprentice carries within it an apt image of itself as a house. Seegard stands in a coastal fen within sight of the sea. Architecturally it is singular and original, the creation of Jesse Baltram, an artist of disputed greatness who specialises in paintings with a heavily symbolic content. ‘A long high almost windowless building’ connects at one end to something that looks like an 18th-century house, and at the other to a tall, hexagonal, concrete tower. From the outside, Seegard is a ‘weird-looking object’ with features that can only be understood when one has explored it thoroughly from within. From a distance, it is hard to ‘read’:

‘It’s such a strange-looking house, sometimes it seems quite senseless, I mean I don’t know how to look at it, and it’s as if that makes it invisible.’

   ‘I know what you mean. Jesse meant it to be hard to look at.’

In the philosophy of Iris Murdoch, learning to look at things in the right way is identified as the radical task of the moral life. So it may seem ironic that the novels which embody and explore this insight should themselves be so difficult to see. Uncertainty about what has happened in the book, and what it’s to be taken to mean, is a usual response to a new Murdoch novel. The scope for disagreement is always large, and one is led to ask: how can it be that a writer of such imposing, original and prolific intelligence, should produce novels whose individual stature is so disputed. This question, which is so much the question about Iris Murdoch, loses some of its force when one accepts that if her novels are hard to look at, then this is because she means them to be hard to look at. Once one has given up trying to stand back from them to see them whole, the point of her novels, and the value of them, becomes clearer. For Iris Murdoch’s novels are not so much things to be looked at, as experiences to be gone through.

The experience of being put through a Murdoch novel depends upon her superb command of storytelling, her delightful sureness in conceiving and delivering plots which cannot be foreseen. This quality is active again in The Good Apprentice, where Murdoch’s invention thwarts at every turn our attempts to predict where the book is going. Since not knowing where we are going is crucial to the meaning of this novel, I shall, as far as possible, avoid retelling the plot here. Instead I will lift the roof off the book towards the end of its long central section, lift off the roof of Seegard, and invite you to look inside.

The lamplit scene we intrude on is clearly some sort of crisis. Standing by the front door there is a middle-aged man and a woman. They look uncomfortable, and the woman appears to be trying to hide her face behind her headscarf. They call themselves Mr and Mrs Bentley, but their real names are Harry Cuno and Midge McCaskerville. They have come to Seegard to ask for help: their car is stuck in the mud and they need someone to pull it out. They seem surprised and appalled to discover that the house they have been led to is full of relatives and people who know who they are. There is, for example, May Baltram, who recognises ‘Mrs Bentley’ as the younger sister of Chloe Warriston, her husband Jesse’s erstwhile mistress. Visibly excited by this recognition, May tells her elder daughter Bettina to ‘go away for a moment, and keep the others out’. But the others come in: Edward Baltram, who is Harry Cuno’s stepson; Stuart Cuno, Harry’s elder son by a previous marriage; Ilona Baltram, Bettina’s sister; and lastly, Jesse Baltram himself.

The climax of this scene, which is itself the great comic dénouement of The Good Apprentice, comes when Jesse, who is old and intermittently deranged, advances on Stuart Cuno and calls out: ‘There’s a dead man, you’ve got a corpse there, it’s sitting at the table, I can see it.’ And again: ‘That man’s dead, take him away, I curse him. Take that white thing away, it’s dead. The white thing, take it away from here.’ This utterance is the pivot of the book, the point to which the plot has ravelled itself up, and the point from which the process of unravelling takes off. In context, it is grotesquely funny. It also sends a chill to the heart. Because what, in his madness, Jesse Baltram thinks he sees, expresses in direst form the thought about Stuart to which the thoughts of the other characters, and even the thoughts of the reader, secretly tend. This thought – that he is dead – is the burden which Stuart Cuno has been created to bear.

On the face of it, The Good Apprentice appears to be chiefly about Edward Baltram. At the start of the novel he is plunged into spiritual hell, when his closest friend, Mark Wilsden, steps or throws himself out of a window under the influence of a drug which Edward has given him, in fun and without his knowledge, in a sandwich. At the time of Mark’s death, Edward is in bed with a girl. Naturally he holds himself guilty for his friend’s death. Edward feels he has sinned against the gods, and much of The Good Apprentice is taken up with his attempts to propitiate them.

Edward believes that he must seek out Jesse Baltram, the father whom he has never known, to obtain forgiveness. In pursuit of this idea he is reminded of the parable of the Prodigal Son. Like the Prodigal Son, Edward is easy to sympathise with, since his ordeal is essentially the ordeal of growing up. The more interesting figure in the parable, however, is the elder brother who stays at home. Here it is Thomas McCaskerville, Midge’s husband, a psychiatrist, who draws the parallel. He says to Stuart: ‘You want to be like the Prodigal Son’s elder brother, the chap who never went away!’ And Stuart answers: ‘Exactly – except that he was cross when his brother was forgiven!’ Stuart, though he does not believe in God, has a vocation, a profound sense that it is his purpose in life to do good. He believes in the idea of the holy. He has taken a vow of celibacy. Noticing the opposition between Edward and Stuart, Thomas McCaskerville observes: ‘Edward had lost all value, Stuart was gorged with it. It was as if Stuart had become an Albino ...’ Stuart’s repulsiveness is associated in the minds of many of the characters with the repulsiveness of white. The whiteness of Stuart is also a blankness, a surface upon which people project their own particular, and often negative, meaning. He is, as he himself reflects, ‘the passive hated witness, a corpse sitting there, everywhere an intruder.’

As one reads The Good Apprentice the case against Stuart Cuno appears to grow. I found myself dreading his presence on the page. The anger and distaste he has provoked in reviewers of the book seems to have been unanimous. What is most striking about their response is that they are certain that Stuart is to blame for everything. In point of fact, Stuart Cuno does nothing. He does his best to keep out of the way. He sits on his own in rooms or in churches practising quietness of mind. If he is drawn into the action at all, it is only at the invitation of the other characters, and even then he does nothing. Only in doing nothing, in fact, can Stuart in any sense be regarded as culpable, and he is the first to recognise this. As for him actively causing damage, the book provides not a shred of evidence in support of the idea. But then, there are those who think even Cordelia was to blame.

Stuart Cuno activates in us our tendency to invest ourselves and the outside world with attributes and values that are not justified by the facts. This is a form of delusion, and delusions are lies, and lying, especially when it is systematic, as Stuart says, ‘gradually detaches one from reality, one can’t see.The Good Apprentice is concerned with degrees of detachment from reality, not with the reality we are capable of becoming detached from. So it is hardly surprising that the ‘real’ world is not much in evidence in the book. A.N. Wilson, in his review of The Good Apprentice in the Spectator, thinks this way of talking about Iris Murdoch’s novels, although it is very common, is misconceived. But if it is, then Murdoch’s moral philosophy is misconceived, since the distinction between real (or true) living and unreal (or false) living lies at its centre. When she uses these terms, and when people sometimes say that her novels lack reality, what is referred to is not an ontological distinction (which, of course, would be untenable), but an existential one: the difference between self and other. To be in touch with reality is to be able to experience the world outside ourselves as outside ourselves, and this is an experience which novels, among other things, have it in their power to give us. Iris Murdoch’s novels do not notably give us this experience, because they are about the ways in which we are unreal. The Good Apprentice, for example, traces a movement in all the main characters (except possibly the incorrigible Harry Cuno) from relative detachment from reality to relative attachment to it. Its achievement is to allow us to experience this movement from the inside. And if we feel at the end that the characters have arrived at a point where a novel about them might begin, then this is entirely appropriate and a tribute to Murdoch’s intelligence and art.

A sense of reality acts on the worlds which Murdoch’s characters create like detergent on snow or soap in a bubble bath. It comes to them in sudden glimpses: in a line of Proust, the sight of a mouse scuttling about under the platform of the underground, or of the beloved eating a piece of cheesecake. Through such visions they learn to see the difference between the here and the there, between the imprisoned self and the freedom of the outside world. Leaving that prison, however, demands sacrifice. Towards the end of The Good Apprentice, Edward Baltram sees the sea from the tower of Seegard:

Edward went straight to the window. Yes, there was the sea, a dark glowing blue spotted with emerald. And, oh, upon the sea there were crowds and crowds of sailing boats with huge-bellied spinnaker sails, striped in all colours, reds and blues and yellows and greens and blacks, moving slowly in different directions, crossing and passing each other with the elegance of a slow dance in the bright evening light. He thought, it’s a sailing club, there’s going to be a race, or rather the race must be over now. And suddenly he thought, there are people out there in a totally other world, people laughing and joking and kissing each other, men and pretty girls opening bottles of champagne. He turned back to the room, seeming now so small and quiet and lonely and sad.

Edward’s movement towards reality means he must give up the magical, beautiful, terrifying world of his neurotic hopes and fears and accept that the real world is colourful too. ‘The enchanter’s palace was already beginning to fall to pieces.’ This is sad. We share this sadness. But the deepest sadness must be Iris Murdoch’s. For, in creating Edward’s Seegard and its surrounding countryside, she has created a magical-allegorical world of astonishing beauty, and written some of the finest descriptive pages in the modern novel. But she has led us, with Edward, out of this world and instructed us to discard it.