August 29th, 2009

The Good Apprentice

I was thinking about forgiveness and how someone should write a novel about a seeker of forgiveness- and then I started remembering Iris Murdoch's The Good Apprentice- which is not exactly that novel but close- and now I'm re-reading it.

I used to love Murdoch. I bought all her later novels as they came out. I was a young clergyman struggling with his faith and all those conversations her characters have about the Platonic Absolutes and the Death of God were food to me. Then I moved on and she died and turned into Dame Judy Dench and what with one thing and another I hadn't read anything of hers for twenty years. I was afraid I would't like her anymore.

I needn't have worried. The philosophical conversations mean less to me now than they did but they're still entertaining. And I'm seeing things I was too solemn to see before- like how funny she is- how tongue in cheek- and how well- and how mischievously-  she writes about love and sex. The Good Apprentice is my favourite of the novels- and for two reasons. One is the character of the Good Apprentice himself -  Stuart Cuno- a young man who- without God or religion-  sets out to "do nothing bad"- and the other is Seegard- the cobbled together house in the fens- part medieval barn, part 18th century manor, part modernist masterpiece- where the dying painterJesse Baltram lives attended by his Arts and Crafty womenfolk. If the 20th century had produced a great English artist- which it didn't- Baltram would have been it. He is part Picasso, part Augustus John, part Eric Gill.  Myths swirl around him, none of them quite settling. Is he the minotaur in his labyrinth, the Fisher King in his Grail Castle, the Great God Pan, or  merely an exhausted, empty fraud? Murdoch invents an oeuvre for him- his early phase, his yellow and black phase, his "royal" phase- when he was painting Gods and monsters- his "late Titian" phase and lastly his Tantric phase. I can see these things in my head. They are very great indeed. I only wish they existed.