Like a Victorian novel, The Philosopher’s Pupil ends with a valedictory coda. Good-bye Emma, good-bye Pearl. They have ‘become (and I predict will steadily remain) fast friends, bringing a lot of affection, happiness and wisdom into each other’s lives’. It’s an amiable convention, pretending that these are real people, and that ‘affection, happiness and wisdom’ are real values and not just a touching illusion. But it’s only a pretence, considering what the preceding 500 pages have done to knock any meaning out of such words. Iris Murdoch juggles with reality and illusion, playing with the possibilities of ‘as if’; and there’s some mockery of her puppet-characters in the assumption of this coda that they could ever merge into real life.
As if her setting were a real place, it’s given the full guide-book treatment; Iris Murdoch thoroughly enjoys providing topographical and technical information. Ennistone is a spa town near London. The place grows under her hand – but then it goes on growing, Bath is piled on Baden-Baden, until we’re obviously in the realms of fantasy. So are most of the population of Ennistone, who seem to spend their lives at the Baths, swimming, soaking and steaming. This obsessive behaviour prevents one from taking them quite seriously. It seems silly for a community to be so addicted: but is there a connection between this silliness and the bizarre, murderous extremes of behaviour that also occur? Water has long been favoured for its mythic possibilities in Murdoch novels, but none of the others contains such quantities of water. It’s a relief when one chapter takes us away from Ennistone, on a trip to the seaside. Water means death by drowning; and its erotic connotations account for the town pageant ‘The Triumph of Aphrodite’, as well as for the ‘strange atmosphere’ of the thermal establishment (‘More than one woman has admitted to me that she feels a sexual thrill on entering’). In this aspect water introduces the theme of George McCaffrey’s ‘liberation from morals’.
George is the philosopher’s pupil of the title, and a somewhat hypothetical figure, a product of the ideas in the novel. He has a reputation for being ‘beyond good and evil’ and ‘closer to awful aspects of the world’ than other people. He is ambiguously involved in the near-drowning of his wife at the beginning, and in the attempted murder of the philosopher Rozanov at the end. ‘George was an accomplished narcissist, an expert and dedicated liver of the double life, and this in a way which was not always to his discredit. That is, he was in some respects, though not in others, not as bad as he pretended to be, or as he really believed himself to be. Herein perhaps he intuitively practised that sort of protective coloration which consists in sincerely (or “sincerely”, sincerity being an ambiguous concept) giving one’s faults pejorative names which conceal the yet more awful nature of what is named.’
The need to try to explain George is widely felt in Ennistone. In his own voice, he comes on like Edgar on the heath, uttering snatches of quotations that are mostly nonsense but signify a soul in torment. Rozanov, the elderly philosopher who is the object of George’s obsession, is for his part obsessed with his granddaughter’s virginity. Rozanov is much the more believable character, though this involves believing in a very abstruse thinker at a time of crisis and despair. He has his own murderous impulses, which is doubtless what makes Althusser spring to mind. But Rozanov isn’t mad; nor is he, like George, ‘beyond good and evil’. What indeed makes him credible is simply that he is a puritan and a moralist. He is now ‘tired of his mind’ and tired of pilosophy, in which ‘everything went wrong since Aristotle.’ But he is still a moralist, and what he fears most is ‘to find out that morality is unreal’. Evidently (there’s some guesswork to be done) this is what he does find out at the crisis of his relations with his granddaughter. He has already taken poison before George tips him into the bathwater.
It’s hardly as effective as Dostoevsky – whose one image of eternity as a spider in a Russian bathhouse conveys more than all the Xanadu-like elaboration of Ennistone. The two principals are the less conspicuous for being surrounded by other strange creatures who might have stepped out of other Murdoch novels: Hattie, the granddaughter, a doll-like ‘pure child’; the pair of young (suspected) homosexuals; the parish priest with his 20th-century brand of heresy (‘What is necessary is the absolute denial of God’). Along with character-types, a stream of familiar-looking baggage flows on from novel to novel: Japanese netsuke, flying saucers, electricity failure. The Peter Pan motif recurs, with a pop-song variation on words from Barrie’s own childhood: ‘It’s only me.’ Lots of women – this is bafflingly typical of Iris Murdoch – are in love with George and Rozanov: as ever, the least attractive of her men get the most devotion. The supernatural has its usual place among the mere contingencies of existence. Marvels and portents occur and are simply noted, as if by the unsurprised eyes of a child. George is haunted by a double, who is also observed by his nephew. For his aging mother, the idea of death has got itself externalised in ‘malicious forces’ and an ‘alien power’ associated with her servant Ruby: it’s easier to deal with the supernatural than with death as a natural phenomenon. The Godless priest has not altogether lost religion, he has domesticated it into magic: ‘You need a magician in your life. You have one. His name is Jesus.’
Stranger conjunctions of realism and fantasy occur in the main action of the novel. Meticulous documentation accompanies uncertainty about what is really happening. Did George push his car into the canal, or only imagine he did? The opening confusion about this is echoed in the cleverly plotted confusion about the death of Rozanov at the end. Love and death are interchangeable, according to George, setting out to murder Rozanov. The comedy of Hattie’s arranged marriage has its own set of built-in reversals, in which farce turns to anguish. Power is a keyword: all the characters exercise powers over each other, which are less like natural powers than a kind of enchantment. And it would all be fun – our own English brand of magic realism – if it were neatly self-sufficient and the pattern of reversals quite harmonious. But not so. Far from being merely playful, The Philosopher’s Pupil reaches out after meaning, and undertakes to deal with such issues as evil, innocence and salvation. So it borrows suggestively from literature: George is one of a trio of brothers with a family resemblance to the Karamazovs (the narrator with his talk of ‘our town’ and ‘our citizens’ also seems to be out of Dostoevsky). Another line of interpretation is offered: Rozanov as Prospero and George as Caliban. Interpretation isn’t just a possible strategy for dealing with a Murdoch novel: it is imposed by the novel itself.
But it’s also opposed from within the novel, for the great obstacle to interpretation is the ambiguity of the styles in which it is written. One can ‘place’ the narrator’s style – and even guess his identity, though the novel doesn’t disclose this. His is a ‘cool’ style, if quaintly mannered (‘Somewhat of this did Emma think and feel’); and well-suited to the narrative function, though suspect as a mirror of the inner life. But readers of Iris Murdoch are already familiar with a ‘hot’ style which seems to come unbidden to her characters at important moments. It is one of Rozanov’s ways of talking philosophy: ‘The holy must try to know the demonic, must at some point frame the riddle and thirst for the answer, and that longing is the perfect contradiction of the love of God.’ But mainly it’s the language of emotional stress arising from ‘spiritual devastation, inward wreck’ – as in Rozanov’s love-scenes with Hattie, or in George acting out his idea of redemption:
‘You wanted me to come to you in the end. When I was broken and beaten and rejected. Well, I’ve come.’
‘Oh, George – ’
‘And I am broken and beaten and rejected but it’s not like I thought at all – it’s like a triumph – it’s with trumpets and drums – torches and fireworks and bright lights – it’s liberation day, Diane – can you hear them all cheering? They know we’ve won. Fill up your glass, darling, and we’ll drink to freedom ... ’
It remains a moot point, after many Murdoch novels, whether these moments of excess are meant to convince the reader or not. Some think so, like a hostile critic of her last novel, Nuns and Soldiers: ‘Writing this bad cannot be faked.’ But it’s also possible that they’re simply due to the use of a convention: a somewhat theatrical convention, and in doubtful taste, but just one of the possibilities of ‘as if’ that the novel deals in. Acting is what her characters often do, entering the novel as if it were a proscenium stage and giving a performance: and the staginess of it – not the authenticity – is of the essence.
But to admit the use of theatrical conventions doesn’t get one far enough. Obviously they deter one from being too literal and serious-minded in pursuit of deeper meanings, and they don’t explain why the presence of meaning and the need for interpretation are so coercively suggested at almost every moment. But we may accept them as theatrical conventions, and still find something wrong here. And the trouble isn’t in the bizarre effects they achieve, but in what these are set against: the implied norms of natural behaviour. The oddities and excesses are what we notice, in character as well as in style. Nearly everyone here is like George, ‘significantly at odds with reality’. The odd thing about the young male couple is that they turn out not to be homosexuals, though they once clasp each other in an embrace that is ‘something noumenal, as if they had slipped out of time’. Tom, the Alyosha of the three brothers, carries his innocence of evil to excess even by Alyosha’s standards. Spiritual devastation, secret passions and symptoms of madness appear with all Iris Murdoch’s usual profusion. But lurking in the bizarre, and largely contributing to its effect, are the novel’s assumptions about normality: the accepted view of mistresses or of homosexuals, the sacrament of marriage, the philosophic life, the Church of England. It is to all this, and ‘affection, happiness and wisdom’, that the characters supposedly return in the coda of the novel. Yet reality is just what these norms lack: they are only another kind of convention, and mostly of a most vapid, stereotyped kind. It is the norms underlying the fantasy which, in their significant silence, produce that sinking feeling, the debilitating effect of reading Iris Murdoch.
What good anyway comes of this play of opposites, her great divide between the noumenal and the norm, or fantasy and reality? Without the tension between opposites her novel wouldn’t exist: but does it do enough to justify the novel’s existence? It often seems only to polarise what would be better left unpolarised. Here is sex, for instance, in some of its wilder manifestations: but nothing about it as a fully human experience. At one extreme, it vanishes into the noumenal, or gives rise to a fit of the horrors, as in Rozanov’s passion for his grandchild (‘Oh wicked, wicked, the pain of it’). On the other hand, sex in the ordinary course of events is dismissed with an indifference that goes to another extreme: ‘She had some small messy love affairs ... ’ ‘After messing about with human sexual adventures ... ’ ‘After a few unpleasant little adventures he had decided to give up sex.’ Either way, sex is devalued – like so much else in this apparently commodious novel. It’s not a novel that values the experience it’s made of. It will be objected, of course, that novels aren’t made of experience but of words, and one grants Iris Murdoch a great deal of cleverness with words.