Iris Murdoch’s The Good Apprentice

Kaleidoscope, n. An optical instrument, consisting of from two to four reflecting surfaces placed in a tube, at one end of which is a small compartment containing pieces of coloured glass: on looking through the tube, numerous reflections of these are seen, producing brightly-coloured symmetrical figures, which may be constantly altered by rotation of the instrument.

Got that? Now imagine that the instead of coloured glass you have pieces of Hamlet, and the tube is not a tube but a 500 page novel. That’s what Murdoch’s Good Apprentice is like.

The Good Apprentice is a breathtakingly ambitious novel, a wonderful example of Murdoch’s gift for deconstruction, for multiple perspectives, for a sort of literary cubism (for an earlier review of Murdoch’s work in general see here). The story of two young men, two brothers – one of whom is an agony of guilt after accidentally causing the death of his closest friend and the other who has decided to give up his profession, sex and material concerns in order simply to be good (without any clear idea of how this is to be achieved), The Good Apprentice is a book of almost infinite variation, a series of fugal patterns based on familiar themes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The plot seems almost irrelevant here – the real point of the story is simply to give Murdoch the space to play around with all the myriad different perspectives that Hamlet has to offer, serving up scene after scene with a baroque inventiveness that is both informed by Shakespeare’s great tragedy and deepens our appreciation of it. Which is not to say that the plot is not imaginative itself – as always, Murdoch combines psychological acuity with outrageous invention, building a tightly controlled structure of intertwined lives. But it’s the ghost of Hamlet that really lifts this book out of the ordinary.

The initial conceit is simple enough. In defining the two brothers, Murdoch has split the two halves of Hamlet’s personality – his deeply personal grief and his more general philosophical angst – into two, allowing them to play off against each other in a way that they never do in the play. But if this seems simple, it is also deceptive. It is a central quality of Murdoch’s writing that just when you think you’ve finally figured out what she’s trying to say she goes and says something else. So just about the point when you’ve started putting the characters right in your head – classifying X as Polonious, Y as Ophelia – they will suddenly change on you, so that, for instance, the character you had pinned as Hamlet’s father will die Ophelia’s death, or the boy you thought was Horatio will turn out to be Hamlet. This sense of flux also allows Murdoch to explore some truly exciting variations on the play itself – what if it was Hamlet’s father who was sleeping with his brother’s wife? What if it were Hamlet who were to kill himself because Ophelia went away?

The end result is a book that reads like a hall full of mirrors, with endlessly repeated images of faithless wives, betrayed fathers, forbidden loves, false advisors and returning ghosts. This level of inventiveness can be dizzying, but it can also be laugh-out-loud intelligent. This is probably Murdoch’s most explicit engagement of Shakespeare (or maybe it’s just that I’ve started to pay more attention) – the book is filled with quotes from Hamlet (and from the sonnets) and scenes constructed to mirror images from the play (early on, there’s a seance where “the man with two fathers” is told that his real father is calling him!).

There is of course, a more subtantive element to the book – an exploration of the nature of ‘goodness’ – of what it means to be good, to help others, and how this can be achieved. But as with many of her other books, Murdoch doesn’t seem to have a clear overall message here (at least none that I can discover) and The Good Apprentice seems more like a series of restless meditations (though erudite and well-expressed meditations at that) that constantly skirt the truth but never really arrive at it.

It’s this lack of forceful direction, this sense of the characters, for all their brilliant ideas and ephiphanies, ultimately muddling through somehow, that is also, IMHO, one of the biggest failings of the book. In the final analysis, the novel seems more concerned with playing around with the images from the play, without adopting its melancholic, tragic spirit. Part of what makes Hamlet a work of such astonishing power, is the way it descends inevitably into tragedy, the ruthlessness with which Shakespeare sacrifices the genius of his characters to the force of dramatic necessity. Murdoch chooses not to do that here – her characters are survivors, and for all the sound and fury that accompanies their passage through the book, they emerge from it relatively safe and unchanged, returned to the familiar round of their lives. This is a disappointment (at least to me), and I can’t help but wonder if it wouldn’t have been a much finer book if Murdoch had chosen to bring it to a more tragic conclusion.

Bottomline: The Good Apprentice is a an incredibly clever and innovative book, that will make you want to re-read Hamlet and will change your way of reading that play (and imagining / remembering it later) forever. If it has less to say for itself, if the power and poetry you sense in the book is little more than an intense reflection of Shakespeare’s masterpiece, do you really have any cause to complain?