An appreciation of Iris Murdoch’s The Philosopher’s Pupil

This is a Dantesque tale of love: as in an Inferno of evil, not of Beatrice. Along the way, Murdoch introduces you to numerous sinners, from dishonest to honourable, self-defeating to masochistic, platonic to deviant, and never ever simply just one type at any one time.

Set in Ennistone, it’s a town renowned for natural hot water springs and baths, and is filled to the brim with the heat of gossip, anger, passions, and small-minded mischief makers.  

But this review is not about the plot, as that’s for you to enjoy in your own reading.

This is an homage to the vivid and remarkable characters that Murdoch’s genius has given life to in this novel.

She has a mature nineteenth century novelist’s depth to her characters; and is a match for Tolstoy, Trollope and Eliot, to name some of the giants of classic fiction.  

Her fictional beings are beautifully, fully realised in scope and complexity, and each draws you in with their own personal world view, reasoning as well as often troubled emotional life. You become captivated in observing and listening to them live and breathe and assert themselves in their muddled worlds.

Her dialogue alone is worth the price of the novel — and the prologue, relating the car ‘accident’ is by itself worth the price of the paperback.

(for it really isn’t one, but an incident resulting from a violent action), is a tour de force, introducing George, the novel’s devil in (barely) human form.  

He is scarily human: the most fully realised and horribly convincing, nightmarish psychopath and sociopath I have read in fiction. Far more disturbing than Hannibal Lecter as a fictional creation, and more believable than a real-life monster like Ed Gein.  

From the prologue on, you are witness To his extreme ranting and raving, his hatred and violent, misogynistic behaviour. He is apocalyptic in tone and revenge.  

Yet he could just as well be one of your neighbours who has by the by become utterly mad, while going through the motions of sanity

He is the strongest case and example — though there are several others in this novel — of Murdoch’s tremendous ability to create flesh-and-blood human beings that convey her passionate intellectual and creative interests, while never failing to be merely conduits or foils for her fictional plotting.  

There’s never any sense of novelistic Deus ex Machina at work, here — her creatures spring from the page, and are all tremendously personal in language, thought and action.

As if psychotic George wasn’t enough for one novel, there’s also the philosopher of the novel’s title as well, John Robert Rozanov (George was once one of John’s pupils). Manipulative, amoral, uncaring, soul-less, intellectual and emotionally moribund and, in many ways, he’s far more of a devil than George himself (though never committing physical acts of violence, or verbal, as George does with such relish and ease).

Then there are George’s brothers: Brian, who must be one of the most bloody miserable, whining sods in fiction but who, thanks to Murdoch’s scalpel humour, becomes a great doom and gloom comic character for our amusement.

And then there’s Tom: the youngest of the brothers, at university and who, to his teenage years, is naive, delightfully happy and at one with his world and his peers. That is, until he’s corrupted by a Faustian task that John compels him to take up.

Alongside them, you have Gabriel, Brian’s put-upon wife, poor, defeated, always tearful, troubled, and ready to blubber at the drop of the proverbial hat; and the intellectual, yet remote, and incredibly martyrish Stella, wife of the monstrous George.

And while George spews with murderous rage, violence and hatred if womankind, he also saves Zed.  

Now Zed is probably one of fiction’s most charming, delightful and convincing portraits of a clever little doggie. He’s Zen-like — “Zed” as a name is more than a hint, I think — and always understanding, even when he’s clueless; both part of the natural world, and yet connected with his human peers – including, most particularly, the other marvel in this novel: the boy Adam.

Adam is the offspring of Gabriel and Brian. Francis of Assisi-like, as well as Buddhist in his immediate and deep empathy with all living things. He is Schopenhauer’s ideal saint-artist, able to see beyond the veil of Maya.

Murdoch clearly knows her Varieties of Religious Experience, and if the Gabriel, Stella and Zed weren’t enough, you have Father Bernard.

An Anglican priest who’s also an atheist, he believes ultimately that the only hope and saviour for the world is religion without God. He ends up an ethereal ascetic-Russian hermit-ancient Desert Father-type, living on a remote Greek island with kindly peasants, birds, the sea and rocks.

This is a rare gem of a novel. It’s phwor and fab, funny and dark, with substance, yet as light as a perfect soufflé.

There’s also plenty here for lovers of Plato and Dante, yet such allusions are never done ostentatiously, but rather flow seamlessly within the events and thinking of the novel and her characters.  And all these riches are carried through with zest right to the end and beyond, with you being totally immersed in and absorbed by the mess and muddle of these human lives (a true Murdochian talent).

You are left joyous,  breathless and happy and utterly, utterly impressed by Murdoch for her philosophical wisdom, her mischievous wit, her darkness and light, her psychological insights and her innate appreciation of what it means to be human.  It is an extraordinary novel from a brilliant mind.

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Filed under authors, fiction, Iris Murdoch, literary classics, misogyny, The Philosopher's Pupil

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