The Philosopher's Pupil

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The Philosopher's Pupil

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1sibylline
Feb 1, 2013, 1:19pm

Here's a thread for you all!

2bobbygw
Feb 18, 2013, 4:49am

The first Murdoch novel I read. Superb. Wrote this review straight after. (Apologies, but the links only work on my blog version of it at www.bobbygw.com.) ...

Review title: Scarier than Hannibal Lecter, more morally corrupt than Gaddafi. And no, it’s NOT Tony Blair (ahem)

It’s psychotic George, a major character in Iris Murdoch’s The Philosopher’s Pupil, a wonderful, stunning novel. More about George later, but first let me introduce you to this Dantesque tale of love — in which numerous types are evoked, 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, a town renowned for its natural hot water springs/baths, and 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 truly amazing characters that Murdoch’s genius has given life to in this novel.

Murdoch has a mature nineteenth century novelist’s depth to her characters; she is easily a match for Tolstoy, Trollope and Eliot, to name some of the giants of classic fiction. Her fictional beings are beautifully detailed, fully realised in scope and complexity, and each draws you in with their own personal world view, and reasoning and often troubled emotional life, and you are captivated in your watching 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’

Click on Iris to be taken to more on the novelist-philosopher & her work

(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. But he is scarily human. He is, for me, 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. With his extreme ranting and raving (from the prologue on), his sheer loathing and violent, misogynistic fantasies (as well as behaviour), he is apocalyptic in tone and revenge. Yet he could just as well be one of your neighbours who has become utterly mad, yet within a framework of apparent sanity at the same time.

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): he is manipulative, amoral, uncaring, soul-less, intellectual and emotionally moribund and, in many ways, is 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 the brothers to George: Brian, who is just the most miserable, endlessly complaining and always irritable sod — and relentlessly funnily drawn through his dialogue and through whom a lot of the novel’s humour is brilliantly played out; and Tom, the youngest of the brothers, at university and, for most of his life, to his teenage years, he is naive, delightfully happy and at one with his world and his peers, until corrupted by a Faustian task that John compels him to take up.

Besides the above-named people, you also have the joy of being entertained by Brian’s put-upon wife, poor, defeated Gabriel, always tearful, always troubled, and ready to blubber at the drop of the proverbial hat; then there’s the intellectual, yet remote, and incredibly martyrish Stella, wife of the monster George (to give him credit, besides his murderous rage and violence and misogyny, he does save Zed. Zed is probably one of fiction’s most charming, delightful and convincing portraits of a clever little doggie, who seems to be 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, offspring of Gabriel and Brian, and who is Francis of Assisi-like, as well as Buddhist, in his immediate and deep empathy with all living things; you could describe him as 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, who believes ultimately that the only hope and saviour for the world is religion without god, and ends up preaching like some sort of ethereal combo ascetic-Russian hermit/-ancient Desert Father-type, to remote Greek island kindly peasants (and otherwise local birds who’ll hang about, and the sea and the rocks).

In short, I loved, loved, loved this novel. It’s phwor and fab, funny and dark, with substance, yet as light as a perfect soufflé (I think too much Delia Smith in my earlier years, yet saying bish, bash, bosh and pukka, while fun, don’t quite capture the delicate attention to detail in thought, character and action in this novel). 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.

3labwriter
Edited: Feb 18, 2013, 3:50pm

>2 bobbygw:. Good heavens. Are you her nephew or something?

4bobbygw
Feb 20, 2013, 7:20am

funny! just a smidgen of a fan (ahem).

5rainpebble
Feb 20, 2013, 8:09pm

Oh my. I had not planned to read this one but sounds like you were truly gobsmacked by it and now I will have to rethink my Murdoch reading list.

6LyzzyBee
Feb 21, 2013, 2:10am

Philosopher's Pupil is one of my favourites and, I think, the one I've read most often. Ah - it's brilliant. Good holiday reading!

7LizzieD
Feb 21, 2013, 10:13am

Well, you're inspiring me to get into it for real, which I will do as soon as I finish those Brontës!
Bobby, we are going to disagree about the believability of IM's characters. They always seem to me to be vehicles for her philosophy, and I don't think that she cares much about character development because of this. We can get into it later when I've read more *P's P*. Meanwhile, I am almost equally rhapsodic about Dickens, but I have to say that the ecstasies of a true believer can be a conversation stopper as I know from my own experience.
Belva, jump in and join up!

8labwriter
Feb 21, 2013, 1:16pm

>7 LizzieD:. the ecstasies of a true believer can be a conversation stopper

Great line, Peggy. Although at first I read that as "conversion stopper"--that too, I guess. Heh.

>2 bobbygw:. Murdoch has a mature nineteenth century novelist’s depth to her characters; she is easily a match for Tolstoy, Trollope and Eliot, to name some of the giants of classic fiction. Her fictional beings are beautifully detailed, fully realised in scope and complexity, and each draws you in with their own personal world view, and reasoning and often troubled emotional life, and you are captivated in your watching and listening to them live and breathe and assert themselves in their muddled worlds.

>7 LizzieD:. we are going to disagree about the believability of IM's characters

I have to agree with Peggy on this one. I don't think IM's aim is to create characters we can relate to--characters who are "real." The ones I've encountered (in The Black Prince and The Bell--admittedly, I haven't read too many of her books) have not struck me as being fully realized, although I'm not exactly sure how you're using that term. I would just say this--and of course this is only my own response to them--her characters are more caricature than real, in that some aspects of each character are over-the-top and exaggerated and other parts are left undeveloped, probably purposefully, both done, IMO, to make her point.

This conversation about the book is fun, and I'm looking forward to seeing what Peggy and others (besides bobby) think of this one.

9LizzieD
Mar 1, 2013, 6:39pm

After barely keeping my mind in this one, I've finally read a couple of hundred pages, and I have to say that so far this is my favorite IM! I know Liz and Bobby love it, but I wasn't expecting to be quite so enthusiastic.
Liz, you'll have to tell me whether this is your experience..... Normally, I read IM's philosophizing with a sigh, ready to get on with other things. This time, though, I immediately recognize my thoughts coming from the mouths of a great number of these characters. Sometimes that's a good thing; sometimes it's appalling. George, the pupil and monster, has been seeing his doppelganger (although he's afraid to look the other in the face) from time to time. Did IM plan a like experience for her unwary reader by putting as much common thought into the book as possible? Anyway, it's a lot of fun, and Becky, the town of Ennistone has natural hot springs, and therefore, a couple of year-round swimming pools, and everybody swims. I'm right at home - a dangerous place to be in Murdoch Land!

10LizzieD
Mar 5, 2013, 9:49am

I'm being vastly amused with IM's sneakiness in character development. I don't think that George, the P's Pupil, is psychotic. He is another of IM's wildly disagreeable lost men. He says to the Philosopher that he himself is only a small demon in comparison with the P's major one, and I think that's possibly accurate. His estranged wife says, "He knows now he'll never do anything with his life. He's a pathetic figure really. If George was in a novel he would be a comic character." For the moment that's good enough for me!

11LizzieD
Mar 8, 2013, 7:07pm

I am not going to tell you more than that IM pulled out the stops to produce plot twists that have me laughing out loud for their sheer audacity. I'm almost through, but I don't know that I'll be able to produce any kind of reasoned response. This is my favorite IM so far, hands down.

12labwriter
Mar 10, 2013, 8:23am

OK, Peggy, you hooked me. But I have to read the biog first.

13LizzieD
Mar 10, 2013, 5:55pm

Heh heh heh. The bio is going to be my next Murdoch too, Becky.
I am sort of hanging around here waiting for somebody else to read *P's P* or for somebody who has read it to comment...... What, for instance, is up with the women's names? Alex and Gabriel are masculine names, right? And then there are the jewels, Ruby, Pearl, and Diamond Diane. And the babies in the water - what gives with that? These are tiny, niggling little concerns. Is Tom the divine fool? John Robert is certainly the magus. Are there any other archetypes I'm missing?
Talk to me, Liz!!!

14LyzzyBee
Mar 11, 2013, 2:31am

Women's masculine names are a bit of a theme with Murdoch. So are pairs or sets of siblings. The babies in the water are part of the echoes she likes to do within novels, and water is a major theme in the novels, and of course in this one. Yes, John Robert is the enchanter - note how his victims/enchantees make him into that rather than him always imposing it. Does that help?!

15LizzieD
Mar 11, 2013, 5:26pm

Thanks, Liz. I had pretty much gotten all that.... It's simply that John Robert was a real grotesque, and then near the end in the bath, as you know, George recalls those babies. Grotesque is the word for it! And you're right: readers can see him clearly, and he doesn't enchant although I kept waiting for him to.
So what is she getting at with masculine names for her women?

16LyzzyBee
Mar 12, 2013, 6:47am

I think she wasn't that keen on femininity as such - we noticed lots of nastinesses about "artificial" women with their dyed hair and makeup, so I think women she likes are often given masculine names.

17LizzieD
Mar 12, 2013, 2:55pm

Hmmm. I liked all the gypsy women better than I liked poor, wet Gabriel. And, well, I don't see how anybody could feel anything about Hattie, who should have grown clearer and clearer and instead grew curiouser and curiouser.

18sibylline
Mar 14, 2013, 9:00am

Not that I have a right to theorize yet, but it seems to me that she is yanking our chains, basically, making us feel that conflict of gender stereotyping of behavior.

19LizzieD
Mar 14, 2013, 9:40am

I can agree about the chain-yanking. Gabriel, though, is a drearily messed up, feminine woman, and not a particularly unusual one either. She's in tears often. She's half in love with her dangerous bil George, and there's a scene where she pays a couple of teen-age hooligans to move a fish back into the ocean that they had placed in an isolated pool. I'm trying to think whether there was a time that she announced news of any kind, but I can't think of one.
So am I being unfair to her, Liz?
(And just for your info, Lucy, Hattie is the young saint of this book like the twin sister in The Bell. {How quickly names disappear!})

20LyzzyBee
Mar 14, 2013, 1:00pm

Well, IM is unfair to most of her overly feminine women, to be fair (ha ha). It's quite interesting - there aren't many feminist readings of IM because it's very difficult to do one!

21sibylline
Mar 14, 2013, 9:08pm

I doubt she had much use for 'feminism' per se - I get the idea she sees an essence that is gender-neutral that is all that really matters.... all the rest is window-dressing, so it doesn't matter whether your name is Gabriel or Gabrielle.

22LyzzyBee
Mar 15, 2013, 2:48am

Indeed. Being good and not passing on pain is the main thing!

23sibylline
Mar 15, 2013, 6:53am

That sounds about right.

24labwriter
Edited: Apr 3, 2013, 12:03am

I just received a beautiful copy of this book in the mail that I ordered from Amazon.used, discarded from the Patrick County Branch Library in Stuart, Virginia, cost: 1 cent plus shipping, a bargain obviously. I don't know when I'll read this thing, but what with trying to get through the biog (I'm at 437/597), and the length of this one, I'm pretty sure it's not going to be anytime soon. At least the font is a reasonable size since it's hardback.

25sibylline
Apr 3, 2013, 10:30am

Maybe we can tackle it together in May or June. I have my eye on that one. Glad you have a nice copy.

26labwriter
Apr 3, 2013, 10:39pm

Hold onto that thought!

27LizzieD
Apr 4, 2013, 2:22pm

If you were attracted to IM at all (and I know that you both are), I have to say that I think you'll find this one fascinating!