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The Good Apprentice by Iris Murdoch (Viking: $17.95; 522 pp.)

Richard Eder

January 26, 1986|RICHARD EDER

To say both that life is real and life is magical, you have to say a third thing as well: Magic is real.

Iris Murdoch does not quite say that third thing, but her novels hint at it, tease at it, proffer it and withdraw it. It remains like the illusion of motion that our retinal lag imparts to a quick succession of perfectly still figures.

Murdoch works at a borderline which by now, in her 22nd novel, has become ever finer and more tricky. Her characters, insufferably prosy and self-absorbed, are like the unpalatable ingredients for a transforming spell. So--eye of newt doesn't agree with you? Wool of bat is too chewy? Nose of Turk gives you heartburn? But see what they conjure.

In "The Good Apprentice," they have conjured one of Murdoch's sunnier and more bewitching accomplishments. We are firmly in what, by now, has become Murdoch-land: a gaggle of itchy and endlessly self-revealing intellectuals, a witch-girl or two, a reclusive enchanter, an unpleasant and pocket-size saint. A great deal of interferring goes on, both malicious and well-intentioned (with the latter being more destructive). There is a series of odd illusions and coincidences which may equally denote psychological disturbance and genuine ectoplasmic hysteria.

Murdoch's characters continually tamper with each other. Emotion is less something to be felt than something to be imparted. The imparting stirs up psychological dust storms and an occasional disaster.

The fireworks in "The Good Apprentice" are as beguiling as ever. The speeches, quite often, are as maddeningly overstuffed. Yet in this novel, the author's intent is more centered and less arbitrary. "The Good Apprentice" is, in fact, a sinuous and finally exhilarating story about the gradual healing of a young man out of a tragic mistake.

As a prank, Edward gives Mark, a fellow student and close friend, a sandwich laced with LSD. Leaving him, as he thinks, happily asleep, he wanders next door to see Sarah, a casual girlfriend who quickly seduces him. Not quickly enough, though. By the time he returns, Mark has awakened, hallucinating, leaped from the window and killed himself.

Edward is destroyed, and the novel is his pilgrimage out of destruction. Murdoch begins by assembling Edward's circle. There is his stepfather, Harry, a writer and playboy; Thomas, his uncle, who is a psychiatrist; Midge, Thomas' wife and Harry's mistress, and Stuart, his half-brother who, without believing in God, has decided to become holy.

They talk with ponderous sensitivity to Edward, who won't listen, and to each other. It is a slow beginning. Murdoch novels could use a notice here and there: "Heavy Water. Do Not Drink." On the other hand, heavy water is good for chain reactions.

Edward flings the Bible that Stuart brings him at the wall. He throws Midge's chocolates out the window. With a little prodding from Thomas, who in the early stages appears as a Mephisto-like manipulator, he begins to fantasize about his father, Jesse, whom he has never seen.

Jesse was a painter of flamboyant talent and character who, his vogue gone, lives in a restored castle on the edge of the North Sea. Spurred by the advice of a medium and a sudden invitation from Jesse's wife--both, as it turns out, arranged by Thomas--Edward seeks him out.

It is a pilgrimage of a most medieval and seemingly magical sort. Seegard, the castle, is lost in the fens. Edward arrives on foot and is greeted by Jesse's wife, May, and two daughters, Bettina and Ilona. They dress in homespun brown cloth, raise their own food, make their own wine and live a pre-Raphaelite kind of existence according to what they call "Jesse's Rule."

Jesse is away, they tell Edward, and he must await his return. Meanwhile, he is initiated into the life of this little commune consisting of extremely hard work and any number of oddities. May and Bettina are grave and aloof; Ilona is fey and more companionable. Wandering out, Edward comes upon a Druidic glade and sees her dancing in what seems to be an impossibly airborne fashion.

Finally, entering a forbidden tower, he finds Jesse, who has gone mad and helpless. The women keep him out of sight, ashamed of their idol. "He betrayed us by being our child," May tells Edward.

Edward tries to talk with Jesse. At a nearby cottage, he comes across Sarah and, with her, Brownie, the sister of Mark. It is one more in the series of shocks that serve to goad him out of his helpless blackness. He and Brownie fall fitfully in love, but keep losing each other. Jesse disappears, and Edward returns to London to seek him. Before he goes, Stuart arrives, spreading his irritating and unfocused piety; and right after that, Harry and Midge turn up with their own gnarled melodrama.

It is a jangling web of emotions and conflicts. Edward, flayed by his tragedy, has the nakedness of someone truly without a skin. All of the weight and drama of each of the lives around him register in a heightened, hallucinatory fashion, as if they were a mystical ordeal.

And gradually, as Edward is bewitched out of despair and back to mere suffering, the extravagances fade from those around him. May, the arch-priestess, turns out to be writing her memoirs profitably for a newspaper. Thomas, the magus, is revealed as a benevolent, often ineffectual man trying to preserve his marriage. Stuart, who stank with officious virtue, dwindles appealingly into a moderate young man of excessive good will.

By the end, after the will-o'-the-wisps and fairy dust have subsided, things are shown to be real enough, if decidedly unbelted. But something remains. We may know the rabbit was somewhere all the time; we may even know where. Yet a rabbit popping from a hat resounds in us all the same. For Murdoch, that infinitely skillful and most comic hoodwinker, the reality of magic is our need for it.

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