Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Artists as Parents in A. S. Byatt's the Children's Book and Iris Murdoch's the Good Apprentice*

Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Artists as Parents in A. S. Byatt's the Children's Book and Iris Murdoch's the Good Apprentice*

Article excerpt

Near the beginning of her long career as a novelist and critic, A. S. Byatt published Degrees of Freedom: The Early Novels of Iris Murdoch (1965), which she wrote, as she was to say later,

out of a passionate curiosity about how Iris Murdoch's novels worked, what the ideas were behind them, how the ideas related to the forms she chose, how her world was put together [...]. It is not too much to say that I was morally changed, for the better, I think [by writing this study]. And I had learned a great deal about writing and thinking. (Degrees of Freedom viii)1

It is not surprising if such an early and thorough absorption in the older novelist's work reverberates through even Byatt's most recent fiction. Certainly one fruitful approach to the richness, denseness, and complexity of Byatt's The Children's Book (2009) is to examine it as in part a response to Murdoch's writing and more specifically to her late novel, The Good Apprentice (1985). My concern in examining the relation between these two texts is not with the unsurprising fact that Byatt uses Murdoch,2 but with the way in which she uses one particular Murdoch narrative, intensifying it and darkening it so as to forward her own literary concerns. My approach to this subject is threefold, as outlined below.

The most obvious comparison between the two novels relates to Byatt's pervasive treatment throughout The Children's Book of the artist as parent, and it is with that topic that I begin. One strand of her interwoven narrative is so close to Murdoch's version of the artist as father that the differences of detail and emphasis are all the more striking and significant. Another thread in the texture of The Children's Book is the interaction between realist and non-realist narrative modes. Again, Murdoch's treatment of the artist-as-father in The Good Apprentice also illuminates Byatt's handling of this interaction, as I go on to show. I end with a related question, the significance of the interweaving of numerous stories in Byatt's fiction. Even more than Byatt's former novels, The Children's Book works through a complex of multiple narratives (many concerned with parental failure). Such a structure greatly develops one element of Murdoch's fictional treatment in her later works, including The Good Apprentice. More importantly, perhaps, it builds on ideas of the self and society discussed in Murdoch's philosophical writings and implicit in her fiction in its multiple explorations of the moral responsibility of the artist.

"I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son" (I).3

The Good Apprentice, Murdoch's twenty-second novel, begins with the words of the biblical Prodigal Son. Edward Baltram, the son in question here, is a bright young student at the University of London, who has unintentionally brought about the death of a beloved friend by feeding him LSD and then leaving him alone - as it happens, to fall, or perhaps, jump from a high window. Edward's guilt and misery immobilize him until, partly through the prompting of his psychiatrist uncle, he leaves London to find his natural father, Jesse Baltram, a well-known painter, whom he has not seen for years, in the strange house, Seegard, which Jesse has built in the marshes not far from the sea. The aging Jesse is protected, or perhaps imprisoned, by three women, his wife "Mother May" and his two adult daughters, Bettina and Ilona, who weave their own clothes, treat every meal as a sacrament (104) and live based on their own rituals in accordance with Jesse's desire to create "the good society on the basis of simplicity" (16O).4 "We stand for creativity and peace, continuity and cherishing," asserts Mother May (161). But Jesse is ill, mentally and physically, the women are isolated and frustrated, and soon after Jesse's death by drowning - whether by suicide, murder, or accident the reader never knows - Seegard begins to crumble: "the enchanter's palace was already beginning to fall to pieces" (484). …

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