Absolutely wonderful. A stunning novel. `The Philosopher's Pupil' is a Dante-esque tale of love - in which numerous types of love are evoked, from dishonest to honourable, self-defeating to masochistic, platonic to deviant, and never ever simply just one type at any one time - that is set in Ennistone, a town renowned for its natural hot water springs/baths, and also 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 marvellous 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 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' (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 scarier than Hannibal Lecter as a fictional creation, and more believable than a real-life monster like Ed Gein. With his extreme ranting and raving, 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 Deus ex Machina at work, here - her creatures spring from the page, and are all tremendously individual 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 individuals, 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 martryrish Stella, wife of the monster George (to give him credit, besides his murderous rage and violence and misogyny, he does save Zed - probably one of fiction's most charming, delightful and convincing portraits of a clever little doggie, who is Zen-like 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. 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. There's also plenty here for lovers of Plato and Dante, for example, and yet such references are never done in an ostentatious way, but flow seamlessly with 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 and breathless and happy and utterly, utterly impressed by Murdoch for her philosophical wisdom, her mischievous wit, her darkness and light, her psychological insights, her innate appreciation of what it means to be human. She is a novelist extraordinaire.