The Black Prince ~ by Iris Murdoch
We’re pleased to welcome back guest reviewer Sam Ruddock with the second of his regular monthly reviews.
“Art is not cosy and it is not mocked. Art tells the only truth that ultimately matters. It is the light by which human things can be mended. And after art there is, let me assure you all, nothing.”
So concludes The Black Prince, Iris Murdoch’s fifteenth novel which many consider her best. It is a fascinatingly strange novel, slippery and difficult to put down. Part metaphysical enquiry into the nature of art and truth, part romantic liaison, part psychological thriller. You read it engrossed, though at times wonder why. The characters are often unappealing: petty middle class middle age creatures driven by duplicity and jealousy. Yet they are comprehensively drawn and engaging. Murdoch masterfully constructs her plot to rework aspects of Hamlet and bookends it with forewords and postscripts by the characters which counterpoint, clarify, and question what has taken place. The prose is smooth and natural, and the imagery wonderfully symbolic.
Yet it starts out slowly. Murdoch never allowed anyone to edit her work and at times this results in awkwardly paced, idiosyncratically phrased works. The first two hundred pages amble along as Bradley Pearson, recently retired from a career as an Inspector of Taxes, dreams of retreating to the country to write his magnum opus. Yet at every turn he is beset by complications. He bickers with his ‘protégé’ Arnold Baffin about approaches to writing, is drawn into a strange passionless affair by Arnold’s wife Rachel, and tutors their daughter Julian. He is pursued by his ex-wife Christian and her sycophantic brother Frances, and has his depressed sister turns up on his door having left her husband. Poor Bradley, it would be enough to make anyone feel sorry for him. But he is self-absorbed, fastidious, and pompous. He deals with it all in a distracted, unsympathetic and distant manner. He seems to care not a jot for the suffering of others. He is not the most endearing of characters.
And then, just as you are beginning to wonder whether the plot is actually going anywhere, Eros appears with his little bow and arrow and hits old Bradley square in the middle of his heart. He is transformed: softened by love, perfected by love, inspired by love. The apple of his eye is the twenty-year-old Julian Baffin and although at first he proudly determines to maintain their purity by keeping his feelings to himself, it soon turns out that she feels the same way. After a wonderfully demonstrative scene outside the Royal Opera House where each lays their soul on the line they engage in a whirlwind romance. They are like teenagers, effusively professing the never before experienced wonder of total love. Theirs is a romance to change the world, heal wounds, produce great works of art. The Black Prince becomes one of the most romantic works of literature I have read. Their mutual craving for each other takes the breath away, the hesitant heat between them is hard to resist. Bradley subtitles his memoir ‘A Celebration of Love’ and that is exactly what it is. He ruminates long on the nature of love, is as passionate and erudite as Nabokov at his best.
“When sexual desire is also love it connects us with the whole world and becomes a new mode of experience. Sex then reveals itself as the great connective principle whereby we overcome duality, the force which made separateness as an aspect of oneness at some moment of bliss in the mind of God. I yearned absolutely, yet I had never felt more relaxed in my life.”
These are wonderful passages which convey a great deal yet seem not a dent in the wider luminescence of their love. Julian, in her youthful eagerness reciprocates this all and more. She is the driving force and initiator for all that takes place. Their conversations are filled with uncertainty, hopefulness, disbelief. It all conforms to such a perfect romantic fantasy that one cannot help but wonder if it is not a figment of Bradley’s imagination.
The unreliable narrator features in much of Iris Murdoch’s work. Indeed, Bradley’s first line marks him out as inherently unreliable:
“Although several years have now passed since the events recorded in this fable, I shall in telling it adopt the modern technique of narration, allowing the narrating consciousness to pass like a light along its series of present moments, aware of the past, unaware of what is to come…So for example I shall say, ‘I am fifty-eight years old’, as I then was. And I shall judge people, inadequately, perhaps even unjustly, as I then judged them, and not in the light of any later wisdom.”
Throughout what follows these words combine with Murdoch’s reputation to leave the reader eternally unsure as to whether everything, or indeed anything, that Bradley Pearson recounts is correct. You read on, heart beating wildly, worried that these emotions you have inscribed the characters with might not turn out to be tangible. Worse still, you fear that something horrible might be about to happen at any moment, that if he is deluding himself it might all suddenly crash down with tragic repercussions.
Tension builds. I will not concede how it ends, though unseen and delightfully symmetrical twists occur. The greatest achievement of The Black Prince is in the fact that Murdoch plays with the reader’s expectations, intuits them, and replies with a second level of uncertainty and unreliability. The main plot of the novel is followed by four brief postscripts which allow the main characters a chance to respond to the events recounted by Bradley. On the surface it would seem that they might serve only to clarify Bradley’s unreliability, but in the way they are presented, the hard-nosed, broker no argument tone of voice, there are enough holes to make their version of events at least as dubious as Bradley’s own narrative. The result is that the reader comes away wondering whether perhaps, despite everything, his narration might be more accurate than we previously suspected. It all comes back to the quote at the beginning: Bradley’s truth, by being turned into literature, becomes the only truth that matters.
The Black Prince is a very fine work of psychological fiction by one of the most daring writers of the twentieth century. It fuses philosophical discussion with structural creativity. The pitching of the narration is faultless. At its heart it is about the transforming quality of love, its power to change, not only life, but consciousness too. It is a strange feeling at once to dislike yet love the characters. The book is at least as infuriating as it is delightful and it is this which makes it so rewarding. Somehow the faults become positives and the lasting impression is of a book which, in spite itself, warms the cockles of the heart.
Edition shown: Penguin Books. Reprint Edition. 2003. ISBN: 978-0142180112. 448pp.
You can find Sam’s previous review – of The History of Love –here.
This piece continues a series of reviews highlighting philosopher-novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s list of the best “novels of ideas”. Iris Murdoch’s The Black Prince was the fourth entry on her list.
Reviewed in this essay: The Black Prince, Iris Murdoch. Penguin Classics, 2003 (Originally published: 1973)
The Black Prince is the story of Bradley Pearson, a 58-year-old retired Inspector of Taxes and author. The first half of the novel outlines Pearson’s attempts to escape to the countryside to work on his would-be great novel. Each time he tries to leave, the doorbell rings and his work is delayed. On the third attempt, Pearson’s best friend and rival Arnold Baffin’s 20-year-old daughter rings. Pearson falls in love and abandons his desire to leave London and his novel. Eros defeats art and the comic part of the novel ends; tragedy predictably follows.
The Black Prince is structured as Pearson’s apologia to his editor and friend P.A. Loxias. This allows Murdoch to address an audience directly, pausing for philosophical musings, without engaging in the post-modern trick of acknowledging the reader. Loxias and Pearson both write forewords to the main text. Pearson and four other characters offer competing postscripts. Two deny Loxias’s existence. This fulfills early premonitions about Pearson’s unreliability as a narrator. The first significant piece of dialogue shifts “I may have just killed my wife” to “I may have just killed Rachel” in the first twenty pages. Similar inconsistencies arise throughout.
Pearson (if not Murdoch) does an able job of warning against trivial interpretations of the story. Despite the complicated familial relationships in the novel, his dismissal of Freudian interpretations of Hamlet as beside the point even if true also applies here. Elsewhere, he directly combats the notion that this is a story of a would-be artist who confuses a desire for an individual for a desire to create. One wonders if this novel can also be distinguished from stories of individuals who confuse desire for the transcendent with desire for an individual (i.e. Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice).
The novel can be read as an engagement with Greek philosophy’s greats. Murdoch was a Plato scholar and Goldstein suggests the text can be understood as a reflection on Plato’s works on eros and art. One should also keep Aristotle in mind when reading Murdoch. Part of Murdoch’s continuing influence stems from her continuation of the Aristotelian engagement of the moral imagination. Pearson’s self-analysis raises the question of moral refinement. It is worth probing whether reading Murdoch can hone one’s moral intuitions.
Baffin’s novels are criticized for being in a “rozy haze with Jesus and Mary and Buddha and Shiva and the Fisher King all chasing round and round dressed up as people in Chelsea.” Pearson and Baffin’s arguments on art can approximate such caricatures, but Murdoch wisely keeps them short. Instead, Murdoch’s narrative and, in particular, her descriptions move both aesthetical please and help engage the moral imagination. In recognizing the influence of emotions on actions, Murdoch parts from Plato; readers’ attempts to empathize inflame their moral imagination. Murdoch makes empathy easy by providing excellent phenomenological descriptions of everything from falling in love with someone you have known from a long time to vomiting (two related phenomena in the novel and life).