The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch
Our book group has never tackled Murdoch, although back in the day before I joined, they read John Bayley’s memoir of his wife, Iris, so I’m told. Several of us had read various novels by Iris Murdoch before – indeed I read a whole bunch back in the late 1970s but can’t really remember any details at all. Still, you could say that we picked our book for our ‘black’ key-word month from a position of considered risk. Sadly, it was a fail, although I thought it does have its moments. Several of the group did manage to read to the end, others only got part-way.
This novel is framed as the memoir of a chap called Bradley Pearson, and is prefaced by his Editor’s foreword, then another foreword by Bradley himself before he tells his story. Similarly, it is ended by a whole series of postscripts, from Bradley, other members of the ‘dramatis personae’ and lastly his editor. In his foreword, Bradley’s editor teases us:
Why this tale had to be written will appear, in some senses more than one, within the tale. But there is after all no mystery. Every artist is an unhappy lover. And unhappy lovers want to tell their story.
Bradley Pearson is an author of high literary reknown who has enjoyed success in the past, but in his later years suffers from writer’s block. He lives on his own in a flat in North Soho:
A sunless and cosy womb my flat was, with a highly wrought interior and no outside. Only from the front door of the house, which was not my front door, could one squint up at the sky over tall buildings and see above the austere erection of the Post Office Tower.
Yes, this phallic London landmark is a recurring symbol of Bradley’s impotence throughout the narrative.
There are a whole cast of major supporting characters: Notably the Baffins – Arnold, a best-selling author of formula fiction whom Bradley had mentored, his wife Rachel and their just about grown-up daughter Julian (after Julian of Norwich!), plus Bradley’s ex-wife Christian (another woman with a man’s name), whom he believes he hates now, and her seedy brother Francis. Then there is Bradley’s poor sister Priscilla, who has been dumped by her husband for a younger model, and near suicidal.
At the novel’s beginning, Bradley was packed and ready go off on his hols, but a sequence of events conspire to keep him from leaving. There were moments of pure farce with phones ringing and doors opening and shutting. Arnold and Rachel have a fight, Arnold hits Rachel, Rachel is consoled in the arms of Bradley who is to mentor Julian on reading the canon. Bradley, ends up pursued by Rachel and Christian, but it is Julian, the girl with a man’s name, whom he treats to a pair of purple boots (so early 1970s!) that he falls for to everyone else’s surprise and disgust. She turns up for their meeting to talk about Hamlet and describes how she’d played Hamlet at school dressed in black, (aha! the black prince maybe, rather than alluding to Edward at the Battle of Crécy?).
Bradley as our narrator has some pithy one-liners – Of Christian, he says:
She might indeed almost instinctively come to me, out of curiosity, out of malice, as cats are said to jump on to the laps of cat-haters.
I am an educated and cultivated person through my own zeal, efforts and talents. Priscilla had no zeal and talents and made no efforts.
There was a lot of literary metaphor in this book that went straight over my head. I was pleased to get one little in joke, which is funny as Julian is innocently asking Bradley to summarise the long lecture he’d given her about Hamlet ‘in a nutshell’. Tick! I’ve read Ian McEwan (see here). However, the book suffers from its overt literary intensity for the general reader and there are 416 pages of it. That said, there is a big climax and twist towards the end, which I won’t give away.
We have to remember all the way through that this is Bradley telling his own version of everything, and thus the big question is how reliable a narrator is he? This is where the various postscripts will help you make up your mind. In Bradley’s version, with himself as hero, everyone, bar Julian, is ghastly – something we totally agreed with – but with Bradley as the most ghastly snob and aesthete of them all. The edition I read, has an introduction by Candia McWilliam which is equally erudite and literary but was helpful read after the novel. I’d be very happy to read or re-read more Murdoch, and fit in with Liz Dexter’s Great Iris Murdoch readalong project if I can. (6/10)
Source: Own copy
Iris Murdoch, The Black Prince (1973), Vintage paperback, 432 pages.
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