Monday, December 12, 2016

The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch

Are you looking for a book to read during these coming holiday days? If so, I recommend reading Iris Murdoch’s The Black Prince, [Penguin Books] which was first published in 1973. It is a bizarre love story but more then that, the way in which it is told, the construction of the narrative voice, is interesting and fresh. Perhaps ‘fresh’ isn’t the best word for it. It’s more like a slap of ice water or a wringing of sorts but nonetheless it creates a level of perplexity and piques questions of psychology.

The story is about Bradley Pearson and his cluster of friends and situations that spurn out of these relationships. The course of the story’s events is very short. There are no chapters and the events build into a staccato of climaxes. There are friendships, old loves, new loves, revelations of domestic interiors, horrors, and dramas. The players in the story are few. Bradley – writer of fifty eight who is an unactualized writer, happily unencumbered by familial obligations, self-taught intellectual. Arnold – Bradley’s friend and former pupil of sorts, a successful writer of popular but dull novels, father and husband. Rachel – Arnold’s wife, middle aged, lonely. Priscilla – Bradley’s sister, hysteric because of failed marriage, frail. Christian – Bradley’s ex-wife, successful and stylish, motives vague. Francis – Christian’s brother, failed doctor, becomes Bradley’s friend (in a way). Julian – Daughter of Arnold and Rachel, naive yet alluring, flighty.

These very few characters and their relationships with each other unravel a bizarre love story. It’s like Lolita but more English and claustrophobic. The story begin told is interesting in itself but as mentioned the way it is being told is what makes this novel have another quality. It is being presented as a book written by Bradley in confessional first person. He always speaks directly to the reader and goes into extreme nuances about his psychology. There is re-told dialogue but the whole time you are reading it you are ever aware that it is a retelling. The novel is built on the asides, the soliloquies that are Bradley’s interpretations.

The constancy of self-reflection and singular perspective would make one think that they would side or empathize with the narrator, Bradley, but this doesn’t necessarily happen. At times you can’t help but feel resentful of this narration and to see the flaws of the one who is relaying them.

This is even more compacted by the nature of the characters who are all squeezed into archetypes. This is not a new thing. We are all some variation of an archetype but the way in which the characters are conveyed, through the mind’s eye of Bradley, leaves little room for alternate complexities. The book fully reveals this though and uses this to make the viewer wary of what is being provided as proof throughout the story.

When you think about how one thinks about situations, events, people, moments lived and witnessed it is an act of complete self-absorption. The idea that all these things have a multitude of perceptions is understood conceptually but the practice of it in one’s actual life/mind is far different. We see what we see. We believe what we believe. We feel what we feel. As much as we are creatures who need and desire empathy and exteriority, in a strange way we are not built for it. Not fully. Not actually. The singularity of perception and the tools and manners in which we try to foil this by reading, listening, trying to understand another person is limited and perhaps futile. Even the idea of having a child or having someone that you truly love is just an extension of the ‘you’.

This book manages to reveal this while also taking you on a sort of emotional caper that is lilted with English quips and eccentricities. There are no heroes, villains or lessons learned. It is all reflections/retellings but from an unreliable source because that source is one voice, one memory, one point of view. The book is framed to be a meta-embrace of this as the ending will show and that makes the whole thing even more unctuous and clever.

What I am getting at is that this book was a thrill to read but also so dreary due to its fixative qualities. You felt wholly involved yet there was always this glass between you and the room, the smells, the people, the story. This created a sense of curiosity but also total disbelief of what and why you even cared in the first place.

To be able to do both, to be fully absorbed but also annoyed with a book is a real feat. Murdoch was a prolific writer of various forms. Her mastery of character and her wit of form is revealed in the complicating presentation of The Black Prince and it makes you wonder what else she is capable of.

Whatever was happening, I couldn’t put it down. If you want to read about love, murder and the quibbling’s of the heart, then read this and be satisfied and frustrated all at once. I will leave you now with a passage I found revealing and gives a glean into the way that Bradley enforces his perception on you as a reader and how you, although grudgingly don't want to admit it, totally and completely agree.

“Later, when I imagined I knew more about ‘love’, I decided that my feelings about Christian was ‘just’ overwhelming sexual attraction, plus a curious element of obsession. It was as if I had known Christian as a real woman in some previous incarnation, and we were now reliving, perhaps as a punishment, some doomed perverted spiritual pattern. (I suspect there are many such couples.) Or as if she had died long before and come back to me as a demon lover. Demon lovers are always relentless, however kind in life. And it was sometimes as I could ‘remember’ Christian’s kindness, though all now was spite and demonry. It was not that she was unusually, though she was sometimes grossly cruel. She was a spoiler, a needler, an underminer, a diminisher, simply by instinct. And I was Siamese-twinned to her mind. We reeled about joined together at the head.” (p.84)