The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch

This book has some of the most selfish and self-centered characters one could ever meet in English literature and yet they are engaging, often charming and horrifying at the same time. The reader is bound to them almost obsessively. 

TheBlack Prince is introduced by a fictional editor named P. Loxias, a character who is never developed beyond his short introduction. Bradley Pearce is the novel’s protagonist and narrator. According to his own estimation he is a minor, modern British writer with unexplored potential. We are told at the outset by P. Loxias that Bradley is deceased and this account has been published posthumously.  Bradley says in his introduction that he will set out his autobiography in a fictional style to make it more readable. The first chapter launches into one chaotic episode after another, a pattern that continues to the story’s end. It begins with a frantic telephone call from, Rachel, the wife of Bradley’s friend and fellow author, Arnold Baffin.  Rachel begs Bradley’s to hasten to her aid because she fears she has killed her husband in a round of domestic violence, (she hit him with a fire-iron). Bradley complies but only reluctantly because he has rented a country cottage and was just about to leave his London apartment with plans to retreat from the world and write what he hopes will be his magnum opus. He is a recently retired tax inspector who has for many years put his writing career on hold in order to earn his living. Up to this point he has already published a few long-forgotten works of fiction but is convinced he will one day write a literary masterpiece. Arnold Baffin, on the other hand, is a successful novelist who has lived the writing life that Bradley envies. Even more irritating to Bradley is that he mentored Arnold helping to launch his successful writing career and subsequently Arnold produced one best-selling novel after another.  Bradley scorns Arnold’s output as ‘popular’ fiction, transitory and not true art. 

In subsequent chapters Bradley’s life spins into a total mess. He begins to carry on a sort of Platonic affair with Rachel while dealing with his alcoholic ex-brother in law and his sister, Priscilla who is threatening to kill herself over her troubled marriage. Then there is his ex-wife, Christian who wants him to consider a possible reconciliation.  Finally, Bradley irrevocably complicates his plans to write his great novel by talking himself into being in love with a most unlikely person.

Bradley is the quintessential unreliable narrator. He portrays himself as the injured party in every relationship and the one who is inconvenienced and thwarted at every turn in his endeavour to become an author. He truly believes he is an under-appreciated artist. However, his actions lead the reader to wonder if he is just a dreamer and a procrastinator incapable of getting over his ego to a point where he might have something to say about art, passion, Eros and the human condition which are the themes he has chosen for his writing as well as the source of the lifelong melancholia that has plagued his adult life.

This book was shortlisted for the 1972 Booker Prize and is remembered as one Iris Murdoch’s most engaging works. There is strong sure-footed prose with lots of gorgeous adjectives. The title, The Black Princeis a reference to Hamlet who was perhaps just as great an equivocator as Bradley. This is especially apparent when Bradley talks himself into being passionately in love in a way that is nothing short of excruciating. He develops a giant elephant size love for a tiny grey mousey character and somehow, I was reminded of Humbert Humbert and Lolita. A clever device is added at the end of the novel when each of the characters offers his/her own interpretation of events adding to what appears to be an epidemic of self-deception. 

The Black Princewas constructed in such a way as to remind one of the advice Jane Austen once gave a young writer, that is, limiting the story to “two or three families in a country village.” Granted, the story is set in London for the most part but the atmosphere is built around two or three domestic establishments of one chaotic sort or another. London itself remains at a distance so the characters might just as well be living in a village as they never seem to be engaged in the greater world. Although London does intrude from time to time. Bradley’s apartment is in the shadow of the London Post Office Tower. It looms as a great phallic symbol casting its shadow over Bradley and his entire neighbourhood. Bradley imagines himself to be a creature capable of a pure, spiritual love but is a servant to biology despite his high-minded ideals. 

The edition of The Black Princethat I read was a reprint in soft cover by Penguin Vintage Press, an admirable undertaking by the publisher as Iris Murdoch’s work is eminently readable and re-readable.