Saturday, December 10, 2011

Iris Murdoch writes a grim but engaging urban tragedy.

I said I would read a few more Murdochs, and this one is as great and even more chilling than the others I have read.

The Black Prince

Iris Murdoch’s The Black Prince (408 pages, Penguin, $16) was first published in 1973. It tells the story of Bradley Pearson, a well-respected but little-published writer who has resigned his position on the Tax Board in order to write full-time.

Bradley is in a sort of competition with his friend Arnold Boffin, a much more prolific writer who has dozens of titles in print and a great deal of public accolades. Arnold is married to Rachel, and early in the story Bradley is called in when Rachel has been injured. But it turns out that Arnold had belted her with the fireplace poker, and Bradley is deeply concerned for her safety.

Soon after the novel opens, another woman appears on the scene. This is Bradley’s ex-wife Christian, who has returned from a sojourn in America, where she lived with her second husband and managed to amass a great deal of wealth. Bradley hates her, but she seems determined to get back into his good books, and she does everything she can to get him to admit that he would like to be friends again.

Other characters include Francis, Christian’s feckless brother, who also seems committed to bring the formerly married couple together; Priscilla, Bradley’s sister, who leaves her husband Roger just as the story begins and moves back and forth between Bradley and Christian, who likes her and wants to help her. There is also Julian, an androgynous teenager, the daughter of Arnold and Rachel, who is fascinated with Bradley and asks him to give her lessons to help her become a writer.
All these characters stir a rather rich and wonderful brew. Bradley is narrating, and his ability to capture his emotional responses to people is deeply impressive.

As he is busy fighting off Christian’s well-heeled assault and Rachel’s tears—Rachel has made her love for Bradley clear almost from the first—and Priscilla’s whining about the things she left at her husband’s home, Bradley falls deeply in love. This state of being in love is simply sublime, but the implications are horrific because he is in love with the only sixteen-year-old Julian. Bradley is fifty-eight.

At first Bradley isn’t going to tell Julian anything about the love he feels for her. It is something precious and all his own, and she need never know. But of course he is about to explode with his feelings, and when he finally does talk to her about his love, after an aborted attempt to listen to Der Rosenkavalier at the Royal Opera, she does not seem as immediately put off as he expects her to be. In fact, she seems willing to return his love.

When she does, and when she announces this love affair to her parents, well, needless to say, all hell breaks loose.
The last section of the novel is an extended battle between Bradley and Julian’s parents, and to say it ends badly is a ridiculous understatement. What is clear is that everything is culturally conditioned to forbid a relationship like the one Bradley and Julian are trying to establish and they fail. In fact they fail miserably, and Bradley pays the price for being willing to try to establish such a relationship in the first place.

The story ends unhappily, but there are various post-mortems that try to make more sense of it. Even they fail, and at the end the reader has to wonder what it has all been about.

Iris Murdoch

The Black Prince is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

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