Sunday 26 July 2015

The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch

For decades I've had a set of novels on my bookshelf by Iris Murdoch, purchased largely because of their gorgeous, sexy Harri Peccinotti covers. They've been standing there unread ever since I once tried, many years ago, to read one and found my brain bouncing off its boring, incomprehensible surface.

I wish I could remember what the title of that culprit was, and pick it up again. Because I've given Iris Murdoch another chance and discovered that she is an outstanding, and often astounding, novelist. 

This time the book I chose was The Black Prince. The title is both a reference to Hamlet and to a dark god of sex and love — a sinister Eros who drives the hero. If that sounds heavy, it isn't. The book is amazingly good, and a lot of fun.

Not that it's entirely without its boring or incomprehensible moments. It tells the story of Bradley Pearson, a rather repressed and fussy middle aged bachelor writer. Here is the grumpy old bugger's description of birds singing in the garden: "The feathered songsters were still pouring forth their nonsense." He's not exactly a life-affirming type.

(He also has a maddening habit of putting "quotation marks" around "words" where they are "absolutely" not "needed". Until it begins to feel like a Krazy Kat comic. I thought Iris Murdoch was using this as a means of indicating what a jerk her protagonist was... until I reached some portions of the book which are ostensibly written by other characters. And "they" have exactly the "same" annoying "habit"...)

But Bradley's dusty existence suddenly and unexpectedly explodes with passion. If the novel has a flaw, it's that this splendid main narrative is occasionally interrupted by commentary from Bradley. And because he's a boring, pompous bastard these bits — mercifully brief — are also boring and pompous. They culminate in an incredibly tedious and pretentious meditation on the nature of art. I couldn't tell whether Iris Murdoch was being tongue in cheek about this, or deadly serious. God forbid the latter. Either way, it's dullsville, baby.

Yet this a minor moan. Having slogged through these interruptions — just a few pages, each, thank the lord — you will find yourself immersed in a riveting narrative which begins with an old friend turning up on Bradley's doorstep and confessing that's he's murdered his wife. From there the story develops swiftly in many very unexpected ways, eventually turning into the greatest novel of rapture in English since Nabokov's Lolita.It is both hilarious and intoxicating. And Murdoch's dialogue — the odd fake Americanism aside ("dough" for money) — is very good.

On top of all that it morphs into, if not a thriller, then at least a gripping noirish and doomed tale of crime worthy of Cornell Woolrich or Jim Thompson. It also features such a hellish portrait of marriage (CF Gone Girl) that it comes as a shock to remember that Murdoch was herself so happily married.

If only some editor had done us a favour and removed those bloody quotation marks...

(Image credits:The slightly dodgy picture of the Penguin with Peccinotti's ravishing photo of the blue girl was taken by me with my phone camera, because there is virtually no image of this edition to be found anywhere on the internet. So I hope you bloody well appreciate it. The only other one I could find anywhere was the selfie by Sonya Davda at her excellent book tip. The covers of other editions are from Good Reads.)

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