A Severed Head; The Black Prince; The Sea, the Sea by Iris Murdoch
My rating: 1 of 5 stars
This was the last story in a book of three, so this is going to focus on The Black Prince and Murdoch’s general style. Each of Murdoch’s stories is centered around one character with some egregious emotional flaw: selfishness, extravagant insecurity, obsessiveness, misogyny, an inability to see other people as human beings. Her main characters find their downfall, and sometimes redemption, through their faults. Letters feature periodically in the stories. The Sea, The Sea and The Black Prince are both “written” by the main characters, as memoirs at the end of their lives. Marriages factor heavily in all three stories and there are frequent remarks by one or other characters about what “private” places marriages are. Private here is a synonym for inscrutable. Deep. Mysterious. Often this opinion is espoused by a character who has never been married. Or divorced long ago. A string of acrimoniously ended relationships. Is it marriage that is so depthless? Or is it just that we can never fully comprehend any intimate connection between two people, especially one which has existed for decades? Two people can perceive the same event very differently. Two people can perceive the same person very differently, a concept Murdoch explores more fully in The Black Prince.
The Black Prince is a complicated tale with an unreliable narrator who may or may not be making his story up out of whole cloth. Additional pieces get sewn on in the form of postscripts by other unreliable characters. Everyone is full of lies, and when Bradley Pearson isn’t lying he’s blathering on about Art and struggle and how the True Artist refuses to profane the god of Art with anything less than a perfect offering even if it means never producing anything at all. Pearson believes his “inability to create is continuously significant.” (29) As if one learns and improves through will power alone, instead of practice. His rambling, didactic, sluggish monologues are agony. Murdoch’s luscious descriptions don’t seem to crop up as often here as in her other offerings. Possibly because she allowed Pearson to do the writing, and his voice is completely different from her own. I kept having to resist the urge to flip back to one of the other novels and read it instead. I kept flipping to the end of this one to see how many more pages were left. Not a good sign. While all the books had elements of sexism in them, with toxic masculinity and objectification of women, misogyny seemed to figure more strongly in The Black Prince. Murdoch herself takes the time to describe both genders, which I’ve found is a refreshing novelty in an author. She does tend to emphasize the women’s attractiveness. Its daily fluctuations are minutely catalogued. In a way it’s a relief to have women who aren’t constantly, stunningly, gorgeous. Pearson himself struggles to view women as autonomous beings. He writes about his love interest’s entire life being some sort of construction pre-ordained to push him through strife into greatness, to allow him to suffer so he can create his masterpiece of literature (this book). He makes grand pronouncements about never contacting her, never seeing her, never telling her, and immediately breaks them. It’s equally tragic and comic. There is nothing he succeeds at. It’s hard to believe he has any redeeming qualities. Many of the characters are reprehensible, at least from Pearson’s perspective. Don’t read this book if you’re feeling down about humanity. It won’t help you feel better. Find a charity to volunteer for.
Content warnings for: violence, suicide, murder, rape, maybe abduction, maybe abuse, and some weird attitudes surrounding characters with Jewish ancestors. And a whole Lolita-esque plotline that made me wonder if Nabokov or Murdoch read the other growing up. They had some very common elements. If you hated Lolita with the passion of a thousand fiery suns, it might not hurt to give The Black Prince a pass and read all of Murdoch’s other brilliant, intricate works first. I don’t want to say you won’t be missing out, but you won’t feel like you’re missing out unless you’ve flipped the final page of the last book and find you’re still craving more Murdoch. If you get to that point, then you can read The Black Prince.
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