Saturday, September 01, 2007

Iris Murdoch – ‘The Black Prince’

Watching the film of The History Boys after reading Untold Stories the other week, I came across a National Theatre ‘background pack’, which puts the GCSE-style question: ‘Which teacher do you agree with? Is education for passing exams, or for making us better people?’ (correct answer in an exam situation: ‘for making us better people’). The teachers being the characters at the centre of the play: Hector, who believes in teaching things thoroughly, encouraging his pupils to learn poems and songs by heart; and Irwin, who wants them to be able to write eye-catching essays which go against the grain, the better to pass the Oxford entrance exam. The debate is similar to the one to the one surrounding rockism, and concerns authenticity – whether this is best represented by following tradition or breaking away from it, and (more contentiously) whether authenticity is what art should be about in the first place.

The Black Prince has a similar pair of characters, writers rather than teachers: Bradley Pearson, the Hector of the piece, all for a slow striving in authorship, and his younger rival Arnold Baffin, who dashes off books almost as rapidly as Irwin spins theories. The History Boys – despite its plot (which feels like a subplot) involving boys getting felt up by Hector on his motorbike – is measured in its treatment of this question. It encourages you to weigh up both approaches, and you’ll probably conclude that authenticity is important, but that not everybody’s authenticity takes the same form. The Black Prince is just about the least measured book I’ve ever read. To begin with, it reads like a satire on the precious writer, who blocks out everything in order to have the time to write, and forgets how to live in the process. Preparing to leave London to have some quality writing time with himself, Bradley records:

I had my suitcase ready and was about to telephone for a taxi, had in fact already lifted the phone, when I experienced that nervous urge to delay departure, to sit down and reflect, which I am told the Russians have elevated into a ritual (p. 21)

For the first hundred pages or so, he comes across like Mr Pooter dropped into a J. P. Donleavy novel. Events conspire to prevent Bradley from leaving London: his ex-wife unexpectedly re-appears, as does his depressed sister Priscilla, who has left her unhappy marriage. One is breezily domineering, the other fragile and clingy. He informs them both that he can’t be doing with any of this and is off to the country, but he can’t let go enough to actually do it. This is not because underneath it all he is nice really, but because he lacks the will.

‘Bradley, it’s been awful, awful, awful. I’ve been living trapped inside a bad dream, my life has become a bad dream, the kind that makes you shout out.’

‘Priscilla, listen. I’m just on the point of leaving London. I can’t change my plans. If you like I can give you lunch and then put you on the Bristol train.’

‘I tell you I’ve left Roger.’


‘I think I’ll go to bed if you don’t mind.’

‘To bed?’ (p. 72)

Bradley is bludgeoned into helping out, when if he had any decency about him he would do it willingly. His attitude is unsettling if you’ve ever put off something social for something solitary.

So how does The Black Prince get from this mean, small minded and farcical narrative to what Wikipedia describes as ‘a remarkable study of erotic obsession’? How is this self important chump ever going to have a convincing grand passion? Simply by blowing that self importance sky high. It certainly isn’t that you start taking him seriously, but you begin to view his overstatements fondly and indulgently, as though you had spoken or thought them (they are mostly thoughts) yourself. When Bradley falls for Julian Baffin (daughter of Arnold, 20 years old to his 58), he loses what limited objectivity he may previously have had about his life, melts into a viscous subjectivity, and the reader follows. In love, he is a monstrous creature (mostly to himself, if only because he spends most of his time alone), from his tedious anxiety to create art, to the quite useless highs of chasing around, semi-surreptitiously, the object of his affection. The force of these unreasoning highs – yearning, largely joyless – is there in the text to an uncomfortable degree. The shift from farce to derangement reminded me slightly of Bret Easton Ellis’s Glamorama, in which the fine glitzy satire of the first half is blown apart by terrorist explosions, death and incarceration. I’ve never been convinced by Ellis’ tortured (as opposed to torturing) passages, he needs to be funny to be good, but the same isn’t true of Murdoch. She has Bradley – ridiculous, dusty, academic, retired taxman Bradley – go off his head in love with Julian: when first smitten he lies for a day with his face buried in a rug in his flat; when he expresses doubts during their elopement journey, she is overcome and throws herself from the car; at the opera he describes his condition as ‘feeling a sick delighted anguish of desire, as if I had been ripped by a dagger from the groin to the throat’ (p. 256). I can’t think of a better prolonged evocation of the state of being so in love you’re ill, high and throwing up with no ground in sight. As busy as the most garish ’70s wallpaper, and with claws that penetrate to your dead twisted heart, this book will fuck you up.

1 comment:

Richard said...

Your gag about the exam answer reminds me of a Peter Ustinov monologue about his schooldays. He was sitting an exam and the question was "Who is the greatest composer who ever lived?" He answers Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakoff. The next bit of the monologue, delivered in the driest voice imaginable, goes "The correct answer was Beethoven."

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