Sophie Hannah is a poet and novelist. She has won awards for her short stories and poetry, including first prize in the 2004 Daphne Du Maurier Festival Short Story Competition. In June 2004 she was chosen for the Next Generation poetry promotion as one of the best poets to emerge in the last decade. Next year Penguin will publish Sophie's Selected Poems and Hodder & Stoughton her first psychological crime novel, Little Face. A selection of her short stories, We All Say What We Want, will be published by Sort Of Books in 2007. Here Sophie discusses Iris Murdoch's The Black Prince.
Sophie Hannah on The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch
The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch is difficult to define or summarize, apart from as one of the most brilliant novels ever written. I pity anyone who has ever been assigned the task of writing a blurb for it. Like most of Murdoch's novels, it is almost impossible to 'blurb', in exactly the same way that real life would be. It's too eventful, too unpredictable, too absurd (in a good way), and it would make no sense when reduced to the skeleton of a storyline. The story sounds irrational unless you meet the characters, and the characters make no sense unless you're fully caught up in the textures and tones of the novel. Again, like many of Murdoch's novels, it is not neat. Her favourite subject matter is the muddles people get themselves into, so her novels typically involve a lot of to-ing and fro-ing and a lot of chaos, both practical and emotional. The Black Prince is no exception. Her writing is hectic and frenetic, but at the same time utterly controlled. No scene is too long, no detail superfluous.
The Black Prince is about love, betrayal, divided loyalties, friendship, rivalry, ambition and the heartbreaking ludicrousness of everyday life. Only at the end of the book does the reader discover that it's also a highly original mystery/crime novel. The narrator who has been leading us through events for nearly the whole book suddenly disappears, and several other characters in turn then narrate a short section. Each of these casts doubt upon everything we've been told by the main, original narrator. We know that someone has been murdered and someone is a murderer, but no definite solution is provided. The mystery remains unsolved, essentially, and it is up to the reader to decide which voice he or she wants to listen to. In the hands of almost any other writer, this sort of ambiguous, inconclusive conclusion would be irritating and feel like a cheat. But Murdoch manages to make it seem entirely right and proper, because by the time you get to the end, you believe in the world the book has created to such an extent that a neat ending would appear artificial. 'Oh, right,' you'd think. 'Suddenly she's just making stuff up.'
The Black Prince - again, like all Murdoch's fiction - seems at the same time to be very made up and not made up at all. A lot of people I've spoken to who don't like Murdoch's novels say that her created worlds (or world, rather, since all her characters seem to me to exist in the same one) are too strange and extreme, too unrealistic: characters fall in and out of love at breakneck speed, personalities seem to change from one page to the next, people behave in the most undignified and preposterous ways for reasons often so insubstantial or intensely personal that it is hard to identify with them.
I completely disagree with this point of view. Yes, it's true that in Iris Murdoch's books people fall in love in a matter of seconds and then, when it doesn't work out, fall in love equally quickly with someone else, someone they detested seven minutes earlier. And yes, the dialogue between the characters doesn't really resemble what most people would think of as realistic conversation. So on the surface Murdoch's characters might appear irrational, hysterical and over-the-top. But I believe that in many ways her portrayal of human beings is more realistic than other writers', ones whose books depict real life as it recognizably is on the surface. Murdoch's adherence to the truth about people and the world is far more stylized. Her dialogue is a chillingly accurate study in how people would speak if they did not feel obliged to mask their real, deranged psyches with the trappings of normality. Her characters might not speak as real people speak, but they certainly speak as real people think, in voices of need, strategic manipulation, desperation, insanity, contingency.
Another common criticism of Murdoch is that her characters are not likeable. But this is only true if you're a certain sort of reader, the sort that prefers writers pretty much to lie about what human beings are really like in order to make the reading public feel better about themselves and the world. In The Black Prince as in almost every other Murdoch novel, the characters are constantly screaming 'Never mind you; what about me?' to an audience of equally uncaring, self-absorbed people. In this sense, her fiction resembles the American sitcom Seinfeld, or Curb Your Enthusiasm, both also about how rewarding - and how hilarious - close relationships with needy, self-absorbed people can be once you recognize that those are the only sort of people. Murdoch's characters can be intensely irritating, insufferable even; they might make you cringe, but it is hard to dislike them once you see in their behaviour your own tendencies to behave ridiculously.
The Black Prince's hero, Bradley Pearson, falls, in an instant, insanely in love with Julian Baffin, the daughter of his best friend. After their meeting, once he's realised how much he loves her, he spends a while just lying on the floor in his house, with his face pressed into the carpet. He becomes so consumed with this unsuitable love that he completely neglects his equally self-obsessed suicidal sister, with tragic results. But, as always when I'm reading Murdoch's novels, I found it hard to blame or dislike him. The most terrible things can happen in an Iris Murdoch novel and the clear implication is that there's a certain inevitability about all of it, as if Murdoch is saying, 'This is the sort of pickle human beings will always get into, in their desperation to protect their frail egos and meagre lots in life.' And there is humour throughout, humour with a slightly manic edge, which suggests that really it is all desirable - the comedy and the tragedy; it's all better than a vision of life that's tidier, more well-behaved, sinister in its drabness.
The Black Prince is topped and tailed by a short introduction and conclusion by a mysterious fictional editor, P. Loxias. We never find out how he came to have this story in his possession, who he is or what his purpose is in the book, but it doesn't matter. Iris Murdoch, like God, knows more than we do.
[A list of the pieces that have appeared to date in this series, with the links to them, is here.]