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Wednesday
Jan272016

The Black Prince

It is the woman's privilege to save herself at the man's expense.

You may know little about this author apart from what was depicted in this film, which for more than one reason I cannot recommend. Despite Bayley's presumably good intentions, the portrait of his wife could not have been any less flattering (if Iris had its way, Murdoch's sexuality and dreadful descent into dementia would become the bookends on her memorial), although writers in film rarely come off as anything other than bores, neurotic bastards, or incorrigible dreamers. Pondering what Murdoch the woman was and wasn't does not befit the discriminating reader: any biography of hers may have anecdotal value, but her true life is her literary oeuvre, the history of her soul. An odd interest in Murdoch has persisted owing to a childhood recollection of two of her books gracing my parents' shelves. The first one has a most peculiar name, but everything thereafter came as a disappointment; the second, far greater work, is this fine novel.

Our time and place is early 1970s London, and our narrator is a high-strung, largely unsuccessful British writer by the name of Bradley Pearson. Readers who like symbols and crossword puzzles will immediately note that the book's title and protagonist share initials (readers such as these, I fear, will find little catnip among my pages). At fifty-eight, Pearson is well past life's middle path; he is childless and bitterly divorced, although his sexual affiliation will be questioned on more than one occasion; his friends and acquaintances are few; he is most certainly an alcoholic; and his family consists primarily of his sister Priscilla, who will turn out in her harmless Philistine way to be one of the most annoying characters in modern literature. Pearson has published a few books to critical and consumer indifference but insists, as good writers must, that his inner life replete with unwritten tomes more than compensates for this lack of recognition (his style is streaked with genius). His nemesis, therefore, must be a prolific and utterly worthless writer who hardly bothers to edit a single line of his trendy triteness. A profile apposite to Pearson's old chum, Arnold Baffin:

I 'discovered' Arnold, a considerably younger man, when I was already established as a writer, and he, recently out of college, was just finishing his first novel .... He was a schoolmaster, having lately graduated in English literature at the University of Reading. We met at a meeting. He coyly confessed his novel. I expressed polite interest. He sent me the almost completed typescript. (This was, of course, Tobias and the Fallen Angel. Still, I think, his best work.) I thought the piece had some merits and I helped him to find a publisher for it. I also reviewed it quite favorably when it came out. Thus began one of the most, commercially speaking, successful of recent literary careers. Arnold at once, contrary as it happens to my advice, gave up his job as a teacher and devoted himself to 'writing.' He wrote easily, producing every year a book which pleased the public taste. Wealth, fame followed.

Like all thriving second-raters, Baffin is worshipped by the average person impressed by his own ignorance and too scared to develop his own opinion (indeed, one minor character stares dimly as she labels Baffin "her favorite writer"). That Pearson has maintained his alleged friendship with Baffin, going so far as to have become a weekly dinner guest, might bespeak envy or simply the proximity that two people who love books require, even if what they get out of books is decidedly different. The fact that Pearson accords most praise to Arnold's first novel (likely started while still an undergraduate, when one knows absolutely nothing), and that the novel's title suggests a young readers' paperback about Biblical characters, should tell you all you need to know about Arnold Baffin.  

As we begin our tale, therefore, Arnold summons Pearson to his house after a domestic incident concludes in abject cruelty. Mrs. Rachel Baffin, a tall, spatially disruptive woman with freckles, is comforted by Pearson and we quickly learn about their insidious past together. Of course, since there is nothing easier to write about than betrayal, this past will bleed into the present, a point that cannot be overstated, and yet Pearson is only half-heartedly interested in Rachel the person. Rachel the fictional creation of the novel he is "destined" to write, however, fills him with action, literary action, that is, the unquenchable desire to reproduce emotions and thoughts in a tidy, ethical framework. I say "ethical" framework not only to betray my own sensibilities, but also those of Bradley Pearson, that self-anointed "puritan," and lifelong member of "some old unpassionate, rather ascetic cult." Pearson's wish is that we see him not necessarily as "ethical," but that we see him at all. That we notice him from amidst the throngs of published authors who write about themselves and their circles of family, friends, and lovers and hope to God that a somewhat less ordinary existence could interest an outsider. We meet the other persons in this circle and grow more suspicious of Pearson's motives: there is Priscilla, his only sibling, a hysterical, wretched disaster freshly dumped by her rat of a husband, even if, knowing how she is, no one could possibly blame him; Francis, Pearson's brother-in-law and, as opposed to Bradley, a non-functioning alcoholic; Christian, the erstwhile Mrs. Pearson, a rich widow fresh off a couple of decades in the New World; and finally Julian Baffin, twenty, female, named after the saint, the Baffins' only child and the third main character with an androgynous first name. Why is that significant? Well, it likely isn't; it is rather a tactic to remind us to consider another, far less interesting reading of The Black Prince of the kind so beloved by fashionable minds who construct their insipid labyrinths only to cloak their utter lack of talent. Pearson will learn something very interesting about Christian and something in a way just as shocking about Francis. But his aim throughout is self-discovery, the writer's "dream of a silence which [he] must enter, as some creatures return to the sea to spawn," and over the novel's longish arc we will discover quite a great deal about Bradley Pearson.  

Murdoch's prose has much to offer those who cannot do without impeccable style, a fact which, coupled with her strong moral compass, would be enough to guarantee her legacy. Nevertheless, she is often deemed a "philosopher," as if the added title does her or that nebulous word any justice whatsoever. Even if we were to consider The Black Prince the summit of her achievement, masticating too long on the asides and aphorisms would only direct the preprogrammed and dull to explore vacuous alleys. Samples of the style prove the point: "Julian suggested that we should collect some wood for the fire, but this proved difficult because every bit of wood we found was far too beautiful to burn"; "These were not words, but the highest coinage of human speech melted down, become pure song, something vilely, almost murderously gorgeous"; "The future had passed through the present like a sword"; "In waiting time devours itself .... yet at the same instant the terrified mind has flown ahead through centuries of unenlightened despair"; "The return of a passionate letter unread desolates far regions of the imagination"; "Death always seems to commit truth to some wider and larger court"; "The hand of death modelled him speedily, soon made his head a skull"; "Like spirits of the damned pricked by the devil's fork we bounded up." A casual sexist − a most unintendedly fabulous term − might comment that far too many humid, chatty conversations surface in The Black Prince, conversations that no male writer would ever deign to record. Given what Pearson consistently says about such techniques, the inclusion of these chats (some of them, admittedly, could stand to be diminished) should be understood as ironical, a brilliant method allowing characters to perjure themselves. And why would any one of these fine citizens perjure himself? Perhaps because no character, fictional or otherwise, may have "unassailable dignity." But whether they have any at all is another matter entirely.  

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