So you know how you were saying you wanted to read soap operas written by philosophers? Ok, but still, you should. She wrote 26 or so novels from 1956-1995. A few years after her last novel, she died of Alzheimer’s, the story of which you can see in the movie Iris.
Iris Murdoch was a trained philosopher who didn’t start writing until her 30s. She is also concerned with some strange ideas and topics in her novels. For example, when you pick up one of her novels, you will generally find sexual obsession, a lot of letter writing, someone being deeply manipulative of others’ feelings, sometimes on purpose…sometimes through their pure selfishness. You also often find what we can reasonably call an “Enchanter” figure. For her novels, this figure is someone (usually male) who has a strange power over others because of his real, but ambiguous talents. These talents may be writing, or painting, or theater, or philosophy or something similar. These figures are usually cartoonish in their power and appeal, but the damage they are capable of inflicting is almost always quite real. She’s also quite interested in queer figures, the Jewish faith, and the nature of art, being, and death.
The Black Prince is no exception. In this novel, we are presented with several characters within a social scene. There’s our narrator who is also writing the novel we are reading, his ex-wife, her brother, his frenemy–a much more prolific and successful writer, his frenemy’s wife, their daughter, and the narrator’s sister. In the 400 odd pages in this novel, we spend most of the time dealing with the narrator’s interactions with these characters, his selfishness, his manipulation of them, and his various mental and emotional breakdowns, reveries, and fantasies.
This is a very British, very 1970s, and very dry novel, so be warned about that. But what’s particularly good about this novel (see my rating) is that it focuses on the nature of reality and how that plays into our narrator and whatever truth he is telling. Often in Murdoch’s novels, the truth is held through either a 3rd person narrator’s objectivity or the reader’s clear sense of reality versus absurdity. This novel leads us to question what is real about what we have read and what isn’t. And it even ends with some final notes written by other characters in the book.
Murdoch’s books sometimes blend together. Some of them have been fantastic for me (The Sea, The Sea, A Fairly Honorable Defeat, A Severed Head), some have been unmemorable (The Unicorn, Under the Net) and others have dragged (The Good Apprentice). I will find out later whether this breakdown is simply based in what decade she was writing in (the 1970s has been the best so far) or something else. Regardless, I thought this book was good and interesting throughout, and then got kicked up into greatness in the final sections.