The Black Prince, by Iris Murdoch Rothdas book review RSS
5.0 Stars

This was a re-read of an Iris Murdoch novel that I last read 15 years ago, and that I greatly liked and frequently think back to. The novel largely holds up, though I always forget just how entirely strange Murdoch's writing is. The fundamental weirdness is in the constant shifts of voice and tone. It's a bit SoulCatchery? In the sense that there are these constant blendings and shifts from one viewpoint into another, in combinations that would surprise you. Or that you don't typically think of going together. This is at least consistent with her ideology and the viewpoint she espouses, that human beings and reality are complex, that life is many things. And that is something that Murdoch has always been good about, making the nature/practice/methods/voice of her art match the ideology that she supports. E.g. she thinks part of wisdom is the steady, STEM like accumulation of facts, details, and fine distinctions, and it shows in her books which are filled with practical details and clinically precise characterizations.

So, what it is the novel? The novel is somewhat Nabakovian, with a partially unreliable narrator and a re-occurring reflectivity. The Narrator writes about himself, the narrator writes about his writing, the side characters write about the writing, the editor writes about the novel and the side characters, etc. Or maybe a bit like _Hate Story_, another story that both tells itself but also takes regular breaks in order to interrogate the story. In a larger sense, The Black Prince is also a chance for Murdoch to reflect on her entire literary ourve and method of writing. Two of the main characters in the book are authors, and Murdoch uses them to explore some of her own thoughts on writing, as well as to criticize and satirize her own work better than any of her actual critics ever have.

The novel is a bit Portlandia, in that it is about silly people doing silly things with each other in their own made up world.

The novel is a bit Wodehouse, in that it is about an introverted, prim, ascetic, dignified man being constantly drawn into drama, noise, embarrassments, pratfalls, and confusion, about meetings with different people that he absolutely wants to avoid, about those intolerable people becoming friends with each other and not leaving his house.

The novel is a bit Diplomacy, in that each of the people has a desired configuration of alliances and pair-ups that they want to see, and are resolutely framing things and arguing for an interpretation of the world in order to reach their desired situation.

The novel is a bit real-politik or materialist or mechanistic, in that all the words and thoughts and ideas could be viewed as a facade or mask placed on top of much, much simpler desires.

The novel is a bit Philip K Dick, in that the framing or interpretation of the story can radically, radically shift based on just a few sentences. There's one particularly memorable example of this in the latter half of the book, where one person relentlessly advances their frame, a letter is read, and then the tide is completely and brutally reversed. It's one of my top ~100 or so moments in all of literature.

The novel is a bit Ayn Randian, in at least the structural sense that the author is telling a story, but they are also going to frequently interject their own philosophical observations into the story at random moments and by God you are going to like it.

The novel is a bit Shakespeare or "Greek play", in that it is vulgar and comedic, but also not afraid to slake an insult with blood.

The novel is sweet. Murdoch can be brutal and unsparing with her characters, but there is a never a sense that she does not care for them. Unlike Nabakov, who often views his characters as insects, Murdoch treats hers more like fish or badgers. :)