Bradley Pearson is a marginally successful author well past his professional prime, who fancies himself much more talented and good-looking than he is. At the beginning of the novel Bradley is preparing to leave on holiday, sure that a change of scene will inspire him to write his greatest work. But barriers arise in rapid succession, as he learns of his ex-wife’s arrival in London, his friend Arnold Baffin calls asking for help resolving a quarrel with his wife Rachel, and his sister Priscilla breaks down after trouble with her husband. Bradley immediately falls into “fix-it” mode, but every act has consequences. Watching Bradley is like watching a row of dominoes fall. And then Bradley becomes positively delusional, falling head over heels for a much younger woman and being just arrogant enough to think the relationship will work.
Iris Murdoch’s characterizations are brilliant. Bradley is a bumbling fool but doesn’t know it. Rachel and Priscilla are women of a certain age, each with her own set of neuroses. Rachel and Arnold’s relationship is typical of many long marriages, but Bradley fails to understand how two people are angry or frustrated with one another without fracturing the strong bond between them. I also love Murdoch’s ability to describe the ordinary in such extraordinary ways:
The division of one day from the next must be one of the most profound peculiarities on this planet. It is, on the whole, a merciful arrangement. We are not condemned to sustained flights of being, but are constantly refreshed by little holidays from ourselves. We are intermittent creatures, always falling to little ends and rising to little new beginnings. Our soon-tired consciousness is meted out in chapters, and that the world will look quite different tomorrow is, both for our comfort and our discomfort, usually true. How marvellously too night matches sleep, sweet image of it, so neatly apportioned to our need. (p. 232)
The Black Prince has a very interesting structure. Bradley’s story is written in the first person, as if he is telling it to the book’s editor, who wrote a “foreword” to this book. A second foreword, written by Bradley, provides the reader with his personal history. After Bradley’s story is complete, four important characters offer postscripts. These not only supply a denouement, they also shed entirely new light on everything that was written before. It turns out Bradley is one of the most unreliable narrators I’ve ever experienced. The plot twists at the end sent me off in search of earlier passages, to re-read in a new light. I’m still puzzling through the intricacies of this book, which is why Iris Murdoch is one of my favorite authors.