Details: (c) Iris Murdoch 1973; Pub Penguin 1975; ISBN 0-14-00-3934-1
Verdict: The black prince is too clever for its own good, and depressing besides.
Reasons for reading it: I have been very impressed with Iris Murdoch's other novels that I have read. This positive got me over the incredibly offputting cover, with bad seventies design, a vaguely noir-ish feel and a flash describing it as
A perverse pleasure.
How it came into my hands: A charity shop somewhere, possibly in Dundee but I forget.
The Black Prince has almost nothing to recommend it, I'm afraid. I persevered with it only because I'm quite a Murdoch fan, and I kept hoping it would get better. There were all kinds of hints of a twist, but the twist didn't come until right at the end and then it didn't really work to redeem the book's flaws. The most serious of these is that Pearson is a thoroughly unpleasant character in every way. Technically, it's an accomplished piece of characterization, but to have a good writer like Murdoch doing an excellent job of voicing a bad writer is not in the least pleasurable.
In some ways tBP reads like a feminist rant; just about every female character is in some different form of abusive relationship. Pearson, as the narrator, has no real sympathy for them, and that's when he's not the abuser himself. But then he has no sympathy for anyone not himself, regardless of gender. He's almost over the top with the long list of nasty character traits, but he's not even an engaging melodramatic villain, because he's incredibly irritating as well as being evil. Anyway, seeing the suffering of the other characters from an entirely self-obsessed viewpoint makes it hard for the reader to care about them either.
I think tBP is doing something clever with commenting on Nabokov; the narrator who is unreliable to the point of being insane and with an over-inflated opinion of himself is very reminiscent of Pale Fire, only without Nabokov's exuberance the result is confusing as well as dull. I haven't read Lolita (and I probably shan't) but a probably abusive relationship between an old man and a very young child-woman told from the point of view of the man who regards it as a romantic love story is a central theme.
I might have put up with or even enjoyed the ambiguities and mysteries if there had been some kind of hook in the form of a plot or characters I could care about. But there's nothing like that, just a lot of show-offy clever literary tricks, most of which went over my head and the ones I did get annoyed me.
I've rarely read a book that makes me feel so strongly I shouldn't have bothered. It's also really depressing; Pearson is just convincing enough that you start buying into his view that everything is sordid and miserable. The narrative seems to cut at any possible faith one might have in anything; I suspect this may be an intentional ploy to make the reader deny Pearson's world view as vehemently as possible. Reading it felt like a struggle with despair for me, though. There's no way I can appreciate technical skill in writing in that sort of context. I thoroughly, thoroughly disrecommend The black prince.