The best thing I read this year was Iris Murdoch’s The Black Prince, and specifically the first page of The Black Prince’s (fictional) author’s foreword. The book features, among other things, a tour-de-force, throat-clearing beginning with a (fictional) publisher’s foreword, followed by the foreword in question, and then the actual or “actual” novel itself, a desultory beast that meanders for about 200 to 300 hundred pages before the real problem is presented. But the first page of the author’s note is a particular doozy, and I’ll reproduce its first few sentences here:
Although several years have now passed since the events recorded in this fable, I shall in telling it adopt the modern technique of narration, allowing the narrating consciousness to pass like a light along its series of present moments, aware of the past, unaware of what is to come. I shall, that is, inhabit my past self, and, for the ordinary purposes of story-telling, speak only with the apprehensions of that time, a time in many ways so different from the present. So for example, I shall say, ‘I am fifty-eight years old,’ as I then was. And I shall judge people, inadequately, perhaps even unjustly, as I then judged them, and not in the light of any later wisdom. That wisdom, however, as I trust that I truly think it to be, will not be absent from the story. It will to some extent, in fact it must ‘irradiate it.’ A work of art is as good as its creator. It cannot be more so. Nor, such as he in this case is, can it be less.
I read this several times when I first read the book this summer, in a state of smiling disbelief and admiration—and envy. Murdoch tosses off perhaps the clearest explanation of how most simple (and all retrospective) past tense narration works, an explanation the likes of James Wood would envy, in a thicket of Nabokovian front matter, a storytelling exegesis you might glide right over if you weren’t paying attention. Yes, I thought, scanning the passage over and again, this is exactly how it works, though I’d never before seen it put quite like that, quite that clearly. I’m prone to sports metaphors with writing—forgive me—but this kind of thing is the equivalent of Patrick Mahomes wrong-footing a 40 yarder across his body, or Steph Curry flipping in a pregame tunnel three. The greats make it look easy.
The whole book is like this, though. I’m not sure The Black Prince is my favorite book of all time, but it might be the most indelible, the most neuron-rewiring. It is not a perfect novel, by any stretch (which ones are?)—Murdoch is prone to long swaths of almost parodic, therapist’s couch dialogue between characters, and her plotting technique is more or less people knocking on other people’s doors. Nonetheless, it is absolutely brilliant, a kind of nonchalant showboating brilliance the degree of which Nabokov (whom the book sends up, along with Shakespeare) often achieved, but via intense strain, teeth palpably gritted in effort.
Just as The Black Prince begins with multiple forewords, it ends with a brutally funny and seemingly endless series of afterwords that effectively puncture any little theories a silly reader might have developed. Closing the book, I felt reordered, slightly changed. I have had few similar experiences of being so easily pushed around by an author, of being informed and entertained and manipulated by a superior intelligence. To indulge in another sports metaphor, I felt I’d gone 12 rounds with a heavyweight, pummeled by Iris Murdoch into pleasurable submission.
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