Indie Writers Can Tell it How it Is

Updated on April 14, 2017
Clive La Pensee profile image

Clive is interested in the effect art can have on the lives of art consumers. Honest opinions are the only necessary qualifications.

Murdoch's Mediocre Hero

Iris Murdoch and the wannabe writer
Iris Murdoch and the wannabe writer | Source

Aspiring Novelists Must Read The Black Prince

The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch has numerous allusions to Hamlet. She sets the great character from Shakespeare’s play against a failing author. Murdoch’s story exposes the neuroses and mendacity of the mediocre novelist, and is a novel with a novel as its motor, just as Hamlet exposes the neuroses and mendacity within the court in Denmark, with a play within a play. The Black Prince should be obligatory reading for all novelists still seeking success.

The Black Prince is as complex as Hamlet. That takes some doing. The story teller - presumably also the Black Prince - is novelist Bradley, who wants to get away from London to finally write the big one - the one that will cement his reputation in the world of literature. Recognise anyone? Murdoch has filled the book with wicked observations, but my favourite is Bradley’s admission that, ‘every book is the wreck of a perfect idea.’ Her plethora of literary quips about failing writers is humbling, but at least we know we have pedigree.

The Book in Bradley and All of Us

Bradley needs to write, but is constantly distracted by family, would be lovers, dropouts on the cadge, and by the newly built Post Office Tower, which, 40 years ago, when Murdoch completed her fifteenth novel, dominated the London skyline. My interpretation is that this massive phallus reminded him of his failings, while his friends were his excuses for failing. Then there is the question of Bradley’s sexuality. The two women, with whom he has anything like a relationship, are his ex-wife, called Christian and the daughter of his best friend, named Julian. This remains a source of confusion, throughout the book. Christian - ex-wife, whom he claims to hate. Julian - daughter of friend, whom he claims to love. Both have the male form of their names.

Bradley has a book in him he knows will change the world. We writers have all been there and - we changed nothing. His departure to that cottage where he will write the momentous work is held up by a succession of Brian Rix farces. Rix was still active at the Whitehall Theatre when Murdoch conceived The Black Prince and she must have been a clandestine fan. Murdoch’s actors charge in from stage left, cause mayhem and leave stage right in the true Rix fashion. These actors are the important influencers in Bradley’s life. They are his sister, broken by a broken marriage, his ex-wife, now stupidly rich after a clever marriage to a man who conveniently died, his writer friend Arnold, who is more successful than Bradley, Arnold’s wife Rachel, who desperately wants to sleep with Bradley, Arnold’s daughter Julian, who uses her incomprehension of Hamlet to get Bradley between the sheets and Bradley’s estranged brother-in-law, a drop-out looking for a meal ticket. Julian is conveniently besotted by Bradley and decides she can love an old man, although he lied to her about his age. His friends differ and plot to prevent the union.

Bradley the Bounder

Why is this book remarkable? The neuroses of the characters are real in their absurdity and we writers are present among them. Hamlet is a tragedy. The Black Prince is a tragedy played out as a comedy. Yes! We probably are the laughing stock of literary agents. Murdoch must have known a few wannabe authors who never hacked it. She is a genius at portraying us with massive dollops of humour. Bradley is a pompous failure who cannot deal with the strength and independence of his equals. He pretends that his friends are nuisances and failures. Julian looks up to him - is the only one to admire him. In return, he abuses the position of trust. He laps up the flattery from a bit of young belly and decides she is the love of his life. The moment he conquers Julian does him no credit.

Bradley’s sister is unhinged by her fate and the actions of her husband. She turns to Bradley, who is useless and deserts her. Arnold's wife wants an affair. She is Bradley's age and no longer crispy enough for the conceited novelist. His ex-wife wants to make amends and be friends. He is too weak to meet her half way. He skips from failure to failure, never recognising his true self. He does one noble deed toward the end of the novel, but perhaps it was an accident and by then, an irrelevancy.

Iris Murdoch uses Richard Strauss

Opera North's production of Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier (2016). Ylva Kihlberg as The Marschallin (left) and Helen Sherman as Octavian. Photo Credit: Robert Workman and Opera North
Opera North's production of Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier (2016). Ylva Kihlberg as The Marschallin (left) and Helen Sherman as Octavian. Photo Credit: Robert Workman and Opera North | Source

A Latent Gay, or Just a Bloke in Need of a Reality Check?

The use of boys’ names for female protagonists, the phallic references to the Post Office Tower, the fact that Bradley is only turned on by Julian when she is dressed as a man - Hamlet, has led critics to assume Murdoch wanted her main character to be recognised as a latent homosexual. I think that argument is more complex than is necessary. The clue is in the scene where Bradley and Julian go to the opera to see Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. Murdoch describes the curtain lifting on the two lovers in a tour de force of English prose. Her text describing the music and theatre is so exquisite that I borrowed her spirit and some of her words to describe this opening scene as a sonnet. (The Trouser Role - New London Writers 25-09-2016). During the scene, Bradley leaves the theatre and once outside, is physically sick. Why? That is a strong reaction for a few minutes of music drama.

It is because this scene holds up a mirror to Bradley’s life and he doesn’t like the reflection. The young man on stage is Octavian, sung by a woman, playing a man. The object of Octavian’s desires is his much older cousin, the Marschallin. She is a powerful and respected woman. She knows and accepts she will lose the love of Octavian to a younger woman. That’s how it should be. She encourages Octavian to make the leap, knowing it will cause her great grief. Bradley’s fears are played out on stage. He must fear he will lose the youthful Julian. He must also reconcile the oddity of being turned on by a young woman dressed as a man? It troubles him to witness these desires played out on stage.

Finally, he is forced by the drama to compare his shabby actions with the nobleness of the Marschallin. She, like him, is an older seducer, but she still has self-respect and is prepared to do the right thing and move her lover on, despite her personal loss.

Rosenkavalier Opening Scene

Murdoch, Shakespeare and Strauss are Our Proof.

This scene polarises opinion. Strauss's score plays a huge part. Some listeners cannot deal with the emotions it stirs. I tried my sonnet out on some singers and staff at Opera North. They were enthusiastic. It has been re-tweeted round the world in opera circles. This is in contrast to my young neighbour in the theatre. She told me she hated the opera scene and felt uncomfortable with the constellation of a young woman playing a man, in bed with an older woman. She later told me that she also disliked my sonnet intensely. I received one ‘like,’ from a fan, for the poem.

Some contrast between the world of opera and literature consumers! No wonder we are neurotic, but perhaps we shouldn’t be. After all, indifference is the enemy of art - not an honest opinion. Bradley’s crime was his indifference to the plight of others. That made his work mediocre. Mediocrity can still find a publisher, because publishers have become so risk averse.

Indie authors don’t need to join the mediocre. The power of poetry, music and literature, as a mirror on life, is alive and well so long as we keep writing. Murdoch, Shakespeare and Strauss are our proof. Their quality is undisputed, but they don't rank as popular. The so-called ‘lack of success,’ we Indie writers struggle with, is all in our minds. Perhaps it is our neurosis.

Pallid Bradley versus heart-on-sleeve Hamlet. An inspired antithesis by Iris Murdoch.

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