If The Children’s Book was like too many helpings of stodgy steam pudding, then Muriel Spark offers the opposite: a delicately-iced, bite-sized, bitter-sweet tart. Although I have read most of Spark’s novels, one or two have escaped me, including her first, The Comforters, recently reissued by Virago with an excellent introduction by Ali Smith. This seemed the perfect antidote to Byatt: Spark not only rejects realism but ridicules it (her main character, Caroline, who is writing a book on the modern novel is “having difficulty with the chapter on realism”). Rather than confuse her novels with history, she is at pains to point out their fictive nature. Her brevity is also intentional; her novels work in many ways like poems, particularly in their use of repeated phrases, and are designed to be read and then read again. This makes reading The Comforters, a novel first published over fifty years ago, seem like a very modern experience.
Of course, reading a writer’s early work last encourages you to look for those traits that will develop over the course of their lifetime. In Spark’s case this perhaps begins with her discomfort with the novel itself and her need to emphasise the artifice of the narrative. In The Comforters this takes the form of having one of the characters, Caroline, hear the novelist typing and the narrative voice:
“Just then she heard the sound of a typewriter. It seemed to come through the wall on her left. It stopped and was immediately followed by a voice remarking her own thoughts. It said: On the whole she did not think there would be any difficulty with Helena.”
In Spark this is not only a postmodern trick; it is central to her concern with the dynamics between predestination and freewill. Caroline resents the fact that the voice talks about her life in the past tense, suggesting that what she is about to do has already happened. At one point she attempts to usurp the narrative voice:
“The narrative says we went by car; alright, we must go by train. You do see that don’t you Laurence? It’s a matter of asserting freewill.”
However, although they then plan to journey by train, the journey does indeed finally take place by car, confirming both the voice Caroline has heard and the first sentence of the chapter. This car journey concludes in a crash which injures both parties and concludes the first party of the novel, just at the time Caroline is telling Laurence:
“I won’t be involved in this fictional plot if I can help it. In fact, I’d like to spoil it. If I had my way, I’d like to hold up the action of the novel.”
The irony works both ways: as she rejects the “artificial plot” a rather hackneyed plot device comes into play; on the other hand, their injuries do hold up the plot.
The actual plot of The Comforters is almost incidental. As Caroline says at the end, when she goes off to write her novel, when asked what it will be about: “Characters in a novel.” Spark creates a disparate cast and then slowly weaves them together. They include an early example of the ‘nevertheless’ principle, as Laurence’s grandmother is discovered to be involved in a diamond smuggling ring. They also include the malevolent Georgina Hogg, named after the Scottish writer James Hogg, who provided literature with one of classic ‘double’ stories in The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Mrs. Hogg is the first in a long line of characters of evil influence in Spark’s work, the most famous being Jean Brodie – named form Deacon Brodie, an Edinburgh figure credited with inspiring Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Her interest in blackmail is also one which frequently appears in Spark’s writing.
It’s possible, though overly simplistic, to see The Comforters as, in part, autobiographical. Caroline, like Spark, is a recent convert to Roman Catholicism, though one who finds it difficult to warm to other Catholics. The debate between predestination and freewill is also a religious debate. (The search for truth is also parodied in Laurence’s need to pry into everything he can lay his hands on). Like Spark, she first writes literary criticism, and at then goes on to write a novel – the novel we are reading if we are to believe Laurence, who writes to her, “I dislike being a character in your novel.” The narrative voice she hears may then simply be her writer’s voice, shaping the world around her not narrative, perhaps unconsciously at first.
Whatever the case, this is an incredibly accomplished first novel, to be both devoured and savoured.