The Only Problem

In The Only Problem Muriel Spark returns to the story of Job which influenced her first novel, The Comforters. Here the connection is more explicit as Canadian millionaire Harvey Gotham obsessively studies the Biblical book and what he describes as “the only problem”:

“For he could not face that a benevolent Creator, one whose charming and delicious light spread over the world, and being powerful everywhere, could condone the unspeakable sufferings of the world.”

Harvey (who Alan Bold has described as “an intellectual who has rejected reality in the interests of his academic isolationism”) cuts himself off from the world both socially and geographically in order to pursue his studies. Living in a cottage in the grounds of a chateau in France, he has left his wife, Effie, who is only able to track him down by tricking his lawyer’s secretary into revealing his address. Throughout the novel his isolation is interrupted by a series of visitors, beginning with his brother-in-law, Edward, who has come to plead on Effie’s behalf that Harvey grant her a financial settlement. As he soon notices:

“When Harvey talked of his marriage it were always as if he were thinking of something else, and he never talked about it unless someone else did first.”

Instead, Harvey would rather discuss Job, something he does in every conversation and every letter he writes – even those to his lawyer. Even Harvey begins to realise that he has perhaps separated himself too much from the world:

“How can you deal with the problem of suffering if everybody conspires to estrange you from suffering?”

Harvey’s dramatic departure from his wife takes place at a motorway service station while they are holidaying with Edward and his wife (Effie’s sister) Ruth. It occurs after she admits to stealing a chocolate bar:

“Why shouldn’t we help ourselves? These multinationals and monopolies are capitalising on us, and two thirds of the world is suffering.”

Harvey later says he is “intellectually insulted” by Effie’s attitude to life when she takes things further and is accused of being part of a terrorist group operating in the same area of France where Harvey lives. By this point Ruth is living with Harvey in the chateau she has convinced him to buy, looking after Effie’s baby, Clara (to further complicate matters, Harvey is not Clara’s father). Soon Nathan, a student who lived with Edward and Ruth but is besotted with Effie, also moves in – the reader may well echo Harvey’s thought, “What am I doing with all these people?”

With Effie (possibly) front page news, Harvey is suspected of involvement, the discomfort of police interrogation as near as he gets to suffering. A press conference turns into a lecture on Job after a journalist asks him:

“Would you say that you yourself are in the position of Job, in so far as you are a suspicious character in the eyes if the world, yet feel yourself to be entirely innocent?”

For a novel about suffering, The Only Problem is a lot of fun. The interchangeability of the relationships borders on farce, though Spark prepares for it by having Edward unexpectedly jealous of Harvey leaving Effie without knowing why. The sisters physical likeness adds to the humour (when Harvey first sees Effie’s picture in the paper “the outlines of the girl’s face struck him as being rather like Ruth’s”), with Spark adding a further dimension to this by having Job’s wife, in a painting which Harvey has moved into the area to study, share that likeness. The sudden transition from Chapter 2 to 3 when we discover that Ruth and Effie’s baby are living with Harvey is worthy of a modern television series.

The novel is not, of course, an allegory of the Book of Job – this would be too obvious and therefore too dull for Spark. However, it does oppose Effie’s idea that “all the suffering in the world, the starving multitudes” can be blamed on political systems and therefore people, and so ended by direct action, with Harvey’s belief:

“There is more to be had from the world than a balancing of accounts.”

Spark is careful to imply that Harvey’s wealth allows him the time and space to think so. “Suffering isn’t in proportion to what the sufferer deserves” is perhaps true for all the characters, in one way or another.

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One Response to “The Only Problem”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    This sounds suitably Sparkian, very inventive and off-kilter. I love your line about the novel not being an allegory of the book of Job as that would be too obvious and straightforward for Spark. One never knows what’s coming next in her books – that element of unpredictability is such a strong part of the appeal!

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