Symposium

Muriel Spark’s nineteenth novel, Symposium, as the title suggests, centres on a dinner party, the word having originated from the part of a feast in Ancient Greece where the eating stops but the drinking continues. It also, of course, puts us in mind of Plato’s Symposium where, at just such a banquet, Plato recounts the speeches of a number of famous Greeks in praise of Eros, the god of love and desire. Love and desire are never far away in Spark’s novel which seems particularly concerned with marriage. Among the couples at the dinner party are the newly wedded William Damien and Margaret (nee) Murchie.

Typically, while the dinner party is the novel’s ‘present’, much of it is concerned with events beforehand. The novel opens with a burglary at the home of Lord and Lady Suzy who will later be invited to the dinner party, Lord Suzy’s horror at the crime (“This is rape!”) being his only topic of conversation. This seemingly unrelated and random incident is, of course, central to the plot. In the meantime, William and Mary’s marriage is subject to gossip even before the meal. The story of how they met (at the fruit counter of Marks and Spencer’s) is regarded with suspicion by William’s wealthy mother, Hilda:

“What was she doing in the fruit section of Marks & Spencer’s?… she was staying in a half-board hostel at the time.”

Margaret herself is more generally distrusted. Chris Donovan, one of the dinner party hosts, wonders about her family:

“But the name Murchie…I’m sure I’ve heard it before in connection with some affair, some case in the papers; something.”

For Roland Sykes, another of the guests, the name also rings a bell: “There was something about the Murchies last year…it was in all the papers.” Hilda, who has met Margaret’s parents, says of the family:

“They are quite all right but there is something wrong.”

The wrongness of the Murchies lies in Uncle Magnus (surely the similarity to Magus is not accidental) who spends most of his time in an insane asylum but is regularly asked for advice by Margaret’s parents, Dan and Greta:

“Magnus had now been their guru for six years.”

It is Magnus who suggests that they ask their mother to alter her will and leave everything to Dan. When she is murdered soon after, they discover that the will has been recently changed. Even more suspicious, the madwoman who kills her has escaped from the asylum where Magnus resides. In the aftermath of this Margaret becomes a nun, though that vocation ends when one of the sisters is found strangled. We discover that Margaret has a track record of being near when violent death occurs – beginning with a drowned school friend – and Magnus has a track record of being near Margaret. It is he who advises her to find someone wealthy to marry. Magnus frequently expresses himself in ballad verses, including at least one verse form ‘The Demon Lover’ about a woman tempted by a former lover to leave her husband and children. The lover, of course, turns out to be the Devil. There is something of Magnus and Margaret’s relationship in this. Even Dan is concerned about his daughter:

“He was aware that Margaret was cultivating an exterior sweetness that was not her own.”

Margaret’s story runs parallel to the story of the robberies, which are not as random as at first appears, linked together by various characters. The sentence “They were full of wonder that neither of the couple had heard a sound” with reference to the Suzy’s break-in turns out to represent a more general ignorance of the wealthy.

As with all Spark’s work, there is enormous enjoyment to be had in watching the connections between the story and characters develop, but Spark is also a master craftsman at connecting ideas, and Symposium, like Plato’s seems particularly focused on love. None of the marriages it presents are especially successful. Lady Suzy, who married the father of a school friend, seems to enjoy writing to his daughter more; Ella and Ernest Untzinger are faring better, perhaps because:

“By unspoken consent Ella and Ernest were not sleeping together anymore.”

The unmarried hosts of the dinner party, Hurley Reed and Chris, seem more at ease with each other:

“It is a union of great convenience and contentment.”

As do the two other guest, Annabel and Roland, who are cousins. As Hurley explains:

“The vows of marriage… are mostly made under the influence of the love-passion. Let me tell you…that the vows of love-passion are like confessions obtained under torture.”

This is one of the most comic of Spark’s novels, which is perhaps why she prefaces it by a quotation from Plato’s Symposium which states that “the genius of comedy was the same with that of tragedy.” Even a throwaway line such as, “You never stop talking about who’s married who, and what the fortune is,” seems placed to remind us of the comic tradition of Austen. It is both wonderfully entertaining and wonderfully erudite – a perfect combination.

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4 Responses to “Symposium”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    This is one of the Sparks I still have to read, and it sounds completely nuts and very wonderful – as she so often is! I often think people who judge her solely by Brodie have no idea what her books are really like!

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    An excellent review of a most enjoyable book! I loved the weaving together of the past and present in this one, a prefect blend of the sophisticated and the macabre.

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