Reality and Dreams

Muriel Spark’s 1996 novel Reality and Dreams returns to the film world of The Public Image, only on this occasion the main character is not the star but the director, Tom Richards. As the novel opens, Tom is recovering after falling from a crane. Despite general agreement that he is lucky to be alive, he has no regrets:

“Yes, I did feel like God up on that crane.”

The reality and dreams of the title is the world of film-making, and it’s no surprise that Spark should see the director as a God-substitute who “often wondered if we were all characters in one of God’s dreams.” Like all those who think they can think like God in Spark’s work, Tom is blind to his own faults. In particular, he sees everything through the lens of film-making – “Everything I do is basically connected with my work,” he tells the taxi-driver, Dave, who he has drive him around as he recuperates from his fall.

“When I see people in frames I know I want to make a film of just that picture.”

It from just such a sight that his latest film originates, from the glimpse of a girl of a campsite, The Hamburger Girl as the title would have it: “Tom had no further interest at all in that girl, except that glimpse.” Instead he only has eyes for his leading lady, Rose, rather than the actress who plays the hamburger girl, Jeanne, who barely features in the film, and always in profile.

He views his daughters in much the same way, preferring the attractive one, Cora, from a previous marriage, rather than Marigold, from his current marriage to Claire. Cora, he feels, “increases in beauty every year,”

“Only to see her move half across the room was an aesthetic delight.”

Marigold, on the other hand, is “too serious” (but, as Spark reminds us, “who is to say he was the just arbiter of other people’s characters?”).

“Try as he might, Tom was not fond of his daughter by Claire.”

It is difficult not to think that Cora is a dream compared to Marigold’s reality (Cora means ‘maiden’, perhaps ironically as she is far from virginal, and references Persephone as the goddess of spring; Marigold is, of course, the flower, but is also commonplace for rubber gloves used for cleaning – one of the most prosaic items you might think of). Tom thinks it a pity Cora cannot act (though also sees this as a virtue as he describes acting as “the art of hypocrisy”) as he tends to see things superficially – he is put out when another director tells him, “You can’t hire actors mainly for their looks.” Halfway through the novel Marigold goes missing and Tom and Claire find it difficult to whole-heartedly wish her back:

“They don’t want to find me… That’s the truth.”

Only when Tom begins to see her in a part does he really see her at all: “She would do well in a harsh movie.”

Alongside the question of reality and dreams lies another of redundancy. Spark makes most of the characters redundant at one time or another, either from their jobs or in some other fashion (when Marigold’s husband leaves her she describes herself as a “redundant wife”). As Dave tells Tom, “Redundancy worries me; it hangs over us all.” Tom does not believe this as, convinced of his own talent, “nobody fires a man if he is exceptionally good.” He refers to Cora’s husband, who has used his redundancy money to leave her for India, as a “non-necessary man,” revealing not only his Darwinian outlook, but Spark’s intention that we look beyond ‘redundancy’ as an economic definition.

Reality and Dreams is, in many ways, an appropriate description of Spark’s work in general; the language alone can both soar and bring us down to earth with a bump. The novel is a generally light-hearted affair, though it contains two attempted murders and a death. Tom bemoans that the century is getting old, while speculating on what dead friends, including Auden and Graham Greene, would say to him were they still alive. Age is also referenced in the repeated opening of The Lover Song of J Alfred Prufock, a poem that certainly mingles reality and dreams. Spark was almost eighty when the novel was published and it’s hard not to see some of her in Tom’s character here, playful as ever. Perhaps that is why he seems to have learned little by the novel’s end, as he drinks with Claire and Cora, “here in the tract of no-man’s land between dreams and reality, reality and dreams,” a here that is both his life, and the novel itself.

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4 Responses to “Reality and Dreams”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    Well, this sounds ideal for me, especially given the filmmaking connection! It’s also reminded me that I must get hold of The Public Image, which I recall from your previous review. Time for a little spend, I think…

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, this is another great Spark! The Public Image is a little darker. It’s interesting to compare them – there is a sense that the film world had changed.

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Sounds fascinating Grant – I’ve not read much late Spark but it sounds as if her talents never dimmed!

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