Archive for the ‘Muriel Spark’ Category

Robinson

May 5, 2016

robinson

Robinson was Muriel Spark’s second novel, published in 1958, three years before the novel which would make her name, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. From its title onwards, Robinson exists in conversation with Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. In this case our narrator, January Marlow, is plane-wrecked on an island, one of only three survivors. The island itself is called Robinson (not the one where Alexander Selkirk, one possible inspiration for Crusoe, was stranded off the coast of Chile, which was not renamed until 1966), as is its only adult inhabitant. January and her fellow survivors, Jimmie Waterford and Tom Wells, quickly realise there is little chance of rescue until the arrival of the pomegranate boat in three months, and must adapt to life on the island.

As in all Spark novels, there is a gradual revealing of character motives and intentions, though never to the point of clarity. Early in the novel January comments, in response to the Donne quotation, ‘No man is an island’:

“Some are…Their only ground of meeting is concealed under the sea.”

This might describe Spark’s approach – her characters appear like islands but the connections lie beneath the surface. January, as the narrator, takes an active part in attempting to uncover the true characters of her fellow islanders, though from the beginning she is hampered by her own prejudices, from an initial sighting of Tom at the airport to the similarities she sees between Robinson and her brother-in-law. But then, Spark will never drain the water entirely and leave everything in plain sight: she, like January, is disparaging of Robinson’s advice that, when keeping the journal he has given her, she should “stick to facts.” Spark is a writer of inference, and it is often the weapon of choice for her characters: Robinson, Tom asserts, “isn’t a man for the ladies,” an innuendo that may also be interpreted as a threat. In a world of secrets, the blackmailer is king.

As I said, Robinson cannot help but exist in conversation with Defoe’s novel. Robinson Crusoe has often been discussed as an exemplification of the protestant work ethic – the harder Crusoe works the more he is rewarded by God. Given Spark’s Catholicism, it was always unlikely she would leave this aspect of the novel unexplored. Spark’s Robinson has a more recognisably capitalist outlook, making the money he needs from growing pomegranates rather than cultivating his own food supplies:

“Try to eat as little as you can. Most of our food is tinned, and I had not counted on guests.”

Robinson is also contrasted with Crusoe in that, far from longing for company, he seems to prefer his solitary life. The books in his library are stamped with the motto nunquam minus solus quam cum solus (never less alone than when alone) and, as Jimmie realises, his guest are beginning to irritate him:

“I commence to think… that Robinson is becoming exceedingly cheesed.”

However, Robinson’s Protestantism is asserted in his horror of luck. He is appalled when Tom gives Miguel one of the lucky charms he peddles to make a living (along with the spiritualist magazine he publishes):

“Listen to me, Miguel: these things are evil… you must give them back.”

He feels similarly about January’s rosary, which he hides from her (January, like Spark, has recently converted to Catholicism). Of course, one might think Crusoe benefits from rather a lot of luck on his island, but this is ascribed to God rewarding him for his hard work, not chance or the power of prayer. Robinson’s dislike of superstition is linked with a very Protestant distrust of imagination, hence his “stick to facts” mantra. In contrast, January’s superstition involves a very un-Crusoe-like attitude to salvage:

“I already had one arm in the garment when I peeled it off and threw it on the ground as if it were teaming with maggots…
‘It’s salvage,’ I said.”

Unlike Crusoe / Robinson, January can imaginatively associate the ‘salvage’ with the dead.

The need to uncover the secrets of the other inhabitants becomes more urgent when Robinson disappears and, later, his blood-stained jacket is discovered. January’s name becomes more than an early one-liner when Robinson asks what she is called and thinks she is replying with the month and the place of her birth; echoes of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe are clearly intentional. With only a limited number of suspects, the situation on the island becomes even tenser, though in Spark’s hands, the denouement is quite different to any Agatha Christie might have treated us to.

Robinson tells a straight forward story but it is a complex novel, accruing meaning like an island, layer by layer, seemingly banal phrases echoing through the text until they resonate, fiercely accomplished for a second novel. Though currently out of print, there is a treat in store in August when Canongate will release Spark’s Satire, containing Robinson alongside The Abbess of Crewe and Aiding and Abetting: now that is a volume well worth getting.

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The Driver’s Seat

June 26, 2015

drivers seat

No excuse is needed to re-read Muriel Spark, but the National Theatre of Scotland’s adaptation of The Driver’s Seat seemed too good an opportunity to miss. Of course, it’s not the first Spark novel to make it to the stage – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie has been adapted into almost every available medium, and a theatrical version of The Girls of Slender Means was to be seen in Edinburgh only a few years ago – but The Driver’s Seat seems such an unlikely candidate for performance. It was, apparently, Spark’s favourite among her novels, but it also has claim to be her most difficult (not difficult to read, difficult to like – just see Sam Jordison’s review in the Guardian if you don’t believe me). Short and sharp, as if written with a scalpel, it not only cuts up the conventions of the murder mystery, it does something similar with those of the novel itself.

Traditionally crime fiction begins with the crime and then unravels, clue by clue, the identity of its perpetrator. In The Driver’s Seat this is reversed: early in the novel we are informed that it will climax in murder:

“She will be found tomorrow morning dead from multiple stab-wounds, her wrists bound with a silk scarf and her ankles bound with a man’s neck-tie, in the grounds of an empty villa, in a park of the foreign city to which she is travelling on the flight now boarding at gate 14.”

The victim is Lise, an office-worker, who begins the novel shopping for holiday clothes, taking offence when she is offered a dress in a material that doesn’t stain. Typically, this comic scene is, in fact, our first indication of Lise’s role as victim. (As she says later, “As if I would want a dress that doesn’t show the stains!” i.e. blood stains). From the beginning she seems determined to leave clues to the uncommitted crime: she buys a garish dress and coat which clash, ensuring she will be noticed, and at the airport she seeks out the brightest cover, “holding the book up against her coat, giggling merrily.” Numerous unnecessary conversations with strangers occur, largely untruthful (her name, after all, is an obvious anagram of Lies). Throughout she claims to be searching for a man in the manner of a romantic novel:

“I’m going to find him. He’s waiting for me.”

This theme continues at the when the plane lands (“I was sure he was the right one. I’ve got to meet someone.”) and when she goes out shopping with Mrs Fiedke (“The torment of it…Not knowing exactly where and when he’s going to turn up.”) In this second reversal, the victim, rather than the detective, seeks the murderer.

A naturalistic reading of The Driver’s Seat is possible. Lise’s fragile mental state is evidenced in the novel’s first action, when she first laughs hysterically, then bursts into tears at her work. The coincidence of finding herself on the same flight at her killer is explained by her simply having placed herself there deliberately (the word ’followed’ is used, but we assume neutrally at first); she certainly seems to be well informed about him.

Spark herself is less concerned with naturalism, however. Her characters are deliberately superficial. The contents of Lise’s handbag are described in great detail, but we gain no access to the contents of her head. Even factual information is interpreted via observation:

“She might be as young as twenty-nine or as old as thirty-six, but hardly younger, hardly older.”

This is a novel of places, objects and voices – voices that do not communicate but cut across each other at cross purposes. In Lise’s apartment everything has been designed to fold away leaving only flat surfaces, a comment not only on Lise but on the emptiness of the modern world:

“The swaying tall pines among the litter of cones on the forest floor have been subdued into silence and obedient bulks.”

This emptiness is illustrated in fads like Bill’s macrobiotic diet, the momentary disruption of the student protest, and in Mrs Fiedke’s shopping. In retrospect, only Lise is purposeful.

The novel is also about fate and free will, as all Spark’s novels are. Lise attempts to assert her free will in a world where she is fated to be a victim, particularly as a woman. Twice, when she enters a car driven by a man, the man attempts to rape her; on both occasions she escapes with the car, in the driver’s seat. But even the driver’s seat is not the answer, as she tells her murderer:

“You’ll get caught, but at least you’ll have the illusion of a chance to get away in the car.”

Spark called The Driver’s Seat a ‘whydunnit’, but here we are not interested in the killer’s motivation – he is, Lise tells him, “a sex maniac” – but the victim’s, with ‘why?’ echoing in the reader’s mind at her every action until the final moment.

The Comforters

January 23, 2010

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.