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.