Archive for the ‘Muriel Spark’ Category

The Mandelbaum Gate

July 4, 2018

The Mandelbaum Gate, Muriel Spark’s eighth novel, has a typically Sparkian opening:

“On Saturday the 12th of August 1961 when Barbara Vaughan had last been seen, Freddy had accompanied her from the Cartwrights’ front door to Matt’s car outside in the roadway… This was the last thing he remembered until he was walking along his usual route from the Mandelbaum Gate to his hotel on the following Tuesday, which was the 15th of August.”

Containing two mysteries – Freddy’s lost weekend and the suggestion Barbara’s whereabouts are unknown – it perfectly sets up what follows, the story of Freddy’s attempt to rescue Barbara from Jordan where he feels her half-Jewish identity places her in danger. It is an opening, however, which we do not reach until chapter 5 as, of all of Spark’s novels, The Mandelbaum Gate is the most conventional. (Spark herself described it as “much more concrete and solidly rooted in a very detailed setting”). Prior to chapter 5, where it might be said the novel finally begins to progress with pace, Spark has carefully introduced her characters.

The novel, in fact, begins with Freddy composing a polite poem of thanks, as is his habit, while crossing to Israel through the Mandelbaum Gate which splits Jerusalem, something his position at the Foreign Office, which grants him diplomatic immunity, allows him to do with the minimum of fuss. He is an unusual Spark character in the sense that he is a good man, honourable and modest. Barbara, too, is an unusual characters, but for a different reason: she is probably the closest Spark came to presenting a portrait of herself, a Catholic who is half-Jewish. There is also a certain duality to her nature: she is, according to Freddy, “a pleasant English spinster”, but he also finds himself “filled with a sense of her dangerousness”. She is “afflicted by her gifts”:

“For she was gifted with an honest, analytical intelligence, a sense of fidelity in the observing of observable things, and, at the same time, with the beautiful and dangerous gift of faith…”

Barbara is on a pilgrimage, but she is also struggling with a matter of principle, a love affair with an archaeologist, Harry Clegg, having led to a proposal of marriage. Harry, however, is divorced and therefore she cannot marry him and “remain within the Church, unless his marriage was invalidated by the Church.” News of her engagement will also infuriate the headmistress at the convent school where she works, who sees their friendship threatened, and she will follow her to the Middle East. Barbara’s pilgrimage takes her to Jordan, even though Freddy warns her of the danger posed by her ‘Jewish blood’, where she falls ill.

Spark handles the slow return of Freddy’s memory with the skill one might expect. Freddy has a “premonition of bloodshed” but, though shots are fired at the border, the death he has foreseen occurs back in England. In the novel’s second half Spark immerses herself in the espionage genre with disguises, nocturnal escapes, illicit passions…and an unexpected spy.

The novel takes place during the trial of Albert Eichmann – Spark had visited Israel to observe the trial, just as Barbara does. It is tempting, therefore, to see Freddy’s early plea –“Why couldn’t people be moderate?” – as its key message, but it is Barbara who seems to identify Spark’s main concern, quoting scripture:

“I know of thy doings and find thee neither cold nor hot; cold or hot, I would thou wert one or the other. Being what thou art, lukewarm, neither cold nor hot, thou will make me vomit thee out of my mouth.”

Initially Freddy seems the epitome of lukewarm, but when his friends, the Cartwrights, attempt to dissuade Barbara from visiting Jordan he finds himself supporting her, and, indeed, quoting her:

“’The trouble with you,’ Freddy said, fully conscious he was wrecking the delightful atmosphere, ‘is that you blow neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm – What was that passage in the Bible, Miss Vaughan?’”

Freddy’s attempt to rescue Barbara and, later, Joanna Cartwright, demonstrate he is no longer ‘lukewarm’, an option Spark has dismissed in the face of Eichmann.

In some ways, The Mandelbaum Gate is Spark’s most fully rounded work, but it is not her most successful. Her brilliance seems to be diluted in the attempt to create characters with detailed back stories (not only the English characters, but the Ramdez family and Alexandros) in a three dimensional setting. It is worth noting that in the novels which immediately followed, The Public Image and The Driver’s Seat, she would leave realism entirely behind.

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The Girls of Slender Means

May 8, 2018

“Long ago in 1945,” begins and ends Muriel Spark’s 1963 novel The Girls of Slender Means, “all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions.” Spark’s seventh novel is set squarely in the post-war period, beginning with the VE Day celebrations in May, and ending with VJ Day in August, but, as Norman Page points out, it opens with a “phrase that seems to blend the precision of history with the romantic vagueness of a fairy-tale.” The end of the war is recognised as a time of change:

“The next day everyone began to consider where they personally stood in the new order of things.”

As a fellow poet quoting Cavafy to Nicholas Farringdon wonders, “What will become of us without Barbarians?” Things will certainly change considerably for Farringdon over the course of the novel, which tells the story of his conversion, but, as Spark typically cuts between past and present, his death is reported in the first few pages:

“Do you remember Nicholas Farringdon?… he’s been martyred… Martyred in Haiti. Killed. Remember he became a Brother – ”

In 1945 Farringdon has yet to meet the girls of slender means, the girls of the May of Teck Club, a hostel which “exists for the Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years, who are obliged to reside apart from their Families in order to follow an Occupation in London.” He is introduced to the Club by Jane, a publisher’s assistant, who has been assigned him and his book, The Sabbath Notebooks , by her employer, George (at least that is the latest in a number of names he has answered to over the years).

“After a year George allowed he to do some of the detective work on new authors, which he was convinced was essential to the publishing trade, and to find out their financial circumstances and psychological weak spots so that he could deal with them to a publisher’s best advantage… She had now been given Nicholas Farringdon to work on.”

Like the Colonel, Farringdon “seemed to be in love with the entire club, Selina being the centre and practical focus of his feelings in this respect.” He is particularly admiring of Selina’s poise – she is described as “stepping ahead of him into the evening light like a racer into the paddock, with a high disregard of all surrounding noises” – and sets out to seduce her:

“All through the first three weeks of July Nicholas wooed Selina and at the same time cultivated Jane and others of the May of Teck Club.”

Selina is also at the centre of Farringdon’s conversion, a climax which Spark carefully prepares the reader for through a number of seemingly comic incidents: Greggie’s “suspicion that there was a second bomb that didn’t go off” when explaining the hollow in the garden; the Schiaparelli dress which the girls swap amongst themselves; and the bathroom window which allows access to the roof through which only a few of the (slenderest) girls can squeeze:

“Among the top floor members only Selina Redwood and Ann Baberton could manage to wriggle through the lavatory window, and Anne only managed it naked, having made her body slippery with margarine.”

It is on the roof that Farringdon will make love to Selina, and later “witness that act of savagery so extreme that it forced him involuntary to make an entirely unaccustomed gesture, the signing of the cross upon himself.”

As usual, Spark’s extensive cast are portrayed with minimalist perfection. Joanna Childe, a rector’s daughter who teaches elocution, is characterised as:

“…the poetic essence of all tall, fair rector’s daughters who never used a scrap of make-up, who had served tirelessly day and night in parish welfare… who before that had been Head Girl and who never wept that anyone knew or could imagine, being stoical by nature.”

Jane is “fat but intellectually glamorous” using her ‘brain work’ as an excuse to indulge her appetite. (“She ate a square of chocolate to keep her brain going till supper time.”) A minor character, Pauline Fox, leaves every night to have dinner with Jack Buchanan; in fact, she simply circles the park in a taxi. When she is discovered returning early she exclaims, “Oh! Don’t talk to me. We’ve had a row.” Like a great caricaturist, Spark can sketch a distinct and recognisable figure with only a few lines.

Lest we forget, however, amid the comedy we find frequent references to the cost of living, to getting by (Jane’s infallible method of getting rid of unwanted intrusions is to ask for a loan of 15 shillings). In contrast, the text is littered with the lines of poetry Joanna recites to her pupils, each random recitation eerily apposite on closer consideration. And slowly, unnoticeably, Spark tightens the tension towards the novel’s violent epiphany. It is a novel which feels so perfectly formed, a word out of place might change it; so perfectly formed we might even forgive the author for rewarding the wicked and punishing the good.

The Bachelors

April 11, 2018

Reading Muriel Spark this year will be mostly re-reading; in fact, there are only two of her novels that I haven’t read at least once before: The Mandelbaum Gate and The Bachelors. The former results from foolishly placing the book unread among all her others where it has lain low ever since; the latter from a rare false start. Spark’s beginnings are generally addictive, her novels demanding to be devoured, preferably in a single sitting, all the better to appreciate the lines which echo through the pages. The Bachelors, however, felt stuffy and stand-offish and was put aside, jilted and (in quite another way) on the shelf.

The Bachelors is perhaps Spark’s most naturalistic novel, a fact suggested in the plethora of place names which feature in its opening lines. We meet the first bachelors – Matthew, a barrister, and Ronald, a graphologist – discussing their shopping in a scene that was possibly more amusing in 1960 when the novel was published. Ronald is epileptic, something which has ruled him out of the priesthood and also, he believes, marriage:

“I’ve got my epilepsy as an alibi.”

Ronald is the closest we have to a hero in the novel, his profession as a graphologist gaining him “a reputation in the detection of forgeries” in a novel about false faiths. His antithesis, Patrick Seton, stands accused of forging the signature of Freda Flower in order to defraud her of £2,000 – Ronald will be called as an expert witness in the trial, and Matthew will prosecute. Patrick proclaims his innocence to his pregnant girlfriend, Alice, and her friend Elsie:

“I’ll be acquitted… It’s the case of a jealous, frustrated woman trying to get her own back on me.”

Alice is devoted to Patrick but refuses to have the abortion he requests. Spark uses Elsie to suggest Patrick’s devotion to Alice is not as whole-hearted as he pretends, asking about his forthcoming divorce (which would allow him to marry Alice) and hinting that she does not entirely trust him to give Alice her insulin:

“Elsie looked at him suspiciously. ‘I hope you do give her the injection regularly,’ she said. ‘She needs taking care of.’”

Patrick is a medium, spiritualism being one of the false faiths of the novel. Spark, naturally, has some fun with this, including comments about ridding the séance of ‘cranks’ as “they lower the tone,” and a wonderfully comic set-piece in which Patrick, channelling Freda Flower’s dead husband, warns her about continuing with the forgery prosecution, while Freda’s self-styled protector, a clairvoyant called Mike Garland, attempts to intervene.

Ironically, while Patrick’s life is based on falsehood, he is presented as possessing the spiritual powers he claims to (Spark’s ‘nevertheless’ principle – as one character says, “I suppose he could be a genuine medium… and a fraud in other respects”). It is this, for example, which allows him to blackmail Dr Lyte, whom he first observes as a “shaken stranger” at a séance as he comes out of his trance:

“Patrick rapidly appreciated that he had said something in his trance that had truly got its mark. ‘How exactly did you know?’ Dr Lyte said in a way which was very different from his nice clothes.”

It is in his conversations with Dr Lyte, whose isolated chalet in the mountains he intends to take Alice to after the trial, that we learn of Patrick’s plan to murder her, giving the novel the under-stated undercurrent of violence so common in Spark’s work:

“How long does it take… for a diabetic person to die if they deprive themselves of insulin?”

Where Patrick has his trances, Ronald has his epilepsy, which is also seen by some as a spiritual gift. He, too, is sought out for advice:

“It was as if they held some sort of ancient superstition about his epilepsy: ‘the falling sickness’, ‘the sacred disease’, ‘the evil spirit’. Ronald felt he was regarded by his friends as a sacred cow or a wise monkey.”

Later he tells Matthew, “Everyone consults me about their marriages.” When he goes to ask Elsie to return Patrick’s forged letter (which she has stolen from him) she tells him about her sex life:

“I don’t know why I’m telling you this in the first five minutes.”

She offers to return the letter if he will sleep with her but he refuses. Though it goes against his interests, he is unfailingly honest with her:

“’If I give you the letter now,’ she said, ‘will you come back again some time?’
‘It’s unlikely,’ he said…
‘If I don’t give you the letter what will you do?’
‘I’ll come back and try again.’
‘Christ!’ she said, ‘You’re driving me mad.’”

Ultimately, though, Ronald is rather a nondescript hero, and Patrick a more everyday villain than Dougal Douglas or Jean Brodie. Its short time span (four days) and large cast make it feel rather crammed. While The Bachelors is successfully in its own terms, these terms seem rather limited compared to Spark’s other work.

The Ballad of Peckham Rye

February 23, 2018

Though Jean Brodie deserves her place among literature’s icons, my favourite Spark character features in her 1960 novel, The Ballad of Peckham Rye. Dougal Douglas, despite the London location, and as the name rather gives away, is also Scottish, having recently graduated from Edinburgh University and claiming at one point to possess Highland blood (and second sight). Brodie famously descended from Deacon Brodie, the inspiration for Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; Douglas owes at least something to Gil-Martin, the shape-shifting devil from Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Though he is not quite so emphatic in his intention to damn souls, he acts as an agent of chaos and temptation influencing the behaviour of many around him.

The novel begins, as so often with Spark, with a flash forward as Humphrey attempts to speak to his erstwhile fiancée, Dixie, only to be told by her mother, Mavis, to “Get away from here you dirty swine.” It is soon revealed that the cause of Mavis’ anger is Humphrey’s decision to answer ‘No’ at the wedding ceremony, something, we are told, that “wouldn’t have happened if Dougal Douglas hadn’t come here.”

Dougal’s diabolical credentials are scattered liberally, and comically, throughout the novel. We are told he poses on a grave “like an angel-devil with his hump shoulder and gleaming smile,” and he will tell a number of characters to feel the bumps on his head where he has had his horns removed, though denying he is the Devil himself:

“I’m only supposed to be one of the wicked spirits that wander through the world for the ruin of souls.”

His powers of persuasion are immediately linked to his ability to change shape, as he does when being interviewed by Mr Druce of Meadows, Meade and Grindley:

“Dougal changed his shape and became a professor… Dougal leaned forward and became a television interviewer.”

(Dougal’s appointment is the result of a desire to hire an ‘arts man’ – we might wonder if it is the dark arts). Much of this treads a fine line between creepy and comic, and Spark indulges in a shape-shifting extravaganza when he visits a dance hall with a dustbin lid:

“Next, Dougal sat on his haunches and banged a message out on a tom-tom. He sprang up and with the lid on his head was a Chinese coolie eating melancholy rice. He was an ardent cyclist, crouched over handlebars and pedalling uphill with the lid between his knees.”

The other dancers are divided in their opinion of Douglas’ entertainment, just as he divides the community of Peckham Rye as a whole. While Humphrey and Merle, Druce’s secretary and lover, are very much on his side; Dixie and Trevor Lomas are set against him from the start. What is certain is the influence Dougal exerts on the other characters. Humphrey is seen to copy him unconsciously, “his head lolled on the back of the chair, copying one of Dougal’s habitual poses.” Dixie complains, “He’s putting ideas in your head.” Merle, too, is aware of his influence:
“You’ve unsettled me, Dougal, since you came to Peckham. I shall have a nervous breakdown.”

Dougal’s unsettling presence raises questions of how we should live our lives. Dixie’s desire to save up “a certain sum” before they marry irritates Humphrey (“It’s all she can think of, saving up to get married.”) and contrasts with her mother’s life when she was younger:

“Saving and pinching to get married, you’re losing the best time of your life.”

Numerous characters – Merle, Druce, Mavis – talk about ‘living a lie’. Dougal’s approach, on the other hand, seems care-free and capricious: “Oh, everything’s easy for you,” Merle tells him, “You’re free.” Tasked with reducing absenteeism he tells everyone to take time off (“Everyone should take Mondays off.”) He happily goes for the same job at a rival company simply reversing his name and becoming Douglas Dougal. Meanwhile he is also ghost-writing Maria Cheeseman’s autobiography, adapting stories from his “human research” in Peckham into her life:

“If you only wanted a straight autobiography you should have got a straight ghost. I’m crooked.”

As with Brodie, his charismatic disregard for the rules ultimately leads to violence. The wedding scandal, as it turns out, is not the worst of the chaos he leaves in his wake. Dougal, then, again like Brodie, leaves us both awed and appalled, as Spark recognises the damage he induces while delighting in the way he shakes things up. As the final lines suggest, if nothing else, he forces us to see things differently.

Momento Mori

January 26, 2018

“Being over seventy is like being engaged in a war,” remarks Miss Taylor from her bed in the Maud Long Medical Ward, “All our friends are going or gone and we survive amongst the dead and dying as on a battlefield.” Muriel Spark’s Momento Mori reads like a report from the front line: its extensive cast of characters are almost all over seventy, besieged by their failing bodies and fading minds, though often in denial regarding their mortality. Spark described the novel’s origins in ‘How I Became a Novelist’:

“I decided to write a book about old people. It happened that a number of old people I had known as a child in Edinburgh were dying from one cause or another, and on my visits to Edinburgh I sometimes accompanied my mother to see them in hospital… They were paralysed or crippled in body, yet were still exerting characteristic influences on those around them and in the world outside. I saw a tragic side to this situation and a comic side as well.”

The novel’s observation of the tragedy and comedy of old age is punctuated by a series of anonymous phone calls. Dame Lettie is the principal victim: “Just the same words – Remember you must die – nothing more.” “Of course the man’s mad,” she tells the police; “a maniac” according to her brother Godfrey. As the phone calls proliferate, their supernatural origin becomes more likely, particularly as each person hears a different voice, but Miss Taylor is one of only two characters prepared to accept the truth:

“In my belief… the author of the anonymous telephone calls is Death himself, as you might say… If you don’t remember Death, Death reminds you to do so.”

The other characters continue to fight the battles of life despite the fact that death is all around, from the daily reading of the obituary columns to the nightly dying of the grannies in the geriatric ward. Godfrey bullies his wife Charmian, once a successful novelist: terrified of her superiority he constantly corrects her failing memory. His well-being relies on the deterioration of others:

“He thought in how much better form he was than his sister, though she was the younger, only seventy-nine.”

When an old acquaintance, Guy Leet, appears at a funeral supported by two sticks, he immediately thinks, “He can’t be more than seventy-five and just see what he’s come to.” Godfrey, we are told, “was obsessed by the question of old people and their faculties.” Lettie, too, dismisses any remark by Miss Taylor she dislikes as “wandering again.” Alec Warner notes the behaviour of his peer group on cards and in a diary which he intends to be destroyed at his death:

“…but his every morning’s work was to analyse and abstract from it the data for his case histories, entering them in the various methodical notebooks.”

The characters are also in in thrall to their own pasts: affairs and infidelities which happened fifty years before still illicit secrecy and resentment. Godfrey finds himself blackmailed by Miss Pettigrew over events which Charmian is well aware of. Even now he cannot escape the lure of sex, paying a young woman to reveal her stocking tops to him. Alec, on meeting Miss Pettigrew, notes “these erotic throes that come like thieves in the night.” Spark’s target is the inability of her characters to age gracefully – the frequent changing of wills is only one example – which she relates directly to their refusal to heed the advice and contemplate death. Reaction to the phone calls acts as a moral barometer for the reader.

As in a number of Spark’s novels, there are playful echoes of the crime genre, with much of the plot characterised as a fruitless investigation into the provenance of the calls. With typical black comedy, when violence does occur its origin lies in the fear occasioned by the mysterious messages, but the danger itself comes from a far more prosaic quarter. Spark also scatters writers throughout the novel – not only Charmian (and her estranged son, Eric), but Alec with his obsessive observations, asking, for example, when he hears that poet Percy Mannering intends to confront Guy Leet over his memoirs, that Guy:

“…assist me by taking the old fellow’s pulse and temperature as soon as it can conveniently be done…”

Equally scathing of both romance and realism, Spark asserts her rejection of both.

Momento Mori is often considered one of Spark’s most successful novels. Alan Bold has thought it as “an artistic advance over her first two novels in that both major and minor characters have depth.” According to Allan Massie it is “a complex, witty, macabre novel where all of Muriel Spark’s gifts seem to come together.” It perfectly captures both the comedy and tragedy of ageing while daring a streak of surrealism which, like death itself, is both improbable and certain.

The Public Image

November 3, 2017

The Booker short-listed The Public Image was Muriel Spark’s ninth novel, appearing just before the more experimental The Driver’s Seat in 1970. Of all her pointed (or perhaps pointing) titles it is perhaps the most on point as the novel dissect the lengths to which an English actress, Annabel Christopher, will go to protect her public image, and the lengths her husband, Frederick, will go to destroy it. It has a rather tame beginning for Spark as we meet Annabel in the all but empty house she is moving into in Rome. The house, bought to bolster her reputation as a film star (as her husband’s friend, Billy, comments, “Is this all in aid of your public image?”), also echoes her public life – showy, empty and, as she comments when Billy simply walks in, lacking in privacy:

“…she had observed before that when people were in the process of moving into a new house, and until the furniture had arrived and been put in place, everyone felt they could come and go, like the workmen and the removal men, without permission.”

The pared back setting also reflects the novel as a whole, which does not feel as richly present in place as the Edinburgh of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie or the London of The Girls of Slender Means. Like a stage set, the house will also be, flashbacks aside, almost the only setting.

Annabel is unapologetically presented by Spark as a very ordinary woman who has been thrust into the spotlight of stardom. The detached cruelty of the narrative voice informs us:

“…she had no mean of knowing that she was, in fact, stupid for, after all, it is the deep core of stupidity that thrives on the absence of a looking glass.”

As Frederick tells her, “You can’t act. You’re just lucky to get parts.” It is Frederick’s assumption of his intellectual superiority which leads him to believe he can ruin her by attacking her public image, but Annabel understands that he, too, is playing a part:

“…if only for effect, he had cultivated a private self-image of seriousness, and that she was a threat to it.”

In Annabel’s eyes it is just as much a “role” as the part he plays in the public image of their marriage, “impeccably formal by the light of day, voluptuously enamoured of each other under the cover of night.” In the novel, public image is not restricted to that presented to the media, but is also that we present to others, and ourselves.

Frederick’s plan to undermine the lie of her public image (their happy marriage) with another lie is the one true Sparkian touch in a novel where the satire can, at times, seem commonplace today. Having been missing for days, Annabel discovers that he has invited every friend, acquaintance and hanger-on to a house-warming party. As the guests pile in, much to Annabel’s bemusement, Frederick is meanwhile committing suicide, leaving behind a number of letters (including one to his dead mother) suggesting that he has taken his own life as a result of Annabel’s promiscuous behaviour (the word “orgy” is bandied about widely in the novel, as Spark, in typical fashion, reduces the most shocking aspect of Fredrick’s contrived scandal to amusement with repetition).

In what follows, Annabel attempts to immediately counteract Fredrick’s plot:

“I must say something to the press now, or it will be too late for the morning papers. Things like this are easily misconstrued, and I don’t want the world to get the wrong story.”

She gathers her neighbours around her in a scene we might expect an old master to paint rather than the press to photograph. Her director, Luigi, is doubtful (“Stop the orgy story? How do you stop the waves of the sea?”) but she is determined.

Spark allows Annabel a route to redemption through her baby. The fact that her son is referred to as “the baby” throughout suggests, at first, he is little more than a prop, and Annabel certainly uses him to prop up her public image and excuse herself from tiresome situations. Whether the initial cynicism is Annabel’s or the reader’s, Spark slowly reveals that, not only is her love genuine, but that it supersedes the need to retain her fame. The novel’s lyrical ending, where Annabel literally embraces her child, also acts as riposte to Frederick’s claim that she is “an empty shell”:

“Nobody recognised her as she stood, having moved the baby to rest on her hip, conscious also of the baby in a sense weightlessly and perpetually within her, as an empty shell contains, by its very structure, the echo and harking image of former and former seas.”

For all that Annabel is butt of her more obvious satire, Spark ultimately champions her against the attempts of the more ‘intelligent’ men around her to manipulate and control her life.

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.

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.