Posts Tagged ‘hothouse by the east river’

The Hothouse by the East River

September 30, 2018

Having toyed with the murder mystery (without murder or mystery) in Not to Disturb, Spark turned her hand to a different genre in The Hothouse by the East River: the ghost story. Once again, she subverts the reader’s expectations (Peter Kemp has described the novel as an “expectation-jarring parody”) by creating a ghost story in which the dead are haunted by the living.

Elsa, in her usual place in the titular New York apartment, sitting by the window gazing out at the river, tells her husband, Paul, that she met an old acquaintance while shopping for shoes: Helmut Kiel. Kiel was a German POW whom they met in England during the war working at The Compound, “a small outpost of British Intelligence in the heart of the countryside.” The only problem is they both believed Kiel to be dead. Later Elsa is dismissive – “The man can’t be Kiel, he’s young enough to be Kiel’s son” – but the idea has already taken root in Paul’s mind, his concern that the past has caught up with them exacerbated by his believe that Kiel and Elsa had an affair in 1944.

As the present becomes stranger and stranger – Paul believes he has spotted a coded message on the soles of her new boots – the past is presented as reliable and certain:

“In the summer of 1944…life was more vivid than it is now. Everything was more distinct.”

(Later Paul will declare, “Back in 1944 when people were normal and there was a world war on…”). Spark, in her conceit, captures the feeling of many that life during the war was somehow more ‘real’; it is ‘factual’ (and presumably partly autobiographical) as opposed to the ‘fictional’ world of present day New York. Part of that falseness is the American obsession with psychiatry. The city is described as:

“New York, home of the vivisectors of the mind, and of the mentally vivisected still to be reassembled, of those who live intact, habitually wondering about their states of sanity, and home of those whose minds have been dead, bearing the scars of resurrection.”

Paul cannot decide whether Elsa, whose sanity he believes to be precarious, is going mad:

“Is she sly and sophisticated, not mad after all?”

Spark places little faith in her psychiatrist, Garven, at one point reducing him to a more obviously servile role when he replaces Elsa’s maid. When Elsa says, “He’s looking for the cause and all I’m giving him are effects,” the comment seems playfully aimed at the reader too.

Meanwhile, Paul and Elsa’s son, Pierre, is staging Peter Pan using only geriatric actors. “To die,” Barrie suggests, “will be an awfully big adventure,” and Spark has used this as her starting point, stripping it of all sentimentality. That Paul and Elsa are not what they first appear is hinted at from the opening pages. Elsa’s shadow (another Pan reference) is frequently mentioned as casting in “the wrong direction”:

“He sees her shadow cast on the curtain, not on the floor where it should be.”

In one scene, both amusing and grotesque, another colleague from The Compound, Princess Xavier, who has secreted silk worm eggs in her bosom, causes alarm when they hatch, giving her the appearance of a rotting corpse. The ‘hothouse’ itself is a purgatory, “the air quivers with central heating that cannot be turned off very far.”

If Elsa seems mad, it is in fact Paul who is deluded, believing that Elsa is a ghost he has summoned, telling her to:

“Go back, go back to the grave from where I called you.”

As Elsa reveals to him, however, he “died too… That’s one of the things you don’t realise, Paul.” (Perhaps it is significant that the river Lethe in Hades is usually pictured as the easternmost). In the near-farce of the novel’s final scenes, Paul and Elsa are chased by their dead colleagues through the streets of New York, city of the living dead, until they finally accept their fate.

The Hothouse by the East River is another sharp, satirical, subversive Spark novel, the abandon of its more surreal moments tempered by its serious intent.

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