Posts Tagged ‘muriel spark’

Territorial Rights

December 28, 2018

The uncovering of secrets is a common feature of Muriel Spark’s novels. In her first novel, The Comforters, for example, Laurence discovers his grandmother is involved in a diamond smuggling ring. And where there are secrets, blackmail inevitably follows – as we see in her second novel, Robinson, when Tom insinuates Robinson “isn’t a man for the ladies.” The threat of blackmail continues to feature in many of the novels that follow, and is particularly prevalent in her 1979 novel Territorial Rights, where almost every character seems to have something to hide.

The novel takes place among the canals of Venice, where the coincidental arrival of a series of inter-connected foreigners leads to a complex ravelling and unravelling of their lives. First to arrive is art student Robert Leaver who has left his older lover Mark Curran (“He preferred to be called ‘Curran’ rather than by his Christian name, for reasons which, when he gave them, were difficult to puzzle out…”) in pursuit of Lina Pancev, a Bulgarian artist who is searching for the grave of her murdered father. He is soon followed by Curran, and, more unexpectedly, by his father, Arnold, who is holidaying with his “former colleague” (and lover), Mary Tiller. Into this already volatile mix will later appear the former matron of the school where Arnold was Headmaster, Grace Gregory, with her former pupil (and lover), Leo, ostensibly keeping an eye on Arnold on behalf of his wife, Anthea.

The secret at the heart of the novel is the death of Lina’s father, Victor, whom Curran knew:

“He was suspected of being part of a plot to poison King Boris, who in fact died of poisoning. Pancev got away but the Bulgarian royalists caught up with him and killed him in 1945.”

In fact, Curran knows more about his death than he tells Robert, including his final resting place – or places, as the corpse was cut in two – which just happens to be the garden of the Pensione Sofia where Robert is staying. The two elderly owners of the Pensione, Eufemia and Katerina, are also implicated, as is Violet de Winter, an old friend of Curran’s and the “chief agent for Global-Equip Security Services Ltd for northern Italy and adjacent territories”, the detective agency hired by Anthea to track down her husband (and amusingly reduced to the acronym GESS). Curran, who was a German agent at the time, is keen that the story of Victor’s death – and his graves – is left alone, but, when Robert disappears, he is threatened with exposure by his ‘kidnappers’. (Ironically the other secrets in the novel – Arnold’s affair, Robert’s homosexuality – are known by all).

Anyone who has been watching the recent BBC series Trust, about the kidnap of John Paul Getty III in Italy – the kidnap was originally his idea – will recognise something of this in Robert’s disappearance. Here it is played more lightly, to the point of farce when Lina returns to Curran a briefcase full of money which he has left for the kidnappers, thinking he has forgotten it. The kidnap is only one example of the novel’s topicality: Middle Eastern terrorism makes an appearance in its denouement, and Lina’s defection from the Soviet Bloc also seems symptomatic of the decade, although in Spark’s version of this story she frequently askes herself, “What have we defected for?” and is threatened with expulsion by Bulgarian expatriate group who support her financially. When her cousin, Serge, appears to take her home, his main criticism is of her art, a picture of men fishing:

“They look too prosperous and contented… In the west, the proletariat are not like that. You are painting propaganda.”

In fact, her painting seems simply banal, and not the only example of would-be art and artists in the novel. Curran, too, claims to be an artist, and Spark intersperses Anthea’s appearances with excerpts from the kitchen sink fiction she reads before bed.

This emphasis on modernity seems appropriate in a novel which depicts the passing of the baton from one generation to the next. Curran is a man of wealth and influence; Robert says of him:

“Curran would believe he was God if he believed in God. All his life Curran has commanded the morning and caused the dayspring to know its place.”

Curran himself claims, “I never feel guilty. Even when I know I should.” It is protégé, Robert, however, who gets the better of him, representing a new generation which is, if anything, even less moral. Robert’s ‘kidnap’ is described as “the beginning of Robert’s happy days, the fine fruition of his youth,” and it is him we think of when Grace tells Anthea:

“You’re mistaken if you think wrong-doers are always unhappy… The really professional evil-doers love it.”

Territorial Rights is one of Spark’s funniest novels: the satire is less biting and the authorial judgement more benevolent. Spark handles her extensive cast of characters with her usual skill, and even the darkest comedy (as when Robert encourages Lina to dance unwittingly on her father’s grave) has a light touch. If it is not one of Spark’s best novels, it is one of her most enjoyable.

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The Takeover

November 23, 2018

Reading Muriel Spark’s seventies novels (The Takeover was published in 1976) it becomes increasingly apparent that she was, in her idiosyncratic manner, a crime novelist. Violence has always been just beneath the surface in her work (take, for example, The Ballad of Peckham Rye), but her Italian novels in particular seethe with criminality and corruption. Rather than a cast of characters who may be guilty – the task of the reader (and the detective) being to discover which one is indeed to blame – we can assume all her characters are guilty, the only question being, of what?

Three houses in Nemi dominate The Takeover, all built by Maggie Radcliffe: in one live her son, Michael, and daughter-in-law, Mary; another is rented to an Italian family; and the third is the home of Hubert Mallindaine, a one-time friend of Maggie’s whose rent-free residence has become an irritant to her since her second marriage. Hubert refuses to leave and Maggie seems unable to remove him. As Mary says:

“She wants Hubert to go. He says he won’t and he can’t pay rent. She’s going to put him out. The furniture belongs to Maggie as well. But my, she’s finding it difficult. The laws in this country… Hubert might get around them forever.”

(One can’t help feel that the lack of recourse to law – Maggie also fears a ‘scandal’ – is part of the attraction of the Italian setting as in Spark’s world a belief in earthly justice is seen as foolish). Hubert also feels he has a personal claim on the property:

“More Italian in origin than me you could not be…a direct descendent of a union between the Roman Emperor Caligula and the goddess Diana, here at Nemi.”

It is this belief that will lead Hubert to later create his own cult as a way of ensuring a continuing income now that Maggie is no longer supporting him. He is also planning for his future by having her Louis XIV chairs and valuable paintings forged so that he can sell the originals, a process that Maggie is paying for under the belief that the items are being maintained. Hubert is taking over her house, literally piece by piece, but also fears he is vulnerable:

“We mustn’t leave the house unguarded in case they suddenly swoop and stage a takeover.”

For Letizia, the Italian neighbour, “with her youth dedicated to an ideal plan of territorial nationalism”, the takeover is rich foreigners like Maggie buying Italian land. If all this seems almost playful, Spark ensures we understand what is at stake by referencing The Golden Bough, quoting Frazer’s description of the priest at Nemi being replaced when a challenger kills him – “if he slew him he reigned in his stead.” Frazer, like Spark, was acutely aware of the violence which lies beneath our stories.

Attempts to oust Hubert, and Hubert’s plans to outwit them, represent only a fraction of the plotting and deception which occurs in the novel. Maggie’s Italian lawyer, for example, sides with Hubert, going so far as to arrange a false medical certificate for him. She is also duped into losing her fortune to a fraudster, but retaliates by arranging to have him kidnapped so she can be repaid via a ransom. Her jewellery, despite elaborate attempts to hide it in a kitchen step, is stolen, not once, but twice, and Berto, her husband, unwittingly invites a pair of art thieves to lunch only for Mary to spot her Gauguin (which Hubert has replaced with a fake) in their catalogue. Infidelity is also rife, with Lauro, previously Hubert’s secretary and lover, now servant in Mary’s house, sleeping with both her and Maggie.

It is Lauro who ultimately comes out on top by marrying into the family who, in fact, own the lands on which the houses are built – Maggie has been fooled yet again. This should not be read as a victory for the workers – Lauro is just as scheming and mercenary as any other character. There is an argument to be made that Maggie ends the novel happier. Her final transformation may be superficial – she dresses herself “so like a tramp that the chauffeur failed to recognise her at first”:

“My clothes are a symbol of my new poverty, of course. And then, dressed like this, one hopes to avoid being kidnapped.”

But, without the need to remove Hubert from her house, they are able to talk to each other again. When Hubert is told, regarding the house, “It does not exist. How can it exist? It is not on the records.” Spark is reminding us that material possessions are transitory and only the spiritual is real:

“Truth… is not literally true. The literal truth is a common little concept, born of the materialistic mind.”

We cannot look to Spark to provide justice, or even guilt, but there is always a suggestion that redemption is possible.

The Abbess of Crewe

October 28, 2018

As Muriel Sparks’ twelfth novel, The Abbess of Crewe, begins, Britain is immersed in the “national scandal of the nuns”:

“The motorway from London to Crewe is jammed with reporters”

The scandal bears many intentional, if superficial, resemblances to Watergate, which began in 1972, and finally resulted in Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974, the year the novel was published: wire-tapping, for example, is wide-spread in the abbey. Under the instructions of Alexandra, the newly elected Abbess, even the avenue of meditation is listening:

“The trees of course are bugged… How else can we operate now the scandal rages outside the walls?”

Behind this electronic subterfuge, as with Nixon, lies Alexandra’s desire to be elected. When one of her confidantes, Walburga, comments that her rival, Felicity, is at forty-two percent in the polls (typically, the novel retreats in the second chapter to the weeks before the election), she declares:

“It’s quite alarming… seeing that to be the Abbess of Crewe is my destiny.”

In this belief she shares something of the character of Jean Brodie, confusing her own personal wishes with fate. Like Brodie, she is a character both reprehensible and attractive, one it is difficult to feel Spark condemns completely. She believes herself superior with her “fourteen generations of pale and ruling ancestors of England, and ten before them of France, carved into the bones of her wonderful head.”

Felicity, on the other hand, represents a more modern form of Catholicism, roundly dismissed by Alexandra:

“Felicity will never see the point of faith unless it benefits mankind.”

Her weak spot is her affair with a Jesuit priest, Thomas, and Alexandra’s inner circle plot with the Jesuits against her:

“We could deal with Felicity very well… if you could deal with Thomas.”

The plot, of course, involves a break-in – to steal Felicity’s love letters, which she has secreted in her sewing box. Foolishly, the two Jesuit priests assigned this task take her thimble on a practise run to prove the theft is possible and, when they return for the letters, they are caught. Alexandra, in the meantime, is keen to retain what is now known as plausible deniability:

“You know, Walburga… from this moment on, you may not report such things to me.”

The novel does not really work as a satire – nor is it likely it is intended to. Spark generally finds immoral behaviour amusing and tends to mock rather than attack. As Alexandra puts it, “We are corrupt by our nature in the Fall of Man… O happy flaw!” Generally the novel is much more light-hearted than those which have preceded it, with jokes – “Gertrude should have been a man… With her moustache, you can see that” – and elements of farce, such as when a blackmail payment to the Jesuits takes place in a woman’s toilet requiring one of the priests to dress in drag. Gertrude, a perpetual missionary contacted by Alexandra for advice by phone (and always in a different location), might be seen as the voice of reason, but even she exists in an exaggerated reality, at one point negotiating a truce between a tribe of cannibals and a tribe of vegetarians.

Spark does not deal in problems and solutions, but in paradoxes and, as Gertrude tells Alexandra when asked “how one treats a paradox”:

“A paradox you live with.”

Paradoxes are everywhere in the text, even at the end, when Alexandra is told, “you may have the public mythology of the press and television but you won’t get the mythological approach from Rome. In Rome, they deal with realities.”

The Abbess of Crewe is a delight – clearly if a sitcom in a nunnery was required Spark should have been first in line to script it. And in Alexandra we have one of Spark’s most memorable characters: corrupt, cruel, and yet compelling, and, in the end (like Brodie), immune to guilt.

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.

Not to Disturb

August 8, 2018

As the second chapter of Not to Disturb opens, Muriel Spark pauses to describe the long drawing room in Baron Klopstock’s expansive country house: “Many objects in this large room are on a miniature scale,” we are told, including a group of “what appear to be family portraits.” Have the Klopstocks always inclined towards miniatures, the narrative voice speculates, or perhaps:

“…these little portraits have been cleverly copied, more recently, from some more probable larger originals.”

Not to Disturb, the most miniature of Spark’s novels, also feels as if it has been distilled from something larger and more probable. Borrowing from many genres – the Gothic (a storm literally lights up its middle section), the country house murder (with its own locked room scenario), and the aristocratic sagas of Waugh and Powell (amusingly the BBC series Upstairs Downstairs premiered the year it was published) – it retains the unities of time and place associated with classical drama, delivering five chapters in place of five acts. As Peter Kemp has pointed out:

“Its narrative technique – all characters are externally presented, only their actions and their speech recorded – brings it close to a transcript of something occurring on stage.”

The action takes place ‘above stairs’ but the Baron and Baroness barely feature, arriving separately only to lock themselves in a room with one of their secretaries, Victor P, delivering strict instructions that they are not to be disturbed. As in a Jacobean tragedy (Webster is quoted on the opening page), however, their fate has already been decided, as Lister, the butler, explains:

“To all intents and purposes they are already dead although as a matter of banal fact, the night’s business has still to accomplish itself.”

“They haunt the house like insubstantial bodies while still alive,” he later says; and when Mr McGuire refuses to believe the Baron is ‘no more’ as he can hear his voice, Lister replies: “Let us not strain after vulgar chronology.” The two friends which Victor arrives with are dismissed: “They don’t come into the story.”

Lister is the mastermind behind the servants’ scheme. Their intention is to make as much money as they can by selling the Baron and Baroness’s scandalous story to the press (privileged journalists are already waiting in a hotel room), as well as Hollywood:

“The popular glossy magazines have replaced the servants’ hall in modern society. Our position of privilege is unparalleled in history.”

Even when wrong-footed, Lister quickly adapts. Discovering that the madman in the attic (a further Gothic twist) is the Baron’s brother, rather than a relative of the Baroness, and therefore his heir, he arranges an immediate marriage to a pregnant housemaid.

The Baron and Baroness’ life is, indeed, scandalous, one in which sexual gratification, with numerous partners, plays the central role. (“The Baron Klopstocks were obsessed with sex.”) That this is entirely superficial and emotionless suggests that ‘not to disturb’ might be a family motto. Ironically, their deaths are expected as a result of the Baroness not “playing the game” – as one of the servants comments, “she did a Lady Chatterley on him,” that is fell in love with one of her many lovers – Victor. This internal change is noticed by others externally – for example, when she stops dying her hair:

“Why did she suddenly start to go natural? She must have started to be sincere with someone.”

Her sincerity is unique in a novel where appearance is all we have, and it is made quite clear that cannot be trusted. The Baron’s house is filled with antique furniture but only recently built. The parquet floor, for example, belonged to a foreign king who took it with him when he had to flee his homeland:

“Royalty always do when they have to leave. They take everything, like stage companies who need their props.”

Meanwhile Lister stage-manages photographs for the press, and taped interviews, susceptible to editing. Even the jokes make the same point:

“’You look like a Secretary of State.’
‘Thank you sir,’ says Lister.
‘It isn’t a compliment,’ says the prince.”

Not to Disturb is Spark at her sharpest, shining the pinhead while pressing it home:

“One of my motives is to provoke the reader; to startle as well as to please.”

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.

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.

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.