Posts Tagged ‘muriel spark’

The Best of Muriel Spark

September 14, 2021

In 2018, on the 100th anniversary of Muriel Spark’s birth, I decided to spend the year reading her 22 novels in order. With rather less efficiency than Spark herself, who wrote a novel a year between her debut, The Comforters, in 1957, and The Mandelbaum Gate in 1965, I finally finished her final novel, The Finishing School, in January this year. Here are my five favourites:

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)

I make no apology for including Spark’s most famous novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. It survives in the public imagination because Brodie has transcended the novel itself – which seems appropriate for a character who places such importance on being special. Her pupils, after all, are the crème de la crème, and even Mary McGregor, “a silent lump, a nobody whom everybody could blame” is famous for these qualities in Brodie’s eyes. Brodie, of course, has a darker side, as an admirer of Mussolini, and later Hitler (“more reliable than Mussolini”), and as a manipulator of young girls: “Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life.” Her early influence becomes something altogether more unsettling when we discover that she intends for Rose to sleep with Teddy Lloyd, the man she loves, in her place. Brodie is never in any doubt that God is on her side but God, of courses, is in the narrative, which flits backwards and forwards revealing effect before cause as only God can. She remains the greatest of Spark’s characters but not the only one to over-reach.

The Girls of Slender Means (1963)

The Girls of Slender Means was the novel which followed The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and it’s tempting to see the girls of The May of Teck Club, a hostel where young women of ’slender means’ living away from home may stay, as the Brodie set grown up. The novel is set during the months in 1945 between VE Day and VJ Day, though it begins with the news that, years later, Nicholas Farringdon, who converts to Catholicism as a result of events in the novel, has been killed in Haiti. The novel conveys an atmosphere of excited possibility, created both by the end of the war and the youth of the protagonists. Despite this, we are aware something terrible will happen towards the end, the “act of savagery” which will cause Farringdon, a left-wing intellectual, to change the way he sees the world. Spark does not disappoint.

The Driver’s Seat (1970)

Of The Driver’s Seat, Sam Jordison, looking back at the lost Booker Prize, said, “It isn’t one to love.” His lack of love for Spark’s first novel of the seventies can perhaps be traced to his rather more perceptive comment regarding the central character, Lise, “We are encouraged to laugh at her – but constantly reminded that to do so is awful.” In other words, it’s a novel where the reader is not allowed to feel comfortable. The Driver’s Seat is a crime novel where the victim is in search of the murderer: “I was sure he was the right one. I’ve got to meet someone,” Lise tells us, commandeering the language of romance to more violent ends. It’s funny (Lise is offended when offered a dress which won’t show stains) but also desperate, as Lise attempts to take control of her fate, to be in the ‘driver’s seat’. Not to everyone’s taste, but a masterclass in black comedy and narrative economy.

Not to Disturb (1971)

The crime genre is also subverted in the novel which follows The Driver’s Seat, Not to Disturb, which borrows from, as the title suggests, the normally cosier country house murder, with a locked room element thrown in for good measure. Although Baron Klopstock and his wife are not yet dead, their deaths are, according to the butler, Lister, only a matter of time: “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.” The butler does not do it, but he knows it will be done. The Baron and Baroness hardly feature – they are, after all, not to be disturbed, and instead the staff wait for the moment they can sell the Baron and Baroness’ story to the press. Oh, and there’s a madman in the attic.

Loitering with Intent (1981)

Throughout the seventies Spark wrote deliberately modern, international novels echoing the life she lived – New York for The Hothouse by the East River, a satire on Watergate in The Abbess of Crewe, Italy for The Takeover and Territorial Rights. Loitering with Intent, her first novel of the eighties, sees her return to the London of The Girls of Slender Means, in the “middle of the twentieth century”; it also sees her use the first person for the first time since Robinson in 1958. The narrator is a novelist, Fleur Talbot, at the beginning of her career, not unlike Caroline Rose in The Comforters. Whereas Caroline hears her thoughts being narrated to the sound of typing, Fleur finds real life copying the characters and events of her novel. Hired by the Autobiographical Association to type up the memoirs of its members, she finds herself inserting her own additions to liven up the rather dull originals. Despite its ominous title, Loitering with Intent is one of Spark’s happier novels – even when Fleur’s manuscript is stolen, we need not worry as we already know the novel will be published

The Finishing School

January 17, 2021

It seems appropriate that Spark should return, in her final novel, to the setting of her most successful: a school. Not only are there over forty years between the writing of the two novels, but, with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie set in the 1930s, and The Finishing School (we assume) in the contemporaneous 2000s, there are some noticeable differences. Jean Brodie, for all her faults, was famously dedicated to her pupils; Rowland and his wife Nina, who run the finishing school of College Sunrise, are more concerned with making sure they break even, and that Rowland is allowed the opportunity to write his novel:

“Both Nina and Rowland aimed principally at affording Rowland the time and space and other opportunities to complete his novel, while passing their lives pleasantly.”

Of course, Brodie too was a ‘novelist’ of sorts, attempting to write her pupils’ lives. The novel becomes a battleground between her and her most devoted student, Sandy, just as The Finishing School develops into a conflict between Rowland and Chris, a young man who has come to the school to finish his own novel.

From the beginning we can see that their relationship is strained; Rowland, far from mentoring Chris, is jealous of the apparent ease with which he writes, and advises him to scrap everything he has written immediately after reading it:

“A faint twinge of that jealousy which was to mastermind Rowland’s coming months, growing in intensity small hour by hour, seized Rowland as he looked.”

Chris, on the other hand, is confidence personified. “He felt affectionate towards Rowland,” we are told, “almost protective.” His novel concerns Mary Queen of Scots, but he has little interest in historical accuracy:

“He was quite capable of making history work for him, his plot, his characters.”

Spark, of course, has little time for hubris. When Chris contemplates “the non-noticing faculties of people” it is an unheeded warning that his own faculties for noticing are not as acute as he thinks. To Chris, it is simply “a game he is playing with Rowland” – Rowland searches his room for the novel; Chris hides it in another pupil’s room. His arrogance extends to his writing. When Rowland asks him if his characters have a life of their own, he replies:

“Nobody in my book so far could cross the road unless I make them do it.”

With the focus of Chris’ novel being the murder of Rizzio – a violent act of jealousy – it seems the scene is set for a dramatic conclusion, as Rowland comments:

“I could kill him…But would that be enough.”

Meanwhile Rowland’s marriage is suffering:

“As an act of will, she gave Rowland her full sympathy but she knew it contained a built-in time limit.”

Spark is particularly funny when it comes to marital argument: Nina intends to confront Rowland about the fact that she is increasingly having to run the school herself but begins with an accusation that he is attracted to one of the pupils. She does, however, suggest that Rowland “write about Chris and get him off your chest,” a suggestion Rowland is only too happy to accede to:

“It will eventually be a life study of a real person, Chris.”

It is perhaps at this point that the power balance between Rowland and Chris begins to turn, as it becomes clear that Chris needs Rowland’s jealousy in order to write.

Amid all this there are the smaller stories of the other pupils (there are only eight in the school) and staff which decorate the novel like tiny jewels. Opal’s father is bankrupt (and under arrest) but the school decides that the right thing to do is to keep her on. Tilly is intent on a career in journalism despite her severe dyslexia. Mary’s dream is to open a shop which sells ceramics and scarves. Meanwhile Nina teaches them such useful skills as how to eat a plover’s egg, and how to confuse an elephant should it chase you. Though Chris and Rowland are at the novel’s centre, Spark does not forget her other characters, exhibiting them in style in a wonderful set piece when the school holds a fashion show (with Chris, of course, as the master of ceremonies).

Spark masterminds the increasing tension towards the novel’s conclusion with her usual aplomb. Rowland returns to the school after burying his father, relieved that at least his father’s death took his mind of Chris. “Maybe you need another death,” Chris tells him, “to get over your obsession. A more important one.” There is a sense that Chris is attempting to control Rowland as if he were one of his characters. Naturally, when any character in Spark feels they are in control, it is a sign they are about to lose it.

The Finishing School is a fitting end to Spark’s career as a novelist. It is difficult to believe anything other than that the title was predestined, and that its final line, the transfiguration of the ordinary voice of a weather presenter, carries its own playful implication:

“As we go through this evening and into the night…”

Best Books of 2020 Part 1

December 21, 2020

Rather than focusing only on what’s new, I thought I would begin my books of 2020 with those older volumes which had stood out for me this year. (As I haven’t yet decided the winner of the missing Independent Foreign Fiction Prize of 1996, I have excluded the long-listed books from this category).

My one year sprint through all of Muriel Spark’s novels has turned into a three year marathon, but, in further vindication of continuing, I found it difficult to select which of her later novels I had most enjoyed. In the end I decided on Symposium, her dinner party novel, where an exquisite layer of social satire lies above robbery and murder, which, in turn, rests on madness and hints of satanic influence – Jane Austen via Dennis Wheatley. Its best line is perhaps the suggestion that the vows of marriage, made under the influence of love, are “like confessions obtained under torture.”

Of contrasting tone, Agota Kristof’s Yesterday (translated by David Watson) is a bleak vision of grinding poverty, both in childhood and adulthood. “The full horror of my present life stares me in the face,” is a fair summary of much of it. The narrator works in a factory, the kind of occupation which so rarely features in literature. Focusing particularly on the immigrant community, it briefly suggests the possibility of redemption before dashing the narrator’s, and the reader’s, hopes. Not for the faint-heated, but unforgettable.

My great discovery, in terms of older writers, this year has been Marguerite Yourcenar. A Coin in Nine Hands uses the composition classic (‘imagine a day in the life of a penny’) to paint a portrait of fascist Italy. The plot revolves around a failed assassination attempt but the real joy is in the extensive cast of characters who flit in and out of each other’s stories. Each one is like a disparate note which together play an increasingly melancholy tune.

Another unexpected surprise was Antonio de Benedetto’s Zama, translated by Esther Allen; unexpected not because it isn’t widely regarded as a classic of Latin American literature, but because I hadn’t expected it to be so entertaining. The catalyst for its energy and verve is the unlikeable narrator – arrogant, short-tempered, unfeeling – who somehow wins the reader’s sympathy by the final pages of what turns out to be his tragic life. As with many tragic figures, he owns his faults regardless of his circumstances, winning our reluctant admiration.

Finally (and not yet reviewed) Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes proved to be all that others had claimed, superficially charming but with a dark interior. Full of wonderfully quotable lines (“Wherever she strayed the hills folded themselves about her like the fingers of a hand”), the novel is both the flower and the serpent under it. Its author may well become the Muriel Spark of 2021.

Aiding and Abetting

December 2, 2020

Muriel Spark has always been a class conscious writer – though the class she has largely concerned herself with is the very rich – and this is never more obvious than in her penultimate novel, Aiding and Abetting. The novel is inspired by the Lord Lucan case (which, as Spark says, she has “absorbed creatively and metamorphosed into what I have written”), a classic example of the archaic English class system, as Lucan, after murdering his children’s nanny and attempting to murder his wife, is able to escape justice (and, it is thought, the country) with the help of his friends.

Spark begins the novel with Lucan’s visit to a psychiatrist, Hildegard Wolf. Wolf is immediately suspicious when he declares “I am the missing Lord Lucan,” as she is already seeing another client, Walker, who says he is Lucan:

“She was currently treating another patient who claimed, convincingly, to be the long-missing lord. She suspected collusion.”

The two Lucans are typical of Spark, raising the question of how, after all this time, anyone can be certain which is the genuine article:

“If one of us were caught, it would always be the other, the absent Lucan, who would be the real one.”

It is even proposed at one point that neither are real, and “Lucan could be dead while the conspiracies to elude the law continue.” The advantage of pretending to be Lucan lies in collecting “from the aiders and abettors,” those “benefactors” who continue to fund him.

Wolf is prevented from immediately reporting Lucan to the police as she believes he has knowledge of her own background – and, in particular, her time as a fake stigmatic, when she used her menstrual blood to convince gullible Christians that she had curative powers. (Both characters are also connected by blood – Lucan frequently states that there was “so much blood” when he killed the nanny). Spark places the two characters in parallel, though they come from opposite ends of the class spectrum, Wolf’s deceit originating from the fact that “she suddenly got very, very tired of being poor.” Not only are both on the run (Wolf in the sense that she has assumed a new identity, though later in the novel she literally goes on the run by disappearing from Paris), but both were sustained in their crime by the belief of others. Wolf argues that, “I caused miracles. I really did cure these people,” and we are told:

“When she was finally exposed, a great number of her followers, mainly poor people, refused to believe what the newspapers reported.”

Lucan, too, inspires belief in others, the rich rather than the poor, and based on class rather than religion. Maria Twickenham, whose husband helped Lucan escape, tells her daughter he got away “on the sheer strength of his own hypnotic act.”

“His proposition was: I am a seventh Earl, I am an aristocrat, therefore I can do what I like, I am untouchable.”

As Lucan tells Wolf, “People like us don’t go to prison,” regarding the murder as “a bungle like any other bungle.” Wolf eventually concludes that “Being an earl, full stop, is madness” in what is perhaps Spark’s finest skewering of the upper classes.

The novel is, of course, filled with hide and seek chases: while Wolf’s boyfriend tries to find Wolf by questioning her patients (she has gone into hiding from Lucan), Maria’s daughter, Lacey, is looking for Lucan, always just one step behind, including following his car unawares for miles. Lucan and Walker also fear that the other will give them the slip as the money begins to run out. As everything comes full circle, Lucan begins to see Walker as an obstacle, and symbol of his bad luck, like his wife:

“Walker was a card to be played in this gambling-den of life; not an ace card, merely a card.”

Spark arranges a suitably ironic fate for Lucan, one that is fitting, as ridiculous as he is, but not silly – Spark is never silly. Spark’s late novels may be lighter, perhaps even warmer, than her middle period, but they have lost none of their wit and power. Her killer instinct remains, and, unlike Lucan, she is not likely to miss the target.

Reality and Dreams

October 23, 2020

Muriel Spark’s 1996 novel Reality and Dreams returns to the film world of The Public Image, only on this occasion the main character is not the star but the director, Tom Richards. As the novel opens, Tom is recovering after falling from a crane. Despite general agreement that he is lucky to be alive, he has no regrets:

“Yes, I did feel like God up on that crane.”

The reality and dreams of the title is the world of film-making, and it’s no surprise that Spark should see the director as a God-substitute who “often wondered if we were all characters in one of God’s dreams.” Like all those who think they can think like God in Spark’s work, Tom is blind to his own faults. In particular, he sees everything through the lens of film-making – “Everything I do is basically connected with my work,” he tells the taxi-driver, Dave, who he has drive him around as he recuperates from his fall.

“When I see people in frames I know I want to make a film of just that picture.”

It from just such a sight that his latest film originates, from the glimpse of a girl of a campsite, The Hamburger Girl as the title would have it: “Tom had no further interest at all in that girl, except that glimpse.” Instead he only has eyes for his leading lady, Rose, rather than the actress who plays the hamburger girl, Jeanne, who barely features in the film, and always in profile.

He views his daughters in much the same way, preferring the attractive one, Cora, from a previous marriage, rather than Marigold, from his current marriage to Claire. Cora, he feels, “increases in beauty every year,”

“Only to see her move half across the room was an aesthetic delight.”

Marigold, on the other hand, is “too serious” (but, as Spark reminds us, “who is to say he was the just arbiter of other people’s characters?”).

“Try as he might, Tom was not fond of his daughter by Claire.”

It is difficult not to think that Cora is a dream compared to Marigold’s reality (Cora means ‘maiden’, perhaps ironically as she is far from virginal, and references Persephone as the goddess of spring; Marigold is, of course, the flower, but is also commonplace for rubber gloves used for cleaning – one of the most prosaic items you might think of). Tom thinks it a pity Cora cannot act (though also sees this as a virtue as he describes acting as “the art of hypocrisy”) as he tends to see things superficially – he is put out when another director tells him, “You can’t hire actors mainly for their looks.” Halfway through the novel Marigold goes missing and Tom and Claire find it difficult to whole-heartedly wish her back:

“They don’t want to find me… That’s the truth.”

Only when Tom begins to see her in a part does he really see her at all: “She would do well in a harsh movie.”

Alongside the question of reality and dreams lies another of redundancy. Spark makes most of the characters redundant at one time or another, either from their jobs or in some other fashion (when Marigold’s husband leaves her she describes herself as a “redundant wife”). As Dave tells Tom, “Redundancy worries me; it hangs over us all.” Tom does not believe this as, convinced of his own talent, “nobody fires a man if he is exceptionally good.” He refers to Cora’s husband, who has used his redundancy money to leave her for India, as a “non-necessary man,” revealing not only his Darwinian outlook, but Spark’s intention that we look beyond ‘redundancy’ as an economic definition.

Reality and Dreams is, in many ways, an appropriate description of Spark’s work in general; the language alone can both soar and bring us down to earth with a bump. The novel is a generally light-hearted affair, though it contains two attempted murders and a death. Tom bemoans that the century is getting old, while speculating on what dead friends, including Auden and Graham Greene, would say to him were they still alive. Age is also referenced in the repeated opening of The Lover Song of J Alfred Prufock, a poem that certainly mingles reality and dreams. Spark was almost eighty when the novel was published and it’s hard not to see some of her in Tom’s character here, playful as ever. Perhaps that is why he seems to have learned little by the novel’s end, as he drinks with Claire and Cora, “here in the tract of no-man’s land between dreams and reality, reality and dreams,” a here that is both his life, and the novel itself.

Seven Books of Summer

July 31, 2020

Now we are in the very midst of summer, it seemed an appropriate time to suggest some summer reading, but, rather than choosing books based only on the pleasure to be had from reading them (which would presumably be unchanged even in deepest winter) here are seven which are specifically about summer and holidays…

Agostino by Alberto Moravia, translated by Michael F Moore

Agostino, Alberto Moravia’s fourth novel, written in 1942 but refused publication in fascist Italy, is set almost entirely on the beach. And when not on the beach, the characters are most likely to be found at sea. It’s a coming of age story in which the title character suddenly realises that his mother exists outwith her role as his mother a she pursues an affair with a “tanned, dark-haired young man” she has met. Meanwhile Agostino demonstrates some independence of his own as he joins a gang of rougher boys who roam the coast.

In summery: “The two of them would dry themselves languorously in the sun, which became more ardent with the approach of midday.”

Any clouds on the horizon? It’s suggested that Saro, the boatman is a paedophile – after Agostino has been out on his boat with him, he cannot convince the other boys he hasn’t been ‘interfered with’.

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

Swimming Home was Deborah Levy’s sixth novel (if you include Diary of a Steak) but its Booker nomination catapulted her to deservedly wider acclaim. Poet Joe Jacobs is holidaying with his family in a villa near Nice. The idyllic setting is in contrast to the cast of damaged individuals and failing relationships paraded across it, not helped by the arrival of Kitty Finch, a young women who believes she has a special connection with Jacobs.

In summery: “Two plump bumblebees crawled down the yellow curtains searching for an open window.”

Any clouds on the horizon? The novel begins with a body in the pool. This is a false alarm, but also a warning of what is to come.

The Island by Ana Maria Matute, translated by Laura Lonsdale

Ana Maria Matute’s 1960 novel, The Island, recently issued in a new translation by Laura Lonsdale, is set on the island of Mallorca, now a popular holiday destination, though not so much at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War when the action takes place. The story is told from the point of view of Matia, a fourteen-year-old girl, who is staying on the island with her grandmother as her mother is dead, she has been expelled from her convent school, and her father has abandoned her to fight for the Republic. Over the course of the novel she is exposed to the prejudices and violence of the island.

In summery: “Santa Catalina had a very small beach with a fringe of golden seashells at the water’s edge, and the seashells cracked under our feet as we leapt from the boat, shattering like bits of crockery.”

Any clouds on the horizon? Though the war is distant, the island does not escape its repercussions. Matia and her friend Borja discover a body on the beach one day…

The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein

Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter, written prior to her Neapolitan quartet, tells the story of a middle-aged woman, Leda, who feels liberated when her daughters leave home and decides to take a holiday by the sea in southern Italy. Once there, though she finds herself observing a young mother and her child. When the child goes missing it is Leda who finds her and, mysteriously, keeps hold of the girl’s doll.

In summery: “The sand was white powder, I took a long swim in transparent water, and sat in the sun.”

Any clouds on the horizon? The missing child may seem like the novel’s most dramatic moment, but Leda ahs a secret in her past to be discovered.

Year of the Drought by Roland Buti, translated by Charlotte Mandell

Anyone of a certain age will remember the eerily hot summer of 1976 where Roland Buti sets his coming of age story, Year of the Drought. For thirteen-year-old Gus, the sun is not a pleasure as his father is a farmer who recently bought hundreds of chickens which are now dying in the intense heat. This is not his father, or Gus’, only worry as a newcomer to the village has developed a very close friendship with Gus’ mother, and his parents’ marriage is under threat.

In summery: “The heat that had accumulated during the day now rose freely up to the sky. A warm wind, sequinned with burning particles, swooped down from the mountains like the breath of a huge animal crouching in the shadows.”

Any clouds on the horizon? The scene where Gus helps his dad clear out the dead chickens is far from pleasant.

The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

“She will be found tomorrow morning dead from multiple stab-wounds…” doesn’t immediately suggest ‘summer holiday’ but Spark’s 1970 novel begins with Lise shopping for holiday clothes before she flies to a city in southern Europe (probably Rome) in search of the ‘right man’. Of course, in Lise’s case, she means the right man to kill her. Spark described the novel as a ‘whydunnit’ but don’t imagine that question will receive an answer.

In summery: “…they stand on the pavement in the centre of the foreign city, in need of coffee and a sandwich, accustoming themselves to the layout, the traffic crossings, the busy residents, the ambling tourists and the worried tourists, and such of the unencumbered youth who swing and thread through the crowds like antelopes whose heads, invisibly antlered, are airborne high to sniff the prevailing winds, and who so appear to own the terrain beneath their feet that they never look at it.”

Any clouds on the horizon? As is often the case with Spark’s novels, we are well aware of what is on the horizon long before we reach it.

Holiday Heart by Margarita Garcia Robayo, translated by Charlotte Coombe

Don’t be fooled by the apparently happy-go-lucky title – holiday heart is, in fact, a heart condition caused by over-indulging while on vacation. In Margarita Garcia Robayo’s novel it might also suggest that Pablo and Lucia, married nineteen years, find that their own hearts have left home. Pablo finds solace in other women as Lucia becomes colder. He is in danger of losing his job, she of losing touch with her children.

In summery: “He rubbed his eyes. They were still dazzled from the glare of the afternoon sun bouncing off the sand, white and burning like dry ice.”

Any clouds on the horizon? As well as Pablo’s possibly life-threatening heart condition, there are numerous uncomfortable scenes, including their young son declaring on the beach, “I don’t like black people.”


May 19, 2020

Muriel Spark’s nineteenth novel, Symposium, as the title suggests, centres on a dinner party, the word having originated from the part of a feast in Ancient Greece where the eating stops but the drinking continues. It also, of course, puts us in mind of Plato’s Symposium where, at just such a banquet, Plato recounts the speeches of a number of famous Greeks in praise of Eros, the god of love and desire. Love and desire are never far away in Spark’s novel which seems particularly concerned with marriage. Among the couples at the dinner party are the newly wedded William Damien and Margaret (nee) Murchie.

Typically, while the dinner party is the novel’s ‘present’, much of it is concerned with events beforehand. The novel opens with a burglary at the home of Lord and Lady Suzy who will later be invited to the dinner party, Lord Suzy’s horror at the crime (“This is rape!”) being his only topic of conversation. This seemingly unrelated and random incident is, of course, central to the plot. In the meantime, William and Mary’s marriage is subject to gossip even before the meal. The story of how they met (at the fruit counter of Marks and Spencer’s) is regarded with suspicion by William’s wealthy mother, Hilda:

“What was she doing in the fruit section of Marks & Spencer’s?… she was staying in a half-board hostel at the time.”

Margaret herself is more generally distrusted. Chris Donovan, one of the dinner party hosts, wonders about her family:

“But the name Murchie…I’m sure I’ve heard it before in connection with some affair, some case in the papers; something.”

For Roland Sykes, another of the guests, the name also rings a bell: “There was something about the Murchies last year…it was in all the papers.” Hilda, who has met Margaret’s parents, says of the family:

“They are quite all right but there is something wrong.”

The wrongness of the Murchies lies in Uncle Magnus (surely the similarity to Magus is not accidental) who spends most of his time in an insane asylum but is regularly asked for advice by Margaret’s parents, Dan and Greta:

“Magnus had now been their guru for six years.”

It is Magnus who suggests that they ask their mother to alter her will and leave everything to Dan. When she is murdered soon after, they discover that the will has been recently changed. Even more suspicious, the madwoman who kills her has escaped from the asylum where Magnus resides. In the aftermath of this Margaret becomes a nun, though that vocation ends when one of the sisters is found strangled. We discover that Margaret has a track record of being near when violent death occurs – beginning with a drowned school friend – and Magnus has a track record of being near Margaret. It is he who advises her to find someone wealthy to marry. Magnus frequently expresses himself in ballad verses, including at least one verse form ‘The Demon Lover’ about a woman tempted by a former lover to leave her husband and children. The lover, of course, turns out to be the Devil. There is something of Magnus and Margaret’s relationship in this. Even Dan is concerned about his daughter:

“He was aware that Margaret was cultivating an exterior sweetness that was not her own.”

Margaret’s story runs parallel to the story of the robberies, which are not as random as at first appears, linked together by various characters. The sentence “They were full of wonder that neither of the couple had heard a sound” with reference to the Suzy’s break-in turns out to represent a more general ignorance of the wealthy.

As with all Spark’s work, there is enormous enjoyment to be had in watching the connections between the story and characters develop, but Spark is also a master craftsman at connecting ideas, and Symposium, like Plato’s seems particularly focused on love. None of the marriages it presents are especially successful. Lady Suzy, who married the father of a school friend, seems to enjoy writing to his daughter more; Ella and Ernest Untzinger are faring better, perhaps because:

“By unspoken consent Ella and Ernest were not sleeping together anymore.”

The unmarried hosts of the dinner party, Hurley Reed and Chris, seem more at ease with each other:

“It is a union of great convenience and contentment.”

As do the two other guest, Annabel and Roland, who are cousins. As Hurley explains:

“The vows of marriage… are mostly made under the influence of the love-passion. Let me tell you…that the vows of love-passion are like confessions obtained under torture.”

This is one of the most comic of Spark’s novels, which is perhaps why she prefaces it by a quotation from Plato’s Symposium which states that “the genius of comedy was the same with that of tragedy.” Even a throwaway line such as, “You never stop talking about who’s married who, and what the fortune is,” seems placed to remind us of the comic tradition of Austen. It is both wonderfully entertaining and wonderfully erudite – a perfect combination.

A Far Cry from Kensington

February 3, 2020

Muriel Spark’s eighteenth novel, A Far Cry from Kensington (originally published in 1988) returns us to the world of publishing in post-war Britain which we saw as recently as 1981’s Loitering with Intent. Since Spark’s debut, The Comforters, writers of various kinds have featured in her work, though the artistic process is rarely fore-grounded; here the novel is narrated, not by the successful but flawed novelist Emma Loy, but by Mrs Hawkins, an editor at a failing publishers (Spark, of course, was editor of Poetry Review between 1947 and 1949). When Mrs Hawkins offers literary advice it is of a practical nature – the suggestion, for example, of acquiring a cat to aid concentration. Advice is something that she is regularly required to dispense as:

“There was something about me, Mrs Hawkins, that invited confidence.”

The appellation ‘Mrs Hawkins’ itself is an indication that others treat her as a motherly figure despite the fact she is not yet thirty, but it is her plumpness that particularly invites those who know her, however briefly, to share their problems.

In this sense, Mrs Hawkins herself is a forgery in a novel of fakes. We quickly learn that Martin York, of the publishing firm Ullswater and York, where Mrs Hawkins initially works, “was to go to prison for multiple forgeries.” Like all forgers, he places the greatest importance on appearance:

“If it’s widely enough believed that you have money and wealth, Mrs Hawkins, it is the same as having it.”

But the greatest fake in the novel is Mrs Hawkins’ nemesis, Hector Bartlett. Bartlett is a would-be writer who has attached himself to the novelist Emma Loy. Mrs Hawkins regards even his professed origins as inauthentic:

“Hector Barlett claimed at every opportunity… to be upper class, to the effect that I presumed him to be rather low-born.”

It is aspirations as a writer, however, which most offend her. When he approaches her in Green Park one day, she cannot help but voice her true opinion:

“I don’t know what got into me, for I said, not to myself as usual, but out loud, ‘Pisseur de copie!’”

a-far-cry-from-kensignton-pb-muriel-spark FarCryFromKensington

Though she may have been able to deny a single such outburst, which Bartlett is happy not to hear, she repeats the epithet at the end of their unwelcome conversation, and admits it once again when Emma Loy phones, “very worried about Hector” to ask her, “What exactly did you do to him this morning?” Offending Emma Loy ensures Mrs Hawkins loses her job, albeit from a publishing house which is soon declared bankrupt, but Bartlett continues to haunt her, both professionally and, more secretly, at the boarding house where she is staying. Mrs Hawkins never changes her opinion, her remark becoming one of the most striking repetitions of the novel, a refusal to shy from the truth (at one point she says, “It feels like preaching the gospel”) regardless of the consequences. This example of honesty stands in marked contrast to the various dishonest plots and schemes which are unearthed around it.

The first of these begins with an anonymous letter threatening Wanda, a Polish seamstress who lives in the same building as Mrs Hawkins. The letter is followed by a phone call, and the effect on Wanda is visible:

“Wanda was still haunted; all her old confidence and tranquillity had left her.”

Spark has always been interested in blackmail, and here, particularly, it is used to contrast the way people treat each other, blackmail being an extreme form of using others to our own end. This is in marked contrast to Mrs Hawkins who finds jobs for her now unemployed colleagues from Ullswater and York. Another dishonest scheme is the Box, or radionics, in which samples of a person hair and blood are supposedly used to cure them:

“So far as I could see it was as devoid of any functional possibility as one of those children’s toy telephones with which they go through the motions of dialling a number and talking, but never get anywhere.”

In comedic fashion, Mrs Hawkins gets her reward, transforming into a woman half her size by eating only half portions, no longer Mrs Hawkins but Nancy, and once again a romantic lead rather than a sympathetic aunt, a change that is not to everyone’s taste:

“You have stepped out of your role. It makes them furious.”

A Far Cry from Kensington is a gentler Spark novel, lacking the violence of her continental novels, and with a central character who is entirely sympathetic. It still contains the strangeness that feels true precisely because it is unlikely that is so typical of her work, for example the man paid to stare up at the offices of Ullswater and York to make them feel shame for their debts, or the firm of Mackintosh and Toolley where all the staff are hired on the basis of possessing some kind of disability. Evil remains, however, in the irrepressible egocentricity of Hector Barlett who, of course, is not as harmless as he might first appear. Spark may have mellowed, but she has not gone soft.

The Only Problem

April 11, 2019

In The Only Problem Muriel Spark returns to the story of Job which influenced her first novel, The Comforters. Here the connection is more explicit as Canadian millionaire Harvey Gotham obsessively studies the Biblical book and what he describes as “the only problem”:

“For he could not face that a benevolent Creator, one whose charming and delicious light spread over the world, and being powerful everywhere, could condone the unspeakable sufferings of the world.”

Harvey (who Alan Bold has described as “an intellectual who has rejected reality in the interests of his academic isolationism”) cuts himself off from the world both socially and geographically in order to pursue his studies. Living in a cottage in the grounds of a chateau in France, he has left his wife, Effie, who is only able to track him down by tricking his lawyer’s secretary into revealing his address. Throughout the novel his isolation is interrupted by a series of visitors, beginning with his brother-in-law, Edward, who has come to plead on Effie’s behalf that Harvey grant her a financial settlement. As he soon notices:

“When Harvey talked of his marriage it were always as if he were thinking of something else, and he never talked about it unless someone else did first.”

Instead, Harvey would rather discuss Job, something he does in every conversation and every letter he writes – even those to his lawyer. Even Harvey begins to realise that he has perhaps separated himself too much from the world:

“How can you deal with the problem of suffering if everybody conspires to estrange you from suffering?”

Harvey’s dramatic departure from his wife takes place at a motorway service station while they are holidaying with Edward and his wife (Effie’s sister) Ruth. It occurs after she admits to stealing a chocolate bar:

“Why shouldn’t we help ourselves? These multinationals and monopolies are capitalising on us, and two thirds of the world is suffering.”

Harvey later says he is “intellectually insulted” by Effie’s attitude to life when she takes things further and is accused of being part of a terrorist group operating in the same area of France where Harvey lives. By this point Ruth is living with Harvey in the chateau she has convinced him to buy, looking after Effie’s baby, Clara (to further complicate matters, Harvey is not Clara’s father). Soon Nathan, a student who lived with Edward and Ruth but is besotted with Effie, also moves in – the reader may well echo Harvey’s thought, “What am I doing with all these people?”

With Effie (possibly) front page news, Harvey is suspected of involvement, the discomfort of police interrogation as near as he gets to suffering. A press conference turns into a lecture on Job after a journalist asks him:

“Would you say that you yourself are in the position of Job, in so far as you are a suspicious character in the eyes if the world, yet feel yourself to be entirely innocent?”

For a novel about suffering, The Only Problem is a lot of fun. The interchangeability of the relationships borders on farce, though Spark prepares for it by having Edward unexpectedly jealous of Harvey leaving Effie without knowing why. The sisters physical likeness adds to the humour (when Harvey first sees Effie’s picture in the paper “the outlines of the girl’s face struck him as being rather like Ruth’s”), with Spark adding a further dimension to this by having Job’s wife, in a painting which Harvey has moved into the area to study, share that likeness. The sudden transition from Chapter 2 to 3 when we discover that Ruth and Effie’s baby are living with Harvey is worthy of a modern television series.

The novel is not, of course, an allegory of the Book of Job – this would be too obvious and therefore too dull for Spark. However, it does oppose Effie’s idea that “all the suffering in the world, the starving multitudes” can be blamed on political systems and therefore people, and so ended by direct action, with Harvey’s belief:

“There is more to be had from the world than a balancing of accounts.”

Spark is careful to imply that Harvey’s wealth allows him the time and space to think so. “Suffering isn’t in proportion to what the sufferer deserves” is perhaps true for all the characters, in one way or another.

Loitering with Intent

March 2, 2019

The eighties were a difficult time for established artists, as anyone who follows the UK charts will tell you. For Muriel Spark, however, Loitering with Intent represents a relaxed reaffirmation of her art as its final lines – “And so, having entered the fullness of my years, from there by the grace of God I go on my way rejoicing” – decidedly declare. As Norman Page has pointed out, “it initiates a process of revisiting: theme, setting, period and narrative technique all hark back to novels written near the beginning of her career.” And so we have echoes of Spark’s debut novel, The Comforters, in the beginning of Fleur Talbot’s career as a novelist; we return to the period which Spark here describes as “the middle of the twentieth century”; and, in a novel which blurs the border between fact and fiction, not only is autobiography predominant in the plot, but Spark writes in the first person for the first time since Robinson.

Having written her first novel, Warrender Chase “without any great hope of getting it published but with only the excited compulsion to write it,” Fleur takes employment with Sir Quentin Oliver who runs an Autobiographical Association:

“We have all started to write our memoirs, the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. And we are lodging them for seventy years in a safe place until all the living people therein will be living no longer.”

Hired to type up these memoirs, Fleur soon begins to make additions to cheer up the boring parts:

“I had begun to consider them inventions of my own, based on the original inventions of Sir Quentin.”

Far from being aggrieved, the members are delighted by the additions: Sire Eric, for example, whose autobiography she has “livened …up by putting Nanny and the butler on the nursery rocking-horse together during the parents’ absence, while little Eric was locked in the pantry to clean the silver” comments: “I wonder how you guessed that the butler locked me in the pantry to clean the silver.” When he suggests that Nanny on the rocking-horse is going too far, Sir Quentin responds:

“How can you be sure if you were locked in the pantry at the time?”

The novel’s greatest conceit regarding the relationship between reality and fiction, however, lies in Fleur’s belief that real life is copying her novel. Not only does Sir Quentin very much resemble Warrender Chase, but both his housekeeper and mother are all but identical to characters she has created. She remains unfazed by this, however:

“The process by which I created my characters was instinctive, the sum of my whole experience of others and of my own potential self; and so it had always been. Sometimes I don’t actually meet a character I have created in a novel until some time after the novel has been written and published.”

That her comment echoes something Spark has herself said in interview further blurs the distinction between life and art. At one point she speculates:

“It was almost as if Sir Quentin was unreal and I had invented him, Warrender Chase being a man, a real man on whom I had partly based Sir Quentin.”

Of course Fleur’s characters, as Spark reminds us, are, like Spark’s characters, “only words.” (Making Warrender Chase, presented to us as a character in a novel, realer than Sir Quentin, who is purported to be a real man).

Later Sir Quentin will threaten her publishers with legal action over the contents of Warrender Chase, while at the same time borrowing parts of it to insert into the autobiographies of his members. So determined is he to remove all trace of it he persuades Fleur’s friend, Dottie (a friendship which originates in sharing Dottie’s husband) to steal the original manuscript from her flat. The suspense of its recovery is rather spoilt by the fact that Fleur has already revealed its publication as she writes the novel from the vantage point of the future, where she is a successful novelist, an interesting divergence from The Comforters. Instead we wait tensely to see whether Sir Quentin will meet the same fate as Warrender Chase, as Fleur is convinced he will.

Loitering with Intent is a much happier novel than the novels of the seventies. Its criminality – the tit-for-tat stealing of books – is farcical in nature, and, though it begins in a graveyard, it is a poetic graveyard, and there is little in the way of the death or violence which often sneaks up on you in Spark’s novels. Fleur declares her happiness at the beginning – “My morale was high” – and finds, in Sir Quentin’s elderly mother, Edwina, who is regarded by her son as an encumbrance and an embarrassment, a carefree companion. Spark’s novels are always fun, but often fun which makes the reader feel as if he has enjoyed something that perhaps he shouldn’t. Here, it feels as if we finally have permission to enjoy without guilt.