Today would have been Muriel Spark’s 100th birthday, and there are celebrations and events taking place throughout the year, which you can read about here. Ali over at Heavenali is also doing a year long reading event #ReadingMuriel2018 so do join in exploring this wonderful novelist.
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2017 was the year of the novella for me. I don’t know why, but I repeatedly found myself drawn to short, tightly written, impactful stories. So it was inevitable that 2017 also became a year when I read Muriel Spark. She is absolutely masterful at the short novel. Her writing is sharp and concise, which suits her wit, but you never come away feeling short-changed; they are absolutely complete in themselves. Here are 3 quick(ish) reviews of some Spark novellas that I read last year.
The Driver’s Seat (1970) 103 pages
This is a deeply unsettling tale, which leaves the reader with as many questions as answers by the end of it. It tells the story of the last few days of Lise’s life; this isn’t a spoiler as we know early on she will be found tied up and stabbed. Foreshadowing occurs throughout:
“She is neither good-looking nor bad-looking. Her nose is short and wider than it will look in the likeness constructed partly by the method of identikit, partly by actual photography, soon to be published in the newspapers of four languages.”
Spark does not ask that we feel sorry for Lise. The present tense and the characterisation are deliberately distancing. Lise is unlikeable – spiky and rude. She is also behaving somewhat eccentrically, dressing in vivid clashing colours (“a lemon-yellow top with a skirt patterned in bright V’s of orange, mauve and blue… a summer coat with narrow stripes, red and white, with a white collar”) which she then screams justification for at a shop assistant:
“ ‘These colours go together perfectly. People here in the North are ignorant of colours. Conservative; old-fashioned. If only you knew! These colours are a natural blend for me. Absolutely natural.’ She does not wait for a reply”
We follow Lise as she catches a flight to an unnamed holiday destination, and goes in search of a man who represents “my type” although she does not specify exactly what this is, and we know it is not sexual. It gradually emerges that Lise has motivations that are not articulated, and yet they drive her on relentlessly:
“ ‘It’s getting late,’ says Lise. Her lips are slightly parted and her nostrils and eyes, too, are a fragment more open than usual; she is a stag scenting the breeze, moving step by step…she seems at the same time to search for a certain air-current, a glimpse and an intimation.”
It’s almost impossible to say anymore without spoilers. There are some funny moments in this dark tale, a particular conversation filled with non-sequiturs made me laugh. But overall the feeling created is one of deep unease. It has been described as a ‘metaphysical shocker’, and is definitely not one for readers who like clear answers and loose ends all neatly tied up.
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The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960) 143 pages
When I was reading this, one of my colleagues, who is a big Muriel Spark fan, described her as ‘a scamp’. This is a perfect description of the authorial tone in this funny, odd novella.
It opens with Humphrey Place declining to marry Dixie at the altar, and the blame for such behaviour being laid by onlookers at the door of Dougal Douglas, who is no longer around. We then head back in time to see Dougal’s arrival in Peckham and the havoc he wreaks before his departure.
Dougal acquires a position at the firm of Meadows, Meade and Grindley:
“Dougal turned sideways in his chair and gazed out of the window at the bridge; he was now a man of vision with a deformed shoulder. ‘The world of industry,’ said Dougal, ‘throbs with human life. It will be my job to take the pulse of the people and plumb the Industrial depths of Peckham.’”
Instead of doing anything near what he has been employed to do, he skives off work, gets another job at a rival firm under the name Douglas Dougal, for which he also does no work, and sets about unsettling the lives of everyone with whom he comes into contact. There is a weird, almost surreal tone to events and we are never told why Dougal is there or what his motivations are for anything.
“Mr Weedin laid his head in his hands and burst into tears.
Dougal said, ‘You’re a sick man, Mr Weedin. I can’t abide sickness. It’s my fatal flaw. But I’ve brought a comb with me. Would you like me to comb your hair?’
‘You’re unnatural,’ said Mr Weedin.
‘All human beings who breathe are a bit unnatural,’ Dougal said. ‘If you try to be too natural, see where it gets you.’”
Sharp was Catholic, and so it’s tempting to read this as an allegory. Dougal does have lumps on his head which he claims are where the horns were removed. I’m not sure we’re meant to read him as a devil, though he is devilishly beguiling. The Ballad of Peckham Rye is a quick, wonderful read, showing how easily the most ordinary of lives and events therein can tip into the extraordinary, and how little we know anyone, least of all ourselves.
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The Public Image (1968) 125 pages
The Public Image is a wonderfully pithy satire on fame, celebrity and how women are forced into certain roles. Annabel Christopher is an English actress living in Rome with her husband Frederick and baby Carl. Frederick despises his wife, she is partly aware and partly indifferent to this.
“Her husband, when she was in his company with his men friends…tolerantly and quite affectionately insinuated the fact of her stupidity, and she accepted this without resentment for as long as did not convey to her any sense of contempt. The fact that she was earning more and more money than her husband seemed to her at that time a simple proof that he did not want to work.”
While Frederick is weak and thwarted by his wife’s success, Annabel is superficial and self-obsessed, intent on cultivating her images as the “English Lady-Tiger” with her adoring Italian public. Frederick takes a drastic revenge on Annabel to try and destroy her public image, and thereby destroy her.
“She was as unaware of his secret life as she was of her own, for hers was not articulate. She probably never formed a sentence in her mind that she would hesitate to reveal to open air.”
However, while Annabel is vacuous, she is also sharp as a pin, with an astute understanding of how to cultivate and maintain her public relations. Everyone has underestimated her, and her campaign to maintain her public power will reveal a side to her previously unimagined.
It’s astonishing how little this novel has aged. In this era of dead-eyed celebrities maintaining an iron-grip on their image through incessant selfies on their Instagram accounts, Annabel looks positively self-effacing. Spark’s satire sparkles and illuminates the ugly side of glamour with incisive wit.
I’m yet to read any Spark where she seems off her tremendous game. Thankfully in this year of not buying books I still have The Mandelbaum Gate in the TBR, so I’ll definitely be reading that before her centenary is out.
Retro pop video to end as usual, but I do apologise, I couldn’t resist….