Novella a Day in May 2020 #4

Not to Disturb – Muriel Spark (1971) 96 pages

I really enjoy Muriel Spark. I like her creepy, unsettling tales, her dark humour, the ways things are not fully explained… Not to Disturb has all of this in bucketloads, but it means it’s a very hard book to review! At times I wasn’t sure what story I was reading, and now I’ve finished it I’m still not sure. I enjoyed it immensely, but in the wrong mood this could be a very frustrating read.

It’s set in a Genevan villa on a stormy night. The villa is home to the Baron and Baroness Klopstock who are locked in a room with their secretary, Vincent. The Baron’s brother lives with an unspecified affliction and is nursed in the attic. He punctuates the night with howling.

Meanwhile, the servants are in their quarters discussing the evening ahead and already referring to the Klopstocks in the past tense. Heloise, the heavily pregnant maid, is reflecting on who of many possibilities could be the father of her unborn child which may be Pablo the handyman’s, but is cut short by Monsieur Clovis:

“ ‘We have serious business on hand tonight, my girl, so shut up,’ says the chef. ‘We have business to discuss and plenty to do. Quite a vigil. Has anybody arrived yet?’ “

Quite what the business is and why the servants know about it advance is never fully specified. We know there will be a death though, because the butler tells us:

“ ‘There was sure to be something unexpected,’ says Lister. ‘But what’s done is about to be done and the future has come to pass. My memoirs up to the funeral are as a matter of fact more or less complete. At all events, its out of our hands. I place the event at about 3am so prepare to stay awake.’

‘I would say 6 ‘o’clock tomorrow morning. Right on the squeak of dawn,’ says Heloise.

‘You may well be right,’ says Lister. ‘Women in your condition are unusually intuitive.’”

There’s also the couple at the gatehouse who are completely oblivious to the machinations, three people in a car lurking around the grounds waiting for Vincent, and everyone is staying up all night so they look bedraggled and upset when the press arrive as planned in the morning.

Not to Disturb is farcical, sinister and satirical. There’s a fairly horrible almost-rape scene but generally  things verge on the metaphysical rather than the visceral. It’s baffling and unsettling and I whizzed through it with great enjoyment. If ever a novelist was ill-suited to write a novel called Not to Disturb, it’s Muriel Spark 😀

If you’ve come to the end of this post and feel I’ve not told you anything useful about the novella, I’m really sorry! But in that way I may have conveyed some of the experience of reading Not To Disturb

“My roommate got a pet elephant. Then it got lost. It’s in the apartment somewhere.” (Steven Wright)

This week’s theme stems from a very boring reason. But I try to pick themes that relate to my life or what’s happening in the world in some way, and my life is very boring. In fact, the most remarkable thing about it is just how dull it is. So brace yourself reader, and try & stay awake while I tell you that I am a leasehold flat owner.

I’ve always hated this because my managing agents are inept slimebags truly reprehensible human beings, but I spent an evening last week consoling a friend who is a share-of-freeholder and is engaged in a long dispute with her one of her neighbours/fellow freehold sharers, which has now turned vaguely medieval and who she refers to by a most unsavoury nickname.

If you’re still with me, you deserve a little treat. Here’s a trailer for one of my favourite ever films which is rather apt:

So as I spent a long time thinking about flats recently, the theme is novels set in apartment blocks. Firstly, Paradises by Iosi Havilio (2012, trans. Beth Fowler 2013). Apparently this is a sequel to the author’s previous novel Open Door, which I haven’t read, but it didn’t seem to restrict my understanding of Paradises, which I found compelling. Following the death of her partner, an unnamed woman leaves her country home with her small child, Simon, and moves to Buenos Aires. She gets a job at the local zoo:

“Something about the gloomy light, the small of the enclosure, the watchfulness of the snakes in captivity produces a hole in my stomach, an anguish that forces me to increase my pace. I skirt the large tank of water turtles, ignore the lizards walk past the door saying nursery and go outside.”

The janitor, Canetti, takes a shine to her. He used to be a bank treasurer before losing his job through fraud and is filled with bitterness. He shows the woman the el Buti squat, presided over by the obese, immobile, morphine-addicted Tosca.  She moves in:

“And yet despite the filth, the heat, those intestinal noises, and the smell of shit that rises in waves, at some point in the early hours Canetti’s words from the first time he brought me here come to mind: We’re safe here. I even babble them to myself to confirm it. And so I relax and rest a bit, although still without sleeping. On the third day I cover the windows with black bin bags to prolong the night.”

The voice of the young woman is matter-of-fact and she presents her extreme circumstances almost indifferently (Paradises has been compared to L’Etranger). This, combined with the present-tense, captured the numbness of grief and the sense of just getting through each moment. Yet according to the introduction by Alex Clark, the narrator’s passivity and weird equanimity was present in Open Door too, so maybe it’s just her character. Either way, I found her voice distinct and engaging. We follow her through her life as she juggles motherhood, work, relationships with idiodyncratic but wholly believable characters: seemingly spiky Iris who cares for Simon; the unpredictable Eloisa who seems to have no boundaries at all and drags the narrator along with her; the various residents of el Buti.

“each of us has to devise our truth in relation to the other”

The squat is surrounded by paradise trees, whose berries are poisonous and whose bark holds the cure. This duality is repeated throughout the novel: alienation sits alongside connection, love and grief are side by side. Paradises is an unsettling novel but at no point did I feel alienated from the unusual, detached woman telling the story. A remarkable achievement.

Let’s take a Vincent Cassel break (that’s definitely a thing, isn’t it?)

Secondly, A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark (1988) is set at “14 Church End Villas, South Kensington, that rooming house, shabby but clean, that today is a smart and expensive set of flats, gutted and restructured, far beyond the means of medical students, nurses, and the likes of us as we were.”

Narrated by the young widow Mrs Hawkins, she describes her time at the rooming house in the 1950s.  She moves between jobs in publishing with little respect for her employers:

“Sir Alec was thin and grey and his voice matched his looks. It sounded like a wisp of smoke wafting from some burning leaves hidden by a clump of lavender.”

“I had a sense he was offering things abominable to me, like decaffeinated coffee or coitus interruptus

Spark’s satire of publishing and writers is a joy, but A Far Cry From Kensington is also about capturing a moment in time when society is on the cusp of change. Relationships between the sexes are changing, and Mrs Hawkins pushes against societal expectations of women in the mid-20th century. She is resentful of being characterised as a capable widow (she feels this is partly due to her size and begins determinedly losing weight).

Meanwhile, there is tension in the house as someone is sending threatening anonymous letters to Wanda, a European seamstress who rooms there. The different residents begin to suspect each other while landlady Milly is certain it’s an outsider:

“Milly was upset at the suggestion that it was someone in the house, to the point of being almost mesmerized by the idea. She also feared further letters. ‘These things happen in threes’ said Milly in her way of uttering bits of folk-wisdom; she was spooning tea into the heated teapot. She always mixed tea with maxims.”

Mrs Hawkins is a great narrator: matter-of-fact, funny, uncompromising.

“I enjoy a puritanical and moralistic nature; it is my happy element to judge between right and wrong, regardless of what I might actually do.”

The plot around the victimisation of Wanda is frankly a bit bonkers and easily the weakest point in the novel, but despite a weak plot A Far Cry From Kensington is full of Spark’s wit and razor-sharp observation. Not a word in this short novel is wasted.

To end, a video putting the brutalist architecture of the Thamesmead flats to good use:

“The true novelist is one who understands the work as a continuous poem, is a myth-maker, and the wonder of the art resides in the endless different ways of telling a story.” (Muriel Spark)

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.

Image from here

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.

Image from here

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.

Image from here

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….

 

“I don’t know where I’m going from here but I promise it won’t be boring.” (David Bowie)

David Bowie died on 11 January (and then Alan Rickman 3 days later – 2016 is rubbish so far).  Although I have never been personally moved by a celebrity death, shocking and sad as they are, on Monday I found myself weeping in the middle of King’s Road (lesson: don’t look at the BBC News app in public).  In common with his worldwide legions of fans, Bowie had a special place in my heart and it’s a horrible shock that our hero has gone.

Consoling myself through the internet, I discovered he had listed his 100 Must Read books, so I thought I would look at two in this post. Sarah over at Hard Book Habit also wrote about this list, do pop over and read her lovely post. One of my choices is also my first stop on Hard Book Habit’s Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, which you can read all about here.

Firstly, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (1961), probably her most famous novel.  Miss Brodie is a romantic teacher in a conservative girl’s school in Edinburgh in the 1930s. Eschewing the curriculum, she educates her girls in the ways of art, love… and fascism. Boasting “Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life.” Miss Brodie has a group of girls who form the ‘Brodie set’, and the novel, slipping back and forth in time, is told mainly from their points of view, despite a third person narrator.

“Miss Brodie had already selected her favourites, or rather those whom she could trust; or rather those whose parents she could trust not to lodge complaints about the more advanced and seditious aspects of her educational policy.”

Miss Brodie repeatedly insists that she is in her prime; she is silly and vain, and the school are out to get her. But Spark does not judge her harshly, suggesting she is just in the wrong place at the wrong time:

 “It is not to be supposed that Miss Brodie was unique at this point of her prime…there were legions of her kind during the nineteen-thirties, women from the age of thirty and upward, who crowded their war-bereaved spinsterhood with voyages of discovery into new ideas and energetic practices in art or social welfare, education or religion.”

We learn quite early on that she is betrayed, and that it one of her set who betray her, forcing her into early retirement.  Miss Brodie is a complex character: charismatic; aspirational for herself and others; entirely inappropriate towards her pupils and with truly hideous politics.  She is an independent spirit who vastly underestimates her own vulnerability.

“It was then that Miss Brodie looked beautiful and fragile, just as dark heavy Edinburgh itself could suddenly be changed into a floating city when the light was a special pearly white and fell upon one of the gracefully fashioned streets. In the same way Miss Brodie’s masterful features became clear and sweet to Sandy when viewed in the curious light of the woman’s folly”

Dame Maggie Smith as Miss Brodie in the 1969 film

Dame Maggie Smith as Miss Brodie in the 1969 film

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a short novel – 128 pages in my edition – which shows just how much a brilliant writer can say in a short space. Spark has created one of the legendary characters of modern fiction who truly stays with you: like her or loathe her, its almost impossible not to be drawn in, becoming one of the ‘Brodie set’.

Secondly, The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, set during the nineteenth century Risorgimento, whereby the different states of the Italian peninsula unified into a single state. Telling the story of the aristocratic Sicilian Salina family, particularly Fabrizio, the Prince, the novel has an elegiac quality as it documents the decline of the family and change of a way of life.

“Between the pride and intellectuality of his mother and the sensuality and irresponsibility of his father, poor Prince Fabrizio lived in perpetual discontent under his Jove-like frown, watching the ruin of his own class and his own inheritance without ever making, still less wanting to make, any move toward saving it.”

The Prince is surrounded by people, between political responsibilities and social engagements, yet he is an isolated figure, partly due to his “contempt for all his own relatives and friends, all of whom seemed to him mere driftwood in the languid meandering stream of Sicilian pragmatism”.

But the Prince cannot resist the forces of all that surrounds him, and while the military action of the Risorgimento takes place only by report, he and his family are dragged towards modernisation, such as having his aristocratic gene pool diluted by the daughter of a clerical man who:

 “moved through the forest of life with the confidence of an elephant which advances in a straight line, rooting up trees and trampling down lairs , without even noticing scratches of thorns and moans from the crushed”

The domestic is resolutely tied with the political and historical, even during the intimacy of seduction:

“he felt as if by those kisses he were taking possession of Sicily once more, of the lovely faithless land which now, after a vain revolt, had surrendered to him again, as always to his family, its carnal delights and golden crops.”

Sicily_Map

Yet while the people are tied to the land and its history, a recurring theme is of human insignificance, of the transitory nature of humans and their constructs, of all around us falling away. This isn’t depressing, and indeed there is a subtle humour in The Leopard, but it is sad and there is a sense of existential crisis. This wider theme is distilled into the Prince’s relationship with his beloved stars:

“As always, seeing them revived him; they were distant, they were omnipotent and at the same time they were docile to his calculations; just the contrary to humans, always so near, so weak and yet so quarellsome”

The Leopard is a short novel but it took me a while to read it as it so densely written, not a word is wasted. Lampedusa’s use of imagery is strikingly beautiful and he is not afraid to tackle huge ideas.

“the real problem is how to go on living this life of the spirit in its most sublimated moments, those moments that are most like death”

To end, a memory from last summer.  I accompanied my friend’s children – aged 4 and 7 – to an open-air showing of Labyrinth.  There are contradictory reports about Bowie’s feelings towards this film, but for me it has a special place in my heart because it was the point at which, aged nine, I first fell in love with him.

Prior to the showing, there were many jokes about indoctrination and my brainwashing of children, but on arrival I found my flash cards on The Life and Times of David Bowie were not needed.  There were a number of avid Labyrinth-watchers dressed up in oversized mullet wigs and inappropriately large codpieces, a la Jareth the Goblin King.  The kids squealed with delight and ran around to greet them all, crying “David Bowie! David Bowie!” When my friend’s son arrived back where we were sitting, he flopped down, breathless with joy, and simply said “David Bowie.”

“I know just how you feel.” I told him.