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