Thursday, August 28, 2008

Mischievous Muriel

I’ve been on a Muriel Spark kick, and it’s easy to be on a Muriel Spark kick, because her books are reliably slim. Thus far, I’ve read her debut, The Comforters (204 pages), The Girls of Slender Means (142), and The Driver’s Seat (107). Up next is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (137). (I saw my very talented sister in a stage production of Brodie a few years ago, and I’m looking forward to revisiting the characters in a different format.)

Why I started down Spark’s path -- with The Comforters -- is a story best left for a future post, in which she will only play a tangential role. Now that I’m making my way, I’m surprised at her diminished reputation. I don’t think it’s only me who associates her with Brodie and little else, but she wrote 22 novels and several collections of stories. Three books in, I feel that I appreciate her in the way I’m supposed to appreciate (but haven’t quite managed to appreciate yet) Penelope Fitzgerald. Her novels are, as James Wood wrote, “fiercely composed and devoutly starved.” As sinewy as their length would suggest, there’s barely an ounce of fat on them. If they were a person, they’d be Lance Armstrong.

Much more than I used to, I enjoy novels whittled to their fundamentals. In The Comforters, Caroline Rose, who has recently converted to Catholicism, begins hearing typewriters and voices, and believes she is a character in a novel. In other words, Spark’s estate deserves some cut of Stranger Than Fiction’s box office, and maybe some of Charlie Kaufman’s scratch, too. (The novel was inspired by Spark’s real-life experience.) It’s presented in two parts, and the first -- ending on page 106 -- is the more compelling and enjoyable, and maybe Spark learned from the experience that surpassing even 150 pages didn’t play to her strengths.

But aside from the pacing, the novel is remarkably mature. Spark was nearly 40 when it was published, and her careful prose and considerable sense of humor are already firmly in place, as in this passage:
When Laurence was quite little he had informed his mother,

‘Uncle Ernest is a queer.’

‘So he is, pet,’ she answered happily, and repeated the child’s words to several people before she learned from her husband the difference between being a queer and just being queer. After this, it became a family duty to pray for Uncle Ernest; it was understood that no occasion for prayers should pass without a mention of this uncle. And with some success apparently, because in his fortieth year, when his relations with men were becoming increasingly violent, he gave them up for comfort’s sake; not that he ever took to women as a substitute. Laurence had remarked to Caroline one day,

‘I’ve gradually had to overcome an early disrespect for my Uncle Ernest.’

‘Because he was a homosexual?’

‘No. Because we were always praying specially for him.’
The Girls of Slender Means is set at an English ladies’ hostel in the immediate wake of World War II. Like the other two Spark novels I’ve read, it foreshadows a dire event and then works its way toward it. There are sharp portraits of several characters, and the novel culminates in an unlikely, strange, but convincing scene.

Strangest -- eeriest -- of all, though, is The Driver’s Seat, and I’m sure it will retain that status even if I read all 22 of her novels. We learn early on that its main character, Lise, is going to die within 24 hours. She is not a sympathetic character, with her lips “pressed together like the ruled line of a balance sheet, marked straight with her old-fashioned lipstick, a final and judging mouth.” At first, she inspires contempt, then horror, then pity. Wait. Maybe pity, then horror, then pity again. In any case, the book, with a wicked twist or two, is flawed but also unlike anything else I’ve read. And in it, there’s plenty of room for humor, as in a rant about men by Mrs Fiedke, a widow with whom Lise spends a few of her final hours. It’s a speech that manages to satirize the character and the subject she’s talking about simultaneously:
‘They are demanding equal rights with us,’ says Mrs Fiedke. ‘That’s why I never vote with the Liberals. Perfume, jewellery, hair down to their shoulders, and I’m not talking about the ones who were born like that. I mean, the ones who can’t help it should be put on an island. It’s the others I’m talking about. There was a time when they would stand up and open the door for you. They would take their hat off. But they want their equality today. All I say is that if God had intended them to be as good as us he wouldn’t have made them different from us to the naked eye. They don’t want to be all dressed alike any more. Which is only a move against us. You couldn’t run an army like that, let alone the male sex. With all due respect to Mr Fiedke, may he rest in peace, the male sex is getting out of hand. Of course, Mr Fiedke knew his place as a man, give him his due.’ . . . ‘Fur coats and flowered poplin shirts on their backs. . . . If we don’t look lively,’ she says, ‘they will be taking over the homes and the children, and sitting about having chats while we go and fight to defend them and work to keep them. They won’t be content with equal rights only. Next thing they’ll want the upper hand, mark my words. Diamond earrings, I’ve read in the paper.’
So with all this humor and talent, why isn’t Spark mentioned more often with other greats? One hint may appear in her New York Times obituary (she died in 2006):
Some accused her of coolness and even cruelty toward the characters she invented and then sent — sometimes quite merrily — to terrible deaths.

"People say my novels are cruel because cruel things happen and I keep this even tone," she said in an interview in The New Yorker. “I’m often very deadpan, but there’s a moral statement too, and what it’s saying is that there’s a life beyond this, and these events are not the most important things. They’re not important in the long run.”
Seeing even tragic events as “not important” can be a religious impulse, and Spark was Catholic herself. But it’s also the impulse of an absurdist, and her lighthearted treatment of terrible circumstances signals, to me, a mischievous spirit as much as an uncaring eye cast toward the afterlife. In fact, from her tone in fiction, I think Spark found us far more comical than blessed.


Blogger Barbara Carlson said...

I have come to trust your literary judgment with
the enjoyment of Anthony Lane whose anthology of New Yorker articles book, Nobody's Perfect, I am now reading.
I will have a look into Muriel Spark, too.
Have a good holiday. See you on the other side

12:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have read two of her books--Prime of..., and Loitering with Intent. Neither did very much for me. They're smart, cagey, taut...but they just leave me cold. I feel reading her like I do reading Flannery O'Connor--like every character is being severely judged, and I along with them. It's off putting.

She's also fairly humorless, no?

8:11 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home