If you asked me what I felt about Muriel Spark, I’d say that I love her. That I love her economy, her dry, deadpan wit, her quirky characters and eccentric plots. She is an author who really does illuminate the idea that the world is a very sudden place. But her very qualities can sometimes look like faults. The phrase I’ve probably read most often over the course of Muriel Spark Week is ‘this book isn’t one of her best’. And I think this means ‘I know objectively that Muriel Spark is a fantastic writer, and I’m pretty sure my past experiences were mysteriously better; but this book didn’t quite hit the nail on the head for me.’ If you hang around here for the next couple of reviews, I’ll probably say it myself.
I thought I was being very smart, picking Spark’s last novel, The Finishing School as one of this week’s choices. But in fact it’s been reviewed by loads of people. In brief, then, Rowland and Nina Mahler run College Sunrise together, a finishing school with only a handful of pupils and a very eclectic programme, a formula that they shift around bases in Europe as the fancy takes them. It’s really all a big excuse for Rowland to have plenty of time to write his novel – which exists only as rough sketches of fragmentary episodes. Rowland has big ambitions but little creative stamina, so when the prodigiously talented Chris, a red headed 17-year-old boy wonder, arrives at the school and powers into a brilliant historical novel, he is more than a tad distressed. In fact it isn’t long before Rowland is starting to dream up murderous scenarios, and Nina is having an affair with the eccentric recluse down the road out of sheer exasperation with Rowland’s obsession.
Jealousy becomes the central theme of the novella, structuring not only the relationship between Rowland and Chris but also the protagonists in Chris’s novel. It concerns the unresolved mystery surrounding the killing of Mary Queen of Scots’ husband, Lord Darnley. Mary herself has been held accountable, but Chris’s idea is that the death is an act of revenge for a previous murder, commanded if not executed by Darnley, of a young nobleman named Rizzio of whom Mary had grown extremely fond. Jealous of Rizzio, Darnley arranged to have him knifed, and now Rizzio’s own camp have returned in the spirit of an eye for an eye. As ever with Spark’s novels, all sorts of wild and violent possibilities are implied or suggested or even happen in distant realms, but the main story turns out to be a fuss about nothing.
What’s I found most entertaining in this book (beyond the unfolding of the story itself, which does happen with a lot of fun), is the careless audacity with which she breaks every rule of storytelling. I don’t know of another author who is so confident as to chuck big scenes of absolutely no importance into the plot (there’s a chapter about a fashion show the school puts on, for instance) or who decides about five or six chapters in to give us a description of the main protagonists. It’s as if Spark has this incredibly low threshold for boredom, and so she’ll do anything to her characters just because it amuses her. Spark’s novels are like parties, I think. They produce a lot of engaging events and often much dark-humoured fun, but you can easily leave empty-handed and a little light-headed, wondering what just happened to you.
The Only Problem was my second choice, and this struck me as a more serious novel in some ways than The Finishing School. Although not in the sense that it is any less larded with Spark’s characteristic comedy. It concerns Harvey Gotham, who we first meet living in a dank cottage in France, separated from his beautiful wife, Effie, and hard at work on a scholarly monograph on the Book of Job. Harvey is another of Spark’s obsessives, entangled with the only problem that seems of any importance to him, which is the question of suffering and its meaning. Over the course of the novella, Harvey will have some fairly tough enduring to do as well, but although we are held out this seduction of an analogy – Harvey as modern-day Job – Spark keeps lifting the bar a little higher every time we jump at it. We can’t satisfactorily make the match. Similarly to The Finishing School, a more orthodox story (Darnley’s murder or in this case the Book of Job) becomes a central feature of the plot, and Spark’s own narrative flits and darts about it, teasing us with relevance offered and then withheld.
Although Harvey’s life is somewhat unconventional on the surface – the hermit-y studies on religious works, the cheap accommodation although he has inherited a great deal of money – he is really quite a conventional chap. He is unlike his estranged wife, Effie, whom he left in the middle of a holiday after she confessed to having shoplifted a couple of bars of chocolate. This she did out of a spirit of anarchy and it’s her place in the narrative to make all sorts of trouble. Although she hasn’t been seen since, her actions continue to impact on Harvey in awkward ways. She has a baby with another man, and that baby, Clara, ends up living with Harvey and Effie’s sister, Ruth. And then the police turn up one day because they claim she has become involved in a terrorist organisation responsible for a bombing, and then later in the story, the murder of a policeman. The police refuse to believe that Harvey is not in some way connected, and so he is subjected to endless interrogations, and to his freedom being curtailed. Meanwhile, the media go to town, insisting that Harvey is running a religious sect and printing made-up blasphemous quotes from him.
The audacity of Spark in this novel (and somehow I seem to have to keep using that word) is to realise that if you tell the reader something simply and directly enough, he or she will swallow it. Once you remove yourself from the crazy Spark universe, it seems incredible to think of the twists and turns of the plot, the implied motivations of the characters. But Spark gets away with it, because none of the people in her novels react with alarm or surprise. If they all accept what happens as somehow inevitable, so do we. But again by the ending of this book, I had the sensation of damp squibness. What does Harvey learn about suffering? We are told he has finished his monograph, so what conclusions does he come to about the story of Job? What was the point of Ruth and her random love affair with him? What was the point of any of the things that happened? It maybe that the point ultimately is that there is no point. Or maybe the point is just present in the reading itself. But I get less enamoured of that sort of rhetorical pirouette these days. I wanted something solid to take away and I didn’t get it.
But maybe what will happen is that I’ll forget the frustrations of the conclusions to these novels and remember the fun I had reaching them. And then I’ll pick up another Muriel Spark novel in the future, in the name of loving her, and knowing dimly and distantly that I enjoyed her books in the past…..