‘King and Queen’ – Henry Moore (1953)
Muriel Spark is a tonic. Her books may be slender but what they lack in heft they more than make up for with a huge compression of the blackest of humour, the sharpest of prose, the cleanest of styles and the wildest imaginings. Like all great writers, you couldn’t mistake a Muriel Spark for anyone else.
The Hothouse by the East River was Spark’s 12th novel from 1973. It concerns Elsa who whiles away her days in a sweltering New York apartment, arguing with her husband Paul and receiving visits from her psychiatrist, Garven.
Elsa’s shadow also stands at odds with the physics of the light around her.
Paul and Elsa met while working in British intelligence in a place known as ‘The Compound’ in 1944. While there they crossed paths with a group who return to New York years later, among them Princess ‘Poppy’ Xavier who now farms silk and hatches the eggs of the worms beneath her ‘huge pink bulge of bosom’, Miles Bunting who takes the lead role in Elsa and Pauls’ sons’ reimagining of ‘Peter Pan’ with every actor over the age of 60, and Helmut Kiel, Nazi spy who may or may not have had a wartime affair with Elsa and who now works in a Manhattan shoe shop.
What does it all mean? To which the only correct response is: why does it have to ‘mean’ anything? It could represent the response of the victims of warfare to the onset of peace, wallowing in a glitzy bohemian world where the rules of normal existence no longer mean anything? It could be a farce – Spark appears almost Joe Ortonesque in the sequence when the garish cast, dressed inappropriately (‘a flame-coloured crepe evening dress with dark beads at the hem and wrists’) and luxuriantly slathered in jewels to attend her sons’ hexagenerian version of Peter Pan, acting like the grandest drag queens and arriving to a round of applause from the gay audience. ‘We’ve been far-out longer than they have’ sighs a complaining Princess Xavier before Elsa starts a riot by pelting the cast with rotten tomatoes. It could be a satire on the rich and their search for meaning in life (both Elsa and Paul have psychiatrists who play a large role in the book)
The brilliance of Muriel Spark is that her work could be all of these things but taking into account what Spark’s character, Mrs Hawkins – a book editor in ‘A Far Cry From Kensington’ – says about
‘…pensive men and women talking with judicious facial expressions about such mutilated concepts as optimism/ pessimism, fascist/ communist, extrovert/introvert, high-brow/ middle-brow/ low-brow; and this claptrap they applied to art, literature and life to the effect that all joy, wit and the pleasures of curiosity were quite squeezed out.’
…it is clear that Spark, at the very least, places the ‘meaning’ of a novel way down in her pecking order of importance. (Of course, there are some recurring themes in Spark’s work: religion; a search for meaning, sinister plots by omnipresent shadowy groups or people)
But in this Sparksian universe where anything can happen we find damaged characters drifting in search of a life or a plot which gives us two further reasons for Spark’s greatness:
Firstly, her way with razor sharp miniature profiles which tell you all you need to know about a character. Take, for example, the introductions to the ‘not quite normal’ people running a publishing house in ‘A Far Cry From Kensington: : The ‘charming Doctor who had been struck off the rolls’; the ‘sweet natured, though vague, young woman, a Vicar’s daughter, her face frightfully marred all one side by a port-wine birth-mark’; ‘The head of the production department, totally incompetent but very witty, had a duodenal ulcer which he bore bravely, and limped from a war -wound’; The woman Director, ‘tough business-woman though she was; she was the daughter of a notorious mass-murderer of the early ‘thirties’ and possibly my favourite, the ‘very small, raddled and parchment faced photographer who called himself Vladimir’, a white Russian, who was said to beat his mother.’ Of course, his author photographs showed their most ‘unbecoming and grotesque aspects’, with any rejected being sold to a ‘clandestine shop in Soho for a modest fee’. Upon his death it turns out that Vladimir was actually Cyril Biggs from Wandsworth.
Secondly, in direct challenge to those ‘realist’ writers who believe their characters act ‘naturally’ Spark’s novels pay no heed to such notions. Her characters are the product of pure imagination – fully formed, yes, but purely of themselves in behaviour. They rarely take the ‘realistic’ option and in this Spark allows her characters to go where they want: each Spark novel I have read provides no hint or clue as to where it might be heading. In this respect (and the fact that Spark’s worlds are purely Sparkian, they could not be a product of anyone else) Spark’s novels are wonderfully camp: they are, to paraphrase Susan Sontag’s ‘Notes on Camp’, ‘dead serious’ in that Spark is a novelist of the highest order yet her creations see the world ‘not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.’. Her work has ‘the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, the naive’ and could, by some, be considered ‘outlandish’ (‘When something is just bad (rather than Camp) it’s often because it is too mediocre in its ambition. The artist hasn’t attempted to do something really outlandish’)
Each Spark novel also takes on a different genre, a different form: while ‘The Driver’s Seat’ is a minimalist horror story about a woman’s journey to her destiny, ‘A Far Cry from Kensington’ could be a murder mystery in the ‘Miss Marple’ mould. This can sometimes disorientate a reader, in that you think you know what to expect from a Spark novel only to pick up another and find yourself in a radically different quarter. This must have made her really difficult to market when she was alive and can be difficult for the reader who isn’t prepared to come to the novel with an open mind and the willingness to submit and surrender completely. Compare the following openings:
‘The other servants fall silent as Lister enters the room. ‘Their life,’ says Lister, ‘a general mist of error. Their death, a hideous storm of terror. – I quote from The Duchess of Malphi by John Webster, an English dramatist of old.’
‘When you say a thing is not possible, that isn’t quite as if to say it’s possible,’ says Eleanor who, although younger than Lister, is his aunt. She is taking off her out for clothes. Only technically is the not impossible, possible.’
‘We are not discussing possibilities today,’ Lister says. ‘Today we speak of facts. This is not the time for inconsequential talk.’ (Not to Disturb)
‘Daylight appearing over London, the great city of bachelors. Half-pint bottles of milk began to be stood on the doorsteps of houses containing single apartments from Hampstead Heath to Greenwich Park, and from Wanstead Flats to Putney Heath; but especially in Hampstead, especially in Kensington’ (The Batchelors)
‘This is rape!’ His voice was reaching a pitch it had never reached before and went higher still as he surveyed the wreckage. ‘This is violation!’
It was not rape, it was a robbery. (Symposium)
In many ways Spark mirrors aspects of my favourite author, Shena Mackay: both were born in Edinburgh and share an interest in the damaged and lost in life. While I have earlier commented that one word to describe Mackay’s fiction might be ‘melancholy’ with a wry sense of fun, Spark’s writing comes from a more strident place of cynicism and a wilder, crueller but no less funny humour. But, to paraphrase to Susan Sontag, ‘(Spark) is generous. (She) wants to enjoy. It only seems like malice, cynicism (or, if it is cynicism it is not a ruthless but a sweet cynicism)…(Spark) relishes rather than judges, the little triumphs and awkward intensities of ‘character’…’
Last year saw the centenary of Spark’s birth and there was a certain amount of hyperbole about her work, much of which I chose to ignore. Silly me.