On Muriel Spark
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Between 1959 and 1961 Muriel Spark published four novels: Memento Mori, The Ballad of Peckham Rye, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means. These novels are great novels; they develop the technique of the novel as a form. And yet they do not seem like great novels. Instead they seem more delicate, less revolutionary, solid with competence. These novels are clean shaven, irreproachable, undiscussable – like lawn.

She is a great novelist who looks like a quieter novelist. An essay on Muriel Spark must be correspondingly loud.

So this, loudly, is the quiet shift at the centre of Muriel Spark’s writing.

She inverts the norms of the implicit and explicit in fiction. Her novels are reversed out, like negatives. Factual detail is given bluntly, authorially, directly. This means that she seems old-fashioned. Psychological detail – feeling, motivation – is withheld, or occluded, or only partly explained. This means that she seems avant-garde.

But she is neither old-fashioned or avant-garde. She is original.

* * * * *

Following Henry James, it was seen as a mark of skill in the serious novelist that factual information should be presented indirectly. This information should be dramatised, leaking out from the plot, as if the book had been merely overheard, not invented by the author.

The technical name for this – not used by James, but by his disciple, Percy Lubbock – was showing, which was superior to telling.

In an interview with the Listener, 7 February 1974, Kingsley Amis offers a wonderful rebuke to the forced stringencies of this tradition, talking about the cherished influence of W Somerset Maugham: ‘What I did learn – not consciously of course – was that there was really no need for shock tactics, obvious originality, experiments in style. One learns a great deal simply from, for instance, the fact that one of his Far East stories begins: “Jim Grange was a rubber planter.” It’s wonderful to think that one could get away with saying “that’s what he was” instead of saying: “The noon heat beat down on his back” – and you don’t find out what his name is for a page and a half. He did, I think, help to restore one’s confidence in traditional forms of writing.’

Sometimes, Muriel Spark is in this pre-Modernist tradition. Characters are introduced with dense factual sentences, clipped and informative – nutritious as protein shakes: ‘Joanna Childe was a daughter of a country rector. She had a good intelligence and strong obscure emotions. She was training to be a teacher of elocution and, while attending a school of drama, already had pupils of her own.’ Or there are these trim introductions in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie: ‘Rose Stanley was famous for sex. Her hat was placed quite unobtrusively on her blonde short hair, but she dented in the crown on either side. Eunice Gardiner, small, neat, and famous for her spritely gymnastics and glamorous swimming, had the brim of her hat turned up at the front and down at the back.’

When Muriel Spark uses an unsubtle method, however, she uses it with subtlety; she thinks it through. There is a latent preciousness to the Jamesian method of indirection. The Jamesian imperative to dramatise all the narrative material – fulfilled only intermittently in the novels themselves – is motivated by an embarrassment at the contrivance of fiction. It is a way of trying to pretend that this is not a novel at all. In this respect, the blunt simplicity of Somerset Maugham is, quite rightly, to be emulated. It is truer to the materials.

Think of Lars von Trier, who, in an interview with Stig Björkman, remembered his days at film school.

‘If something took place in Vienna, 1934, our teacher wanted us to…Under no circumstances begin with a caption which read ‘Vienna, 1934’. We weren’t allowed to. I remember Zanussi paid us a visit. He said, ‘Yes, well’. He didn’t want to. Instead of writing ‘Vienna, 1934’ – he wanted to take a close-up of a fly crawling over some ink – making smudges on a cheque, and on the top of it was ‘Vienna, 1934’. After everything I learnt from various teachers, I was convinced – that in my film at any rate, there’d be a caption with ‘Vienna, 1934’. Why waste people’s time with a fly wandering over a cheque – when you can do it very simply?’

* * * * *

There are, naturally, two chronologies to a novel – the chronology of the events depicted in a story and the chronology of the order in which these events are told. There is no need for the two chronologies to match.

The great master of the possible disjunctions is Proust and his A la recherche. When she won the Observer’s short story competition in 1951, spark bought a complete set of Proust with her prize money. In an interview with Robert Hosmer – to be published in Salmagundi January 2005 – Spark analyses this technique: ‘my sense of construction in the novel was greatly assisted by [Proust’s] examples. In the matter of construction take for instance the chapter of A la recherche where Swann ends by deciding Odette was not, after all, his style. Next page, new chapter: Swann has already been married to Odette for some years.’ The past, in a novel, can occur after its future. It is a game displayed in one of the first ever novels – Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, with its throwaway ostentatious gags, jamming the past and the future together – ‘a cow broke in (tomorrow morning).’

In a conventional novel, however, the telling of the story follows the chronology of the story itself. In this way, the reader follows the subjective experience of the main characters, and experiences the denouement at the same moment as the characters. It is a method designed to facilitate suspense.

Thus, although flashback is allowable – since it may be necessary to explain the plot – flash-forward, or prolepsis, is not. It is taken as giving up on suspense.

Muriel Spark, bravely and cleverly, uses prolepsis. She states the character’s futures; she states the ends of her plots. All her plots are, in some way, stories about how things end. They are about last things.

Within paragraphs, she uses prolepsis on a small-scale, a constant prefiguring that shadows the characters – as in The Girls of Slender Means: ‘She opened Jane’s door without knocking and put in her head. “Got any sopayjo?”[soap] It was some months before she was to put her head round Jane’s door and announce, “Filthy luck. I’m preggers. Come to the wedding”.’ Or in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, where the characters’ futures interrupt the present, sadly, irrefutably:

‘Mary Macgregor walked with Sandy because Jenny had gone home. Monica Douglas, later famous for being able to do real mathematics in her head, and for her anger, walked behind them with her dark red face, broad nose and dark pigtails falling from her black hat and her legs already shaped like pegs in their black wool stocking…. Behind Miss Brodie, last in the group, little Eunice Gardiner who, twenty-eight years later, said of Miss Brodie, ‘I must visit her grave’, gave a skip between each of her walking steps as if she might even break into pirouettes on the pavement…’

But the technique is broader than this. She gives away not only the character’s ends, but also the plot’s ending. Early in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie we know that it is Sandy who has betrayed Miss Brodie, though we do not know why. On page seven of The Girls of Slender Means we know that Nicholas Farringdon – a poet, convert and missionary – has died in Haiti. And on page 60, we know this, the central moment in the novel, that will occur 60 pages later.

‘Meantime, Nicholas touched lightly on the imagination of the girls of slender means and they on his. He had not yet slept on the roof with Selina on the hot summer nights – he gaining access from the American-occupied attic of the hotel next door, and she through the slit window – and he had not yet witnessed that action of savagery so extreme that it forced him involuntarily to make an entirely unaccustomed gesture, the signing of the cross upon himself.’

The crucial thing is this. Prolepsis does not destroy suspense; it creates a new type of suspense. Because knowing the end is not an explanation or a solution. Rather than wondering how the story will end, the reader is forced to wonder how the story could have ended up at its end. And this is a complicated pleasure.

‘I think suspense is often heightened if the author “gives away” the plot from the very beginning,’ Spark told Hosmer. ‘The reader is then all the more anxious to find out how the conclusion came about.’

Compare this with the opening of Gabriel García Márquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude – ‘Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice’ – magical, engrossing. But it is the sentence’s start that lingers. The ice is discovered fifteen pages later. It is the firing squad that the reader waits for.

* * * * *

This rendering explicit of what is normally implicit – facts, plots – represents a refusal to lie about the novel as a form. There is a refusal to take up Henry James’s imperative: ‘Dramatise, dramatise!’ There is a refusal to get hung up on showing, rather than telling.

In this, Spark is being very clever and careful about what we mean by mimesis in a novel.

The only thing that can truly be imitated, shown in a novel, is language – and this means dialogue, or billboards. Even thought is not linguistic. Everything else has to be told, described. (‘The famous monologue at the end of Ulysses,’ writes T S Eliot, correctly, in his essay on Charles Whibley, ‘is not the way in which persons of either sex actually think: it is a very skilful attempt by a master of language to give the illusion of mental process by a different medium, that of written words.’)

But there are some things that, perhaps, cannot be described, or not described accurately. These things are feelings. Feelings, for Muriel Spark, can only be shown. The conventional descriptions are only inaccurate.

Her most audacious experiment in showing is The Ballad of Peckham Rye. In this book, there are no expressed feelings or thoughts. This does not mean the characters do not have feelings; it means that they are implied from their actions, from their words.

Compare this with Eliot again, in his essay on Philip Massinger – ‘What the creator of character needs is not so much knowledge of motives as keen sensibility; the dramatist need not understand people; but he must be exceptionally aware of them.’

It is important to see how radical Spark’s reversal of the norms of showing and telling is: external facts which were once shown are now told; internal facts which were once told are now shown.

* * * * *

One of the clever things that Muriel Spark has done has been to vary her influences. There is Somerset Maugham. But there is also Robbe-Grillet, and the tradition of the French nouveau roman, as Spark told Hosmer:

I was very much impressed with Robbe-Grillet, not by the effect of what he did, I wasn’t carried away by his novels, but I was very, very interested in his methods. He got away from the novel of descriptions of people’s feelings: ‘he felt’, ‘he thought’ and ‘he said’. ‘He said’ is a fact, actually an outward fact, but ‘he felt’ and ‘he thought’ are interpolations by the author.

In his collection of essays Pour un nouveau roman, published in 1961, Robbe-Grillet tried to explain what he was up to. He was stripping the novel of baggage it could no longer sustain. In his essay ‘A path for the novel of the future’ – first published in 1956 – he stated the roots of his perceived problem with the contemporary novel: ‘One could easily go back as far as Madame de La Fayette. Sacrosanct psychological analysis constituted, already at this time, the basis of all prose: it was that which governed the conception of the book, the description of the characters, the unfolding of the plot.’ In place of this psychological analysis, Robbe-Grillet offered flatness, literalism: ‘There is now, in effect, a new element, which separates us this time radically from Balzac, as from Gide and Madame de La Fayette: it is the destitution of the old myths of “depth”.’ Robbe-Grillet was no longer sure that we understood the world, that the novelist could presume to understand the psychology of a character. All that was left for the novelist was the description of externals: ‘the optical, descriptive adjective, that which is content to measure, to situate, to limit, to define, probably shows the difficult path to a new art of the novel.’

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It was one part of Muriel Spark’s genius that she could read Robbe-Grillet’s anxious, tendentious novels and essays, and make them her own.

* * * * *

The art of Muriel Spark is an art of concision. It operates on a more reduced scale than most novels. But that is not very helpful. We need to understand what is at stake in this concision.

Take the refusal to give extraneous detail. This is nothing new. There is the dry opening to Diderot’s novel Jacques le fataliste et son maître, written in the 1770s, unimpressed by novelistic scene-setting: ‘How did they meet? By chance, like everyone. What were they called? What does it matter to you? Where did they come from? From the next town. Where were they going? Does anyone know where they’re going?’

And it is there, a 100 years later, in Chekhov, too. Writing to Alexander Kuprin, 1 November 1902, Chekhov says: ‘Your first chapter is taken up with descriptions of people’s appearances – again an old-fashioned device; you could easily do without these descriptions. Describing in detail how five people look overburdens the reader’s span of attention, and ultimately loses all value. Clean-shaven actors resemble one another like Catholic priests, and they’ll go on resembling one another no matter how much effort you put into describing them.’

This concision of extraneous detail is there in another of Muriel Spark’s techniques. She does not observe the normal hierarchies of facts to be depicted in a novel. She does not elaborate where she might be expected to elaborate. Instead, she is constantly interested in sentences which are flatly laid beside each other – even if the information in each sentence is not conventionally of the same order of magnitude. Zeugma is central to her comic method. So, in The Girls of Slender Means, ‘Dorothy could emit, at any hour of the day or night, a waterfall of debutante chatter, which rightly gave the impression that on any occasion between talking, eating and sleeping, she did not think, except in terms of these phrase-ripples of hers: “Filthy lunch.” ‘The most gorgeous wedding.” “He actually raped her, she was amazed.” “Ghastly film.” “I’m desperately well, thanks, how are you?”’

This deadpan lack of explanation or emotion can scare some critics. It has scared Christopher Ricks. In an essay in the New York Review of Books, in 1968, Christopher Ricks made the case against Muriel Spark as cruelly seeking to expose her characters’ frailties: ‘human beings cannot but be opaque…so ought our artistic ideal be, above all, to see through them?’

In her great novel Memento Mori, Spark offers this conversation, in a nursing home – an implicit anticipatory rebuke to critics like Ricks.

‘And yet,’ said Charmian, smiling up at the sky through the window, ‘when I was half-way through writing a novel I always got into a muddle and didn’t know where it was leading me.’ Guy thought: She is going to say – dear Charmian – she is going to say ‘The characters seemed to take on a life of their own.’ ‘The characters,’ said Charmian, ‘seemed to take on a life of their own.’

It is a form of literary sentimentality to believe, as Ricks does, that a character can be opaque to his or her author – though, in one crucial respect, Spark’s characters are opaque. When they behave evilly, they behave out of character. Their psychology, psychology in general, will not help us understand them. But this is not the opacity Ricks means.

The reason for Muriel Spark’s concision is this – character is much less complicated than we like to think. Everyone is so much simpler.

In Memento Mori, there is this send-up of the novel’s pretensions to psychological depth: ‘About your novels,’ he said. ‘The plots are so well laid. For instance in The Seventh Child, although of course one feels that Edna will never marry Gridsworthy, you have this tension between Anthony Garland and Colonel Yeoville, and until of course their relationships to Gabrielle are revealed, there is every likelihood that Edna will marry one or the other. And yet, of course, all along one is aware of a kind of secret life within Edna, especially at that moment when she is alone in the garden at Neuflette, and then comes unexpectedly upon Karl and Gabrielle. And then one feels sure she will marry Gridsworthy after all, merely for his kindness. And really, right up to the last page one does not know Karl’s true feelings. Or rather, one knows them – but does he know them?’

* * * * *

In her novels, Muriel Spark rethinks novelistic psychology.

Normally, novels believe in explanations. So a novel about a bad character will be a novel which attempts to explain why a character acts badly. It will attempt to describe a psychology – a set of motivations. Spark is not impressed by this – because it is easy enough, detecting people’s motivations; they are rarely unusual.

Psychology, for Spark, is not an explanation; it is a way of avoiding an explanation. It is a way of offering an explanation, when the crueller truth is that none is commensurate with the facts.

Compare her to D H Lawrence. In a letter to Edward Garnett, 5 June 1914, D H Lawrence tried to explain what he was up to: ‘You mustn’t look in my novel for the old stable ego of the character. There is another ego, according to whose action the individual is unrecognisable, and passes through, as it were, allotropic states which it needs a deeper sense than any we’ve been used to exercise, to discover are states of the same single radically unchanged element.’ This description is very close to Spark’s novels. She does not describe egos, she describes the allotropic states a character can go through – the sudden slippages of a seemingly stable character.

She describes the behaviour of a character which is not explained by a character’s psychology. This is one reason why all her books are not just stories about last things. They are stories about evil.

The subject of all Muriel Spark’s novels is Original Sin. And this is not an original subject, not in itself. Spark avoids the danger of dullness simply by the force of her precision, and by her economy. She offers no explanation. She offers no lesson. She simply describes how people behave. Spark’s great achievement is to show how accurate religious descriptions of psychology are – how congruent they are with the facts.

Before Hannah Arendt, Spark knew about the banality of evil. But Spark goes further. Evil is not just banal, evil is opaque too – flat, simply there. ‘I am not sure about the devil as a personification,’ said Spark. ‘But the Devil is a very useful personification of what we really do see in the world. Evil exists. Evil is in the world and we know it because we are born with a knowledge of good and evil.’

Spark is not a doctrinal novelist. She does not assert conclusions; instead she invents provocations.

The Girls of Slender Means is exemplary.

The boarding house – where the girls of slender means live – is burning down. Nicholas Farringdon has helped some girls, including his thin and graceful girlfriend Selina, to escape through the narrow bathroom window. Some girls still remain inside – too large to squeeze through the minuscule window. One of these is Joanna Childe, the rector’s daughter and elocution teacher – a devout and gentle Christian. All the girls are saved, except for Joanna, who is too late climbing the ladder to safety. She dies reciting the psalms. Another girl, Selina, re-enters the boarding house – apparently to rescue someone:

Nicholas then saw, through the door of the wash-room, Selina approaching along the smoky passage. She was carrying something fairly long and limp and evidently light in weight, enfolding it carefully in her arms. He thought it was a body…She climbed up on the lavatory seat and slid through the window, skillfully and quickly pulling her object behind her. Nicholas held up his hand to catch her. When she landed on the roof-top she said, ‘Is it safe out here?’ and at the same time was inspecting the condition of her salvaged item. Poise is perfect balance. It was the Schiaparelli dress. The coat-hanger dangled from the dress like a headless neck and shoulders.

Sixty pages earlier, Spark had noted the effect on Nicholas of an ‘action of savagery so extreme that it forced him involuntarily to make an entirely unaccustomed gesture, the signing of the cross upon himself.’ This action turns out to be Selina’s saving of a Schiaparelli dress. After which, the house collapses.

The Girls of Slender Means presents, bluntly, deftly, the problem of all theodicy. A gentle, moral girl dies, unsavable – while Selina saves a Schiaparelli dress. The good things of the world, the permanent things, are unsavable.

In the novel, there are three reactions to the catastrophe. Nicholas, who is converted, becomes a missionary, and dies in Haiti. Selina goes mad. And there is another chaarcter, Jane, who had introduced Nicholas to the girls of slender means in their boarding house. Jane is simply stoical. The novel ends on VJ day:

Jane mumbled, ‘Well, I wouldn’t have missed it, really.’ She had halted to pin up her straggling hair, and had a hair-pin in her mouth as she said it. Nicholas marvelled at her stamina, recalling her in this image years later in the country of his death – how she stood, sturdy and bare-legged on the dark grass, occupied with her hair – as if this was an image of all the May of Teck establishment in its meek, unselfconscious attitudes of poverty, long ago in 1945.

The novel doesn’t ask which of these three reactions is right. The novel is only concerned with putting the question, the problem. Nowhere is safe. The novel opens on the day of the first armistice in 1945, and it ends on the day of the second armistice, in 1946. Because the war is never over. There is no end to evil.

* * * * *

In Spark there is a connection between the precision of the form, and the insoluble discrepancies in morality that are described so precisely.

We cannot explain ourselves to ourselves.

Spark shows us this by telling us, tells us this by showing us.


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