I’ve just finished Spark’s second novel, Robinson. Still reeling. I want everyone who picks up this book for the first time to be as shocked and riveted as I was; so much depends on not knowing the next twist.
Brilliant as her first novel was, she blows away all competition with her second. Anyone else writing in 1958 may as well have put away their typewriter.
Girl got some serious range.
An homage to Irish novelist Daniel Defoe’s 1719 Robinson Crusoe (considered by most literary scholars to be the first novel), in Spark’s second work three passengers survive a plane crash on a remote island while en route to the Azores. Pulled to safety and nursed by the owner of the island – a man who’s re-christened himself “Robinson” – and a young boy he’s taken under his care – Miguel – the three learn they have several months until a crew coming to harvest and take away the island’s pomegranate crop will call for rescue.
A writer on assignment, sent to research three islands, January Marlow narrates. Handed a notebook by Robinson, who figures this will keep her occupied and her mind off the horror of surviving a crash dozens didn’t, she begins recording what will come to be an increasingly strange and menacing life on the island.
… without any effort of will, my eye recorded the territory, as if my eyes were an independent and aboriginal body, taking precautions against unknown eventualities. Instinctively I looked for routes of escape, positions of concealment, protective rocks; instinctively I looked for edible vegetation. In fact, I must have been afraid.
Widowed after the death of a much older husband who married her on a bet when she was a schoolgirl and he aged 58, January has a young son back home in England. It crosses her mind he and all her family will assume she’s dead in the months before she returns. She carries on, knowing rescue will come eventually. There’s nothing more she can do but record the experience.
Tom Wells, huckster salesman of pseudo-mystical trinkets, suffered the worst injuries from the crash, breaking several ribs. Confined by a make-shift brace ingeniously constructed by Robinson, he spends weeks in recovery. Once he’s up and around, what an irritating character he becomes. Honestly, you’ll want to slap him.
The third survivor, Jimmie Waterford, reveals to January he’s been sent by Robinson’s family to bring him back to run the family business, which he’s inherited – a motor-scooter business headquartered in Tangiers. Only concussed by the crash, Jimmie suffered the least physical damage. Aside from companionable time spent with Robinson, Jimmie will come to be January’s most trusted friend and confidante.
Other books published in 1958:
Chinua Achebe – Things Fall Apart
Truman Capote – Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Graham Greene – Our Man in Havana
Barbara Pym – A Glass of Blessings
Ian Fleming – Dr No
Jack Kerouac – Dharma Bums
Mary Renault – The King Must Die
Nobel Prize for Literature: Boris Pasternak
Roddy Doyle – Irish novelist
Cornelia Funke – German children’s author
Dorothy Canfield Fisher
Having established a well-appointed home in a pre-existing 19th century house, Robinson lives a mostly solitary life on the island, surviving on tinned provisions brought once a year by the pomegranate men. Young Miguel was the child of one of these men, taken in by Robinson after the boy’s father died.
Not a native English speaker, naive from lack of life experience, Miguel is Spark’s child version of the character “Friday” from Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. He serves as a guide around the island, as well as a handy extra set of hands when there’s work to be done.
Settling in, January finds it annoying that Robinson has a beautiful, well-stocked library in glass-enclosed bookshelves, because they’re mostly uncut first editions, for display and obviously unread. At home, she recalls, her books are all a mess, thrown about, edition be damned. When he generously offers up his books for her use, she barely looks at them. Mostly classical works, none appeal.
For modern readers, the uncut bit refers to the 19th century and prior publication of books containing pages that weren’t cut in production. Readers would need knives to separate the pages as they read. Cutting the pages was an added expense for the publisher.
A former bookseller myself, I’ve owned uncut books. Believe me, I felt the same about their previous owners as our heroine January, though the fact a 19th century book was uncut increases its value. It’s like owning a rare car that’s never been driven. A bit of trivia thrown in as a bonus, you’re very welcome.
Here’s a short video for your, in case you own or purchase a book with uncut pages and need to remedy that:
Robinson is a linear novel, told from January’s perspective. The banter between the characters has a tense quality, always a bit of unease to keep the reader from becoming too confident s/he knows precisely what’s going on, who’s a goodie or baddie. Distrust is sown and fed. Spark keeps us on our toes. It’s difficult to know who can be trusted, if anyone’s being sincere or what’s motivating them.
Except January. Maybe I should say it’s the men you aren’t certain you can trust. But then, it’s January keeping the journal, isn’t it.
On the way back, Robinson once more referred to my journal.
Keep it up. You will be glad of the notes later on. After all, you did intend to write about islands.
Not this island, I said.
Man proposes and God disposes, he said.
The book is filled with Spark’s imaginatively descriptive exploration of an island richly varied, containing sandy beaches, volcanic formations, secret tunnels and caves, even an active volcano referred to as the Furnace. The Furnace sighs, even screams, when things are thrown into it. It’s sulphurous and powerful. In the midst of a beautiful island paradise, there’s palpable menace.
The rest of the island sounds like a paradise. I have to wonder if she used a real location, if she drew from personal experience. It’s so vivid:
In direct sunlight a variety of greens twinkled suddenly, glimpses of mossy craters. Curious red lights appeared, which I later discovered were caused by vapours rising from the soil like rusty dew … The shallower pits were filled with iridescent blue and green pools. This was the moonish landscape of which Robinson had spoken. The feel of the earth underfoot, the colours, even the air, were strange.
The plot pivots past the halfway point, becoming much darker, when one of the characters disappears in a way suggesting great violence. From here the characters actively begin to turn on each other, suspicious. January, as the narrator, analyzes the situation in her notebook, trying to crack the case. There are only five people on the island. Of that she can be reasonably certain. Might one of them be a murderer?
Each one of them has some motivation for wanting the missing person dead, some conflict that could appear damning if twisted just the right way. Each has had a run-in the others have witnessed.
I’m sorry. You’re not getting any more spilled beans out of me.
The Catholic Element
Similar to Caroline Rose from her first novel, The Comforters, and an autobiographical tip of the hat to Spark herself, January Marlow is a Catholic convert. Religious discussion crops up between the characters, culminating in January’s determination to introduce young Miguel to the rosary, partly to counteract Tom Wells and the ridiculous stories he tells the boy about his “miracle” artifacts.
Robinson is adamant the boy receives no religious instruction. A born Catholic who left the faith while in the seminary, he orders her to leave the boy alone and Tom Wells to stop feeding the boy nonsense. Mystified, Miguel is drawn to what seems magical and otherworldly, yet he’s easily distracted by pretty much anything, so there’s not much danger either side will influence him. He is a very simple soul.
Muriel Spark’s conversion to Catholicism had a strong influence on her novels. She used the topic of Catholicism in her first two books, and no doubt will later, but interestingly there’s no effort to expound on dogma. It’s more peripheral than concrete, and so far in her books leads to conflict between characters. I haven’t seen anything overtly positive coming from religion in either The Comforters or Robinson.
In both novels, Spark also refers to superstition and the occult. It isn’t clear to me yet what, precisely, she’s trying to say. Or perhaps she isn’t making any judgment, just presenting both.
I’m looking forward to learning more about her own life as I get further into Stannard’s biography, noting how she uses religion and what message she’s trying to convey. Why did she convert, and what did religion mean to her? I’d like to know.
Robinson really staggered me with its depth of detail – natural description and plot-wise – as well as that madly twisty-turny storyline. I didn’t see her wicked humor as much in her second novel, but it would have been obvious she had one hell of a career ahead of her if she was turning out books like this so soon.
I could turn this into a lengthy piece of literary criticism if I deconstructed the book, but honestly, I just want you to know it’s a damn fine read. Sometimes you’re just not in the mood to be a literary critic, you know?
Just read Muriel Spark.
I’ll talk to you later, after Memento Mori.