The Comforters by Muriel Spark


Starting out 2018 with fantastic reads, coming into my year of Muriel Spark with gusto. Having finished her first novel, The Comforters, I see great joy lies ahead – not that I doubted that one second.

Muriel Spark was brilliant. I don’t just say that because she was Scottish, native to my beloved Edinburgh. Doesn’t hurt her case; she was genuinely talented. Related to my reading of her books and associated books about her, she happens to have written a biography of Mary Shelley.


I lucked onto a copy of this at a library book sale.


Why is that significant? I’ll tell you! 2018 marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein, written by the very same Ms. Shelley. Throughout the course of the year I hope to re-read that classic gothic novel, my small participation in the festivity of all things Frankenstein happening throughout the world.

How handy Spark’s book falls under both umbrellas. Serendipity.

A (Very Tiny) Bit About Muriel Spark’s Edinburgh

Photo credit: Benjamin Brock: Bruntsfield area

Born in the Bruntsfield area of Edinburgh, a mile south-west of the city center, the opening scene of the film adaptation of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was shot on the steps of her first home at Admiral Terrace.


Admiral Terrace, Edinburgh – which house she lived in, I don’t know


Also in the Bruntsfield area is James Gillespie’s High School for Girls, which she attended and used as a model for the Marcia Blaine School in Jean Brodie.

In 1932 she’d be crowned the school’s poetess:


Her poems appeared regularly in the school magazine


I recognize Bruntsfield. I couldn’t tell you specifics, but I know I’ve been there – at least passing through. If I enlarged the photos and squinted a bit I may be able to relate anecdotal knowledge. The Scot, who knows the city like the back of his hand, would know. Unfortunately, he no longer speaks to me.


Let’s not think about that. I’m not in the mood to have my mood ruined.

In any case, I don’t think I’m done with Edinburgh just yet. If I return, I’ll investigate this and other literary sites. All the places I’d eventually have known like the back of my own hand.


Kicking Off the Reads


The Comforters (1957) – her first novel


What an odd novel, The Comforters – meant in the very best way. The cast of characters is outrageously eccentric, putting it mildly, the plot points funny to the point of slapstick.

There’s a converted Catholic writer (Caroline Rose) who hears her thoughts spoken out loud, accompanied by the sound of a typewriter – an unseen writer composing the actual novel we’re reading, as we’re reading it, whom only Caroline can hear; a sweet, unassuming grandmother engaged in a diamond smuggling trade and her grandson Laurence Manders (formerly involved with Caroline, still obviously in love with her), who works for the BBC and is determined to find out what she’s up to; a practitioner and devotee of the dark arts, possibly two (one of whom is also a bookseller who declares it’s an interest, only); an irritating, universally disliked and paunchy middle-aged disappearing woman who’s either a devotee of the dark arts or a staunch Catholic, no less mysterious by the time of her death …

And on it goes.


The Comforters was the first of the 22 novels Muriel Spark would write over nearly 50 years, the first of what would become her recognisable but inimitable oeuvre of slim, intelligent, irreverent, aesthetically sophisticated, sometimes Hitchcockianly grim, always philosophically powerful works of fiction. Each of these – with a paradoxical lightness, and a sense of mixed resolution and unresolvedness that leaves its readers both satisfied and disturbed – would take to task its own contemporaneity and ask profound questions about art, life and belief.



The two main plot lines involve Caroline Rose’s attempt to write a book about novels, in the midst of her fervent conversion to Catholicism – effectively killing off her physical relationship with poor Laurence, now that she sees that as  the sin of fornication – as well as her battle for her sanity, and Laurence’s attempt to get to the bottom of his grandmother’s suspected diamond smuggling. Then the grandmother’s own story, of course, through which we’re told everything, before Laurence figures it out.

The inter-relationships between all the characters is tight. By the end, everyone’s related to or very tightly bound to everyone else. There are no characters extraneous to the plot.

Timeline of Muriel Spark’s Life


The Comforters is a matter of fact novel, despite dealing with occasional supernatural elements. This makes it all the more humorous, presenting ridiculous situations in a dead-pan tone. Very British, as we’ve come to know their comedy.

Told in a linear narrative, not given to flights of fancy or high-flown language, it flows smoothly. Between ease of reading and its humorous and compelling plot, it’s a fast read. How does it compare to her best-known The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie? It’s not as sophisticated, unsurprisingly, much more light-hearted. It doesn’t delve as deeply into psychological aspects, though you can see hints of the mature writer Spark will become.

The Comforters is a delight, a brilliant kick-off to my Year of Reading Muriel Spark. I’m going straight into her second book, Robinson (1958), having set myself up nicely ordering her first three novels.

Other books published in 1957:

Ivy Compton-Burnett – A Father and His Fate

Daphne du Maurier – The Scapegoat

Jack Kerouac – On the Road

Bernard Malamud – The Assistant

Nancy Mitford – Voltaire in Love

Iris Murdoch – The Sandcastle

Vladimir Nabokov – Pnin

Nevil Shute – On the Beach

Dr. Seuss – The Cat in the Hat and How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Nobel Prize for Literature: Albert Camus

Other Literary Events in 1957


I’ve also downloaded the Kindle edition of the Martin Stannard biography of Spark. Rubbing my hands in glee at the thought of curling up with that, something I’m able to do sans guilt as I’m laid up, nursing my fractured rib and accompanying soft tissue injury – worse than the fracture itself, actually.

I have a three-day weekend, thanks to working for a company headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama, home to Dr. Martin Luther King. As Monday’s his birthday, we have the day off. You can guess where I’ll be and what I’ll be doing.

I’m off to do just that.

What I’m reading, what I’m writing

“A philosophical question: if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? And if a woman who’s wholly alone occasionally talks to a pot plant, is she certifiable? I think that it is perfectly normal to talk to oneself occasionally. It’s not as though I’m expecting a reply. I’m fully aware that Polly is a houseplant.”

  • Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine


On the reviewing pile.

Having recently signed on with the Glasgow Review of Books, I’m patiently awaiting the arrival of my first assignment. It’s a reprint of a “forgotten” writer’s autobiography, a writer I’ve never heard of but found so intriguing I was happy to say aye.

Reading and more reading.

Meanwhile, I’m engaged in lots of other literary pursuits, natch. I’m working on a review of Ever Dundas’s remarkable Goblin, as well as a pending interview with this gifted debut novelist. Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – the IT novel of Summer 2017 – kept me enthralled throughout. I have Muriel Spark’s The Comforters simmering on the back burner, and just started Jenni Daiches’s Borrowed Time. On the Kindle there’s, a review copy of Rushdie’s upcoming The Golden House, featuring a satisfyingly sly portrait of a certain orange president.

Daaaang this was a good read.

Author events wise, Gail Honeyman’s appearing in Edinburgh this week. You don’t need to ask if I’m planning to go, because I’m planning to go.

As for July, current plans are to hit the road late in the month for Austen, Woolf and Bronte country. My son’s visiting the UK for a couple of weeks in early August, then the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Stellar lot of authors this year, but I haven’t picked my must-sees. Best fast-track that.

My reading plate’s full to overflowing, covered in comfort food. It’s a big ol’ buffet full of mashed potatoes, meatloaf and macaroni and cheese that isn’t flourescent orange and doesn’t come from a box. And is that chocolate cake I see on the dessert table?

I think it is (galloping noises).

Incoming! New books on the shelf this week.

When the dollar rose against the pound, I took advantage. Now that it’s inevitably fallen very ouchly, post-UK election kerfuffle, I need to consider cutting back on book purchases.

[Need. Such a vague word, isn’t it? Food, water, clothing, shelter… Got those, but do we not have other needs, less about pure survival, but nevertheless crucial?]


But it feels so right


Graeme Macrae Burnet climbed atop Mt. TBR after last year’s Man Booker Prize featured his His Bloody Project on its shortlist. If you’ve not heard of it, trot out and find it. I bought The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau because it’s his first novel. I’m planning to read everything he’s written, partly because I’m eyeing the Bloody Scotland literary event in September, and partly because he’s a writer just breaking out into the big time. He’s also the author Ian Rankin recommended when I asked which new Scottish authors should I make sure to read.

The Shore by Sara Taylor, Hotel World by Ali Smith, and Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood are three books consisting of inter-connected short stories recommended to me by trusted reading friends. It’s a side project of mine, an interest in studying how writers use this particular framework. They all sound fantastic.

Am writing.

In my free time, I’ve been working on a fiction project of my own, and is it ever slow going. It’s not the first fiction I’ve written, but working on it reminds me how bleeping hard the craft truly is. And the easier prose looks, the tougher it was to write. A writer can’t keep that from allowing a steady flow of absolute shite in the all-important first draft. It’s awful, oh god it’s awful, but it’s supposed to be.

I apply every bit as much severity to what I write as I do the writing of others, and expect the same scrutiny from fellow reviewers. More, actually, because I am an unabashed reading snob, expecting a very high level of quality in published fiction. I jealously guard my reading time. It’s limited, and I refuse to squander it. An advocate of struggling writers, every time I see another sub-par writer published I know dozens more far more talented have been slighted. It makes me very, very angry. I hope other reviewers feel the same, judging accordingly.

It’s a blustery day in Scotland. No better time to curl up and read.

Until next time, happy reading!


Review: Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine

I would have sworn I'd finish no more books by the end of the year but it just goes to show when you make such a pronouncement you're nearly always wrong. The virus that's knocked me flat over the past few days made it impossible to stay awake the first two but yesterday, lo and behold, I was able to maintain consciousness long enough not only to read Sara Levine's Treasure Island!!! but also most of Ali Smith's There But for The.

 I believe I was so starved for reading time my pace was set to double-quick. Also, it didn't hurt Levine's book went so quickly and Smith's was clearly written by angels. Actually, know what it made me think of? Sebastian Barry. Oh shut up with your "doesn't everything…" because no, it doesn't. The style – the beautiful, poetic prose – is uplifting in the same way as Barry. No wonder it was one of his favorite reads of 2011, and, okay, part of the reason I decided to go ahead and slip it in the line ahead of Jennifer Egan's blockbuster Goon Squad.

Happy now?


Treasureisland Therebutforthe


I'm not ready to talk about There But for The, aside from the fact it's gob-smackingly BRILLIANT through the 3/4 point, where I am. Not that I expect it to take a nosedive, as that would be shocking indeed. It's more that I honestly don't have time to get into it as deeply as it deserves right now. But for Treasure Island!!! there's time enough.

Let's first cover a point I know I've heard ad nauseum, therefore so probably have you. That is, the issue of "I don't like the main character, therefore how can I be expected to like the book?"


A bit of a literary lesson, if I may be so bold: YOU DON'T HAVE TO LIKE EVERY CHARACTER IN A BOOK FOR IT TO BE WELL-WRITTEN! Sorry for using my outside voice but STOP SAYING THAT!

I find Humbert Humbert one of the most reprehensible, revolting and disgusting bits of slime ever to walk the pages of a book but by damn Lolita is a fine piece of literature. I'm not supposed to like HH. If I did there would be something sociopathically wrong with me. Same goes for Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist. Anyone find him particularly endearing? So, is Oliver Twist any less a masterpiece? Etc., etc., etc.

Intentionally creating an unlikable main character is a skill, sort of like juggling, or playing the piano – anything that requires you do two things at once. Assuming other characters in a book are at least moderately likable, forming that one true baddie who provokes loathing in a reader is no easy feat. As for how this all ties into Treasure Island!!!, I'm reading it with an online group, and so far the most common complaint is "I don't like her!" Well, that's understandable, because throughout most of the book the main character is a selfish, conceited bitch. Though, on the other hand, she's at times a hilariously funny, selfish, conceited bitch.

Personally, having said an awful lot about recognizing an author's skill despite how you feel about her characters, in the end – despite the character's very last minute growth/change – I did not find the book that satisfactory a read. It was funny at times, wicked at others. And at the end I could kind of, sort of understand the character's motivation (in addition to seeing the aforesaid growth) for all the things she did within the course of the book. But was she a masterfully-drawn character?

Not quite. There simply wasn't enough to the book. It didn't have enough to say about, well, anything in particular. It's an entertainment, rather than a piece of literature I walked away from feeling in some way transformed, more enlightened about the human condition. Despite an okay ending it just didn't grab me. I love books that knock me around a bit, leave me bruised and battered.

What's it about? The main character – who, as far as I can recall, is never named – becomes, for no apparent reason, obsessed with R.L. Stevenson's Treasure Island. She carries the book with her everywhere, taking endless notes, mostly about extraneous details most of us wouldn't care about, some of them in code for whatever reason. Her telling remark about the book, an image repeated several times, is:

"If life were a sea adventure, I knew: I wouldn't be sailor, pirate or cabin boy but more likely a barnacle clinging to the side of the boat. Why not rise, I thought. Why not spring up that very moment, in the spirit of Jim, and create my own adventure?"

And a barnacle she is, throughout the course of the book, occasionally realizing it but mostly just going along for the ride.

When the book opens she's working at a "Pet Library," which is exactly what it sounds: animals are checked out and returned after a specific lending period. After blowing all the owner's petty cash on a parrot, she's fired. Oddly enough, she's never charged with stealing the  money. For the rest of the novel she knocks about, living off people and doing as she pleases. With the  parrot, of course. The parrot she despises. The owner of the Pet Library was curiously uninterested in adding it to her collection, though her money bought the incredibly expensive bird.  Why not try to recoup that investment or demand it be returned and her money restored to her? Again, I just don't know.

She meets and develops a boyfriend relationship with a man named Lars, moves in with him once her unemployed state makes her unable to afford her own apartment, and starts spending his money like mad. Things go forward, little makes any sense and telling more would just be spoiling the plot.

Books that are just okay, fun while they last then forgotten, are pretty much useless to me. I don't read "beach books," "chick lit" or, usually (though watch for an upcoming exception to that rule), "cozies." I don't like the light and fluffy. I don't need a lighter book between more serious books. They waste my limited reading time. I want the exceptional, the concise books that pack a serious punch or the longer, poetic, angelic books of the sort Sebastian Barry (!) and Ali Smith write. Among others, of course, but choosing favorite writers is much like choosing a favorite among my children. Depending on the day.

But it's not all bad for Sara Levine. She writes some howlingly funny stuff, like this:

"I've never liked Long John Silver, but reading about him vigorously stumping around on his wooden leg prepared me to see the positive side of a crippled life. I shudder to think of it, but I know my strengths: I could lose a limb and, with the right wardrobe, still come off as sexy. I'm not saying I would want to wear a prosthetic hand, only that I'm the kind of girl who could pull it off, whereas Adrianna – what can I say? Her appeal is limited."

Her humor, dark and snarky, is the sort I like. I just didn't love the book as a whole. After discussing it with the Rumpus Book Group I may have a more generous point of view but I expect it won't change dramatically. On a scale of one to Sebastian Barry it's a mere meh. Nothing to get excited about, nothing to flail my arms around recommending. It's funny, the main character is basically a useless but wonky leach, and in the end she undergoes a sort of awakening. So it's all there, all the requirements of good writing. It just didn't excite me. Plus, there's a bit about cruelty to animals. Gratuitous cruelty. And sorry, that's just not funny.

My two cents? I'd take a pass on this one.


Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine

Europa Editions (December 7, 2011)

ISBN:    978-1609450618

Pages: 172

$ 15.00


Source: My personal library.





There But for The by Ali Smith – everyone’s a winner!!





Turns out all three of you have won a hardback copy of Ali Smith's 'There But for The'!

I opened another package from Random House that was sitting on my office at work. I'll let you guess what it contained.

Yet. Another. Hardback. Copy.



I've gotten multiple free review copies of books before, but never have the stars aligned so weirdly for any other title. So the three of you may have the hardbacks, and I have the paperback review copy I've already started reading (and marking up).

Suzanne and Shari, I KNOW WHERE TO FIND YOU!!

Rachael, I'll need you to send me a preferred snail mail address to my email:  Currently I have no way of contacting you save via this post.

Congrats all, and thanks for playing!

Book Giveaway: There But for The by Ali Smith


"This startling lark from Smith (The Accidental) is so much more than the sum of its parts. Both breezy and devastating, the novel radiates from its whimsical center: Miles Garth, a dinner party guest, decides to leave the world behind and lock himself in his hostess’s spare room, refusing to come out and communicating only by note. Four charmers with tenuous links to Miles, nicknamed Milo by the growing crowd camped outside the suburban Greenwich London house, narrate the proceedings: Anna, a girl who knew Miles briefly in the past; Mark, a melancholy gay man who Miles met watching Shakespeare at the Old Vic; May Young, an elderly woman who Miles helped grieve her daughter’s death; and the wonderful, "preternaturally articulate" Brooke, arguably the cleverest 10-year-old in contemporary literature. Together, they create a portrait not so much of Miles—because none of them really knows him—but of the zeitgeist of their society. In a lovely departure, and in spite of the fact that there is not one ordinary, carefree character in this whole tale, all parents are literate, loving, and tolerant: though Mark is exhausted and sad, his famous mum speaks to him, in verse no less, from beyond the grave; though May is trapped in dementia, she was a kind mother to her ill-fated daughter; and though Brooke is clearly plagued by attention deficit disorder and is misunderstood and disliked at school, her parents love her dearly. This fine, unusual novel is sweet and melancholy, indulgent of language and of the fragile oddballs who so relish in it." –Publishers Weekly (starred and boxed review)"


Looks like Ali Smith's publisher is bound and determined I WILL read and review this book, considering to date they've sent me three copies: two hardbound and one ARC.

Want one of the hardbacks? Couldn't be easier!

Comment on this post (bribery and outrageously over the top compliments accepted, and may improve your chances), make sure I have some way to contact you to let you know you've won, and that's it!

I'll run the contest through this Friday night at midnight, Central Standard Time (Chicago), shipping as soon as I have your preferred delivery address (next day, if you're on the ball).

Caveat: U.S. addresses only, please. My piggy bank is getting low.