Muriel Spark on Mary Shelley, and the sport of curling

I’ve become one of the cheapest people I know. I have the lowest cell and internet plans, buy my clothes either thrifted or at the cheap stores, and I try to keep my grocery bills under $ 40/week. It was $ 30, until I realized that wasn’t sustainable. There’s always some non-grocery item, like laundry detergent or shampoo or a new dog toy, that rolls me into the next ten. So I upped it to release myself from the guilt.

Isn’t that cheating, you ask? I don’t need your attitude, Judgey McJudgekins. You’re not the boss of me!

When the Olympics rolled around, I had to either cough up the extra cash and buy an upgraded TV package or totally miss the action. I love the Olympics, so I bought the package. I’m now paying double, but when you’re doubling $ 20/month it’s still way cheaper than cable or satellite. It’s a mere one-week’s groceries! And, when that torch is extinguished I’ll have my finger on the button ready to take it back down to bare bones again. I hardly watch TV, anyway. I don’t need no fancy plans.

 

 

Since the upgrade, the TV’s been on NBC every minute I’m awake. Don’t remind me what that will do to my electricity bill. Yesterday I saw ski jumping, speed skating, hockey, and about 500 hours of curling.

Yes, curling. It’s kind of transfixing. I like the gentle glide and release of the stone, the sound of the sweeping. It has that weird brain effect on me, like hearing pages of a book turning, a gentle whish! whish! whish! that makes me feel all safe and comfortable.

And you’re judging me again, aren’t you.

Did you know the stones used in curling come from an island in Scotland? Well, now you do! They come from Ailsa Craig in the Firth of Clyde, which is up for sale (Ailsa Craig, not the Clyde), or was as of 2013, according to Wikipedia. You could snatch this baby up for a mere £ 1.5 M back then, and totally clean up selling curling stones!

Whish! Whish! Whish! I’d be putty in your hands.

 

Ailsa Craig: I’d totally buy it if I had the money.

 

Lest I sound thoroughly lazy, in between events I put this together:

 

Freebie Amazon Product Review – not bad, eh?

 

The package had been sitting in my hallway about two months, so I’m feeling totally great about myself right now. Plus, it was the first time I’ve put together both a drawer and hinged door. Never mind the drawer has to be jiggled and coerced to close, and the door isn’t quite flush. I pronounce it adequate, per my family motto:

 

 

When my son came over for dinner, I even got my chair assembled with no effort on my part. It was done in exchange for pizza and the editing of his student teaching application:

 

Another Amazon product review item!

 

Not a bad deal. If I’d have attempted it, judging from my success with the desk, I’d have a broken tailbone by now. I’ve had quite enough injuries for one year, thanks.

Spark on Shelley

Speaking of Scotland and Scottish sports: Muriel Spark. She may never have visited Ailsa Craig, but she was from Edinburgh. This qualifies as your segue.

Also, Mary Shelley spent a good deal of time in Scotland as a child. Family friends from the Dundee area hosted her regularly, partly because she couldn’t stand her step-mother. The poor child despised her father’s new wife so much she developed a strange arm pain that’s never really explained in the biography – mostly likely, it was psychological.

 

 

According to Spark:

 

Godwin, of course, should have been more discriminating; this woman, who might have had made a tolerable companion to the ordinary man, felt her inferiority and in her muddled way compensated in doing all the damage she could. She left her mark on Godwin, on his children, and on her own children.

 

Her biological mother’s death would cause Mary a lifetime of guilt and a sense of desertion – a very sad thing. Her father, earlier in life strongly against marriage, couldn’t bear being alone after his first wife’s passing. For one thing, there were the children to be considered. Not considered all that well, apparently. He wooed and married his next-door neighbor. Convenient, I guess, if not particularly advisable.

 

Novels of Mary Shelley:

Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818)

Valperga (1823)

The Last Man (1826)

The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck, A Romance (1830)

Lodore (1835)

Falkner (1837)

Mathilda (1819)

 

Spark’s book asserts Frankenstein stemmed largely from a sense of alienation Mary felt, partly because she missed her mother and partly because her father shunned her after she moved in with the already married Shelley. The only reason Godwin kept in contact was to ask for money. What could make a young woman feel more used than that. If this novel is partly autobiographical, as Spark asserts, this would make Mary the monster.

 

What hopes for the future she entertained were not passionate ones but were none the less forceful in a practical, driving and obstinate way; for she was not allowed to vegetate: the battery of misfortune which had seemed so peculiarly to have singled her out, still held her marked; but as she had come to expect less of life, so she was less prone to disappointment. – Muriel Spark, Mary Shelley

 

The last decade of Mary Shelley’s life was plagued by illness. She would die, age 53, of a brain tumor. A sad – and premature – death for a woman so beset by tragedy.

The rest of the Spark biography contains deeper criticism of Shelley’s works, specifically for my purposes, Frankenstein. I’ll talk about that more as I’m reading the novel, which is the next course in my reading meal.

I’m still not ready to talk about The Ballad of Peckham Rye. I’m not quite finished, and need time to cogitate its complexity. Again, it’s a very funny book, but deep in meaning. Yes, I know I promised I’d talk about it this weekend. Mea culpa.

Blame it on the Olympics.

So, strike off another Spark book for me: the bio of Shelley. I recommend it, though it doesn’t go into the depth I’d hoped. If you’re looking for something more comprehensive, try a different title. I would and gladly, if I had the time. My schedule’s just too tight.

My goal was to get a general idea of Mary Shelley’s life before heading into Frankenstein. I accomplished that, so I’m happy. Next up, finishing Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye and starting on The Bachelors, all queued up and ready to go.

At the end of March I’m hoping to write up a quarterly review, thoughts on three months’ worth of reading books by and about Muriel Spark. I’ve blown through these books so quickly, my primary intent to get through all her novels in 2018. This doesn’t allow for much absorption or contemplation. A quarterly review should help.

Have a lovely weekend, what’s left of it where you are.

 

Frankenstein 200: Muriel Spark on Mary Shelley

2018 marks not just the 100th anniversary of Scottish writer Muriel Spark’s birth, but also the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s science fiction classic Frankenstein.

Time flies, friends.

 

 

Spark admired Mary Shelley. Extra exciting for me, her biography of the English novelist is where both my Muriel Spark project and participation in the Frankenstein 200 festivities intersect.

In other words: I get twice the bang for the buck, bishes!

Frankenstein is one of those novels you think you know, until you actually read it. It’s so different from the film adaptations. Those are fun, but the book goes far deeper. It’s also stranger, and that’s saying a lot. Same for Dracula. Neither book should be judged by the films. The resemblance is at best vague.

 

I went there.

 

I’m heading into my third reading of Frankenstein after Spark’s bio about its author. The background is fascinating, since I’ve never known much about Mary Shelley except she wrote an iconic novel as the result of a bet.  Almost as impressive, she felt no intimidation going up against literary heavyweights Lord Byron and her lover Percy Shelley, also in on the bet. She was only a kid, a mere teenager, while the two men already had staggering reputations for genius.

You go, girl. You go.

I have to be honest, here. The behavior of the Romantic poets – especially Shelley and his pal Lord Byron – is spoiled and distinctly lacking in ethics. Sure, I wish I had a patron to take care of my bills, so I could spend my time drinking and having picnics with my erudite friends. But honey, other writers bust their arses producing not when the muse strikes, but when the rent is due.

Grow. Up.

 

Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful.

– Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

 

 

Percy Bysshe Shelley pimped Mary out for money. He pimped her out. A wealthy lawyer friend of his had an unspoken arrangement; love letters from Mary to this man imply she was just waiting for her baby to be born so they could get it on for cash. Shelley and Mary kept no secrets. She wasn’t running around behind his back. Percy was just that classy.

Ironically, that baby died.

Shelley was forever running from creditors, yet, on at least one occasion when a friend felt sorry enough to slip him a fiver (most likely to shut him up), he and Mary went to see a play before spending the remainder on food and accommodation. Bitch, please.

I don’t want to paint them all with the same brush, but between Shelley’s bad behavior and Lord Byron’s even worse, it leaves a bad taste. The two men left women and children along the side of the street, because geniuses cannot be bothered. Byron was okay for money, but didn’t hesitate knocking up Mary Shelley’s half-sister, dumping her at Mary’s, and prancing off to Italy. The result? Mary was left feeding both her half-sister and the child, while George merrily spread his seed elsewhere.

And Percy Shelley? The estranged wife he left for Mary committed suicide from despair, leaving their two children orphaned. Hoping to gain custody, he finally married Mary to make himself appear more respectable. Unfortunately, the courts gave him a big ol’ dose of nope. His children were adopted out to another family.

 

 

Mary’s own mother – iconic feminist Mary Wollstonecraft – lived with her lover William Godwin (Mary Shelley’s father), yet Godwin all but disowned his daughter for shackin’ with Shelley. The apple didn’t fall far from that tree, but it didn’t look so appetizing held by his 19-year old daughter.

These people did hypocrisy well, too.

I don’t mind being in the minority when it comes to these poets. I cannot muster patience for elitists, much less elitist bed-hoppers. Makes you wonder why I love Virginia Woolf so much. She and her group were no different. Good lord, she was a snob, and a brilliant one, but you’d need a scorecard to figure out who slept with whom in that bunch. Maybe I can do hypocrisy, my own self.

Shrug.

I’d better get back to it. I want to polish off the biography, move on to Frankenstein, then read Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye by March. But first, sleep. Because some of us who love reading and writing must still get up and go to work in the morning.

Right, Percy?

Psssh. Slacker.

 

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.

Ouch.

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.