What a wickedly delightful novel. Who’d have expected it from a book about the devil?
Dougal Douglas, a Scot claiming to be one of the devil’s minions, shows up one day in the village of Peckham Rye. Insinuating himself into a carefully balanced society, he quickly but stealthily begins pulling strings and wreaking havoc. Squirming his way into the dubious position of an “artsy” man in charge of conducting a sociological study of the workers of not one but two factories – neither realizing he was employed by the other, as he’d managed to work out a deal in which he worked off-site in the village – he proceeds to encourage the employees to call in on Mondays.
Ironically, his job was to figure out why absenteeism was such a big problem. Why did he do it? Because being wicked is fun.
Other Books Published in 1960:
Harper Lee – To Kill a Mockingbird
John Barth – The Sot-Weed Factor
Roald Dahl – Kiss Kiss
John Updike – Rabbit, Run
Flannery O’Connor – The Violent Bear it Away
Scott O’Dell – The Island of the Blue Dolphins
Nancy Mitford – Don’t Tell Alfred
Ian Fleming – For Your Eyes Only
Sylvia Plath – The Colossus and Other Poems
Dr. Seuss – Green Eggs and Ham
He meddles his way into the lives of several residents, sewing despair. One of his bosses, Mr. Druce, is having an affair with the head of the typing pool. Already a miserable man stuck in a loveless marriage and impossible other relationship rapidly crumbling, Dougal reduces him to tears. Later Druce will do something unspeakably awful, but I won’t spoil that.
So many sinister little details about Dougal Douglas, including the stumps of horns on his head he loves pointing out to people as proof he’s some sort of evil entity. Is he, or is he not? Spark never explicitly proves either way, but you have to wonder. He also sees into people and situation, knowing things there’s no way he could or should have. He claims second sight. Of this there seems little doubt.
“… Do you believe in the Devil?”
“Feel my head,”Dougal said.
“Feel these little bumps up here.” Dougal guided Humphrey’s hand among this curls at each side. “I had it done by a plastic surgeon,” Dougal said.
“He did an operation and took away the two horns.”
“You supposed to be the Devil, then?” Humphrey asked.
“No, on, no. I’m only supposed to be one of the wicked spirits that wander through the world for the ruin of souls.”
It goes on and on, the trail of broken lives and misery, until eventually he’s run out of town.
Literary Births & Deaths in 1960
Zora Neale Hurston
Lady Chatterley’s Lover sells 200,000 copies in one day following its publication in the U.K. since being banned in 1928.
It is a very funny book, in a dark way. It sounds mean-spirited, and it is, but Spark is so deft and light with her touch it’s fun reading. It’s also complex, for such a short book. I wound up reading it twice, partly because I was having attention difficulties, partly because it’s so sneaky you can’t catch everything the first time around. I’d gladly read it a third time in future.
So far, this is my favorite of Spark’s novels in this celebratory read of all her books. Jean Brodie had been my fave previously. I’ll be interested to see how it holds up this time around.
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)
The Last Man (1826)
The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck, A Romance (1830)
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.
I hardly know what to say. I disliked the book – at times, loathed it.
The cover is splashed with blurbs saying this is Spark’s best novel to date, at the time of its publication in 1959. I couldn’t wait for it to be over. If I’d have read Memento Mori first, I might never have read anything else by Muriel Spark.
Memento Mori (1959)
I have a soft spot for books about elderly people summing up near the ends of their lives, regretting missed opportunities, dreaming about lost loves, etc. Vita Sackville West’s All Passion Spent is that sort of book. Margaret Atwood has written in that vein, as did fellow Canadian novelist Margaret Laurence. Loads more, of course: Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Pym…
Memento Mori couldn’t be further removed. Its message is old people are irritating, naive objects to be manipulated, then pushed out of the way to die.
This book depressed me very much.
Memento Mori falls into a certain category of books I can’t appreciate. I love grim humor, sarcastic humor, biting humor. I just, plain love humor that’s well done. I see none of that in this book. I find it mean and disrespectful. Elderly women are terrorized in a nursing home, depressed and distressed, eking out their lives largely forgotten as they die, one by one. As the group shrinks, slowly but surely, the rest are left knowing it’s only a matter of time.
A woman in her 80s is murdered in her home, no one realizing for days because not a soul checked on her. Her death is calculated, an act opportunism, taking advantage of an old lady’s paranoia. The way it happens is beyond sad.
The thing is, there’s no redemption in this book. There’s no sense of lives well-lived, no satisfying closure.
There’s no compassion.
At the beginning, I loved the set-up, the conceit about a woman getting anonymous calls from a creepy man who only said “remember that you can die.” I expected a mystery, an unravelling, a working toward something. No, not really. That plot twists in and out, but mostly the book’s about a group of elderly people made to look ridiculous.
It left me feeling a bit ill.
Yes, there are a few memorable quotes, flashes of wisdom, but honestly I didn’t like Muriel Spark the person when I closed the cover, never mind Spark the writer. I’m putting Memento Mori behind, heading into The Ballad of Peckham Rye.
I wash my hands of Memento Mori. The less said the better.
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.
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?
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.
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
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.