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.

Reading Projects 2018: Muriel Spark read-along

 

I love projects. Adore them. Camaraderie with fellow book bloggers is something I’ve sorely missed; I’ve been away from it too long.

Ladies and gentlemen: Bluestalking is picking up the organizational pace! That blur you just saw out of the corner of your eye? That was me: woman on a mission.

Hold onto your bonnet, Lucille. It’s going to get theme-y around here.

 

My 2018 mission: to kick reading’s arse.

The lovely heavenali is hosting a Muriel Spark read-along to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Scottish writer’s birth. When I was in Scotland I’d hoped to do more investigating about Sparkish sites, read her books, and soak in the atmosphere of her native city while thinking very hard indeed about one of the greatest contemporary Scottish writers to breathe upon this earth.

SPOILER: That didn’t happen exactly as planned.

The Scot did pick up a copy of the film adapation of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie for me, which was quite nice of him. I also bought a few of her books. Aaaand, that’s about it.

As a next best thing to studying her there, I’m going to cram as much writing by and about Muriel Spark into my noggin as I can in 2018. I shall celebrate her centenary vicariously, whilst back in the UK they go at it properly, with great gusto.

(Reading and holding Spark-inspired events, I mean. What did you think?!)

 

Not even close to all the books she wrote.

 

I’ve read two of her books, as far as I can remember: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means. Jean Brodie I read ages ago, in the autumn, the season that suits reading a book set in a girls’ school. I recall precious little about it, even having seen the film just a few months ago. Maggie Smith plays the character of Miss Jean Brodie. Does that count?

 

 

Ditto The Girls. I read it. I liked it. I think parts of it were funny.

This would be why I need to revisit Muriel Spark.

I learned somewhere or other – possibly by stalking him – that Ian Rankin is a huge fan of Muriel Spark. Before he left university to embark on his own writing career, he studied her work for a thesis or some equivalent project. Since I’m shameless and have a huge crush on Rankin, I took advantage and engaged him on Twitter:

 

And why not strike while the iron’s hot? DON’T JUDGE ME.

 

Heavenali has done the heavy lifting. She’s scheduled out a whole year’s worth of Muriel Spark reading with the intention participants can pick and choose what to read and when.

It’s like a big ol’ cocktail party: swing by, grab a drink and a canape, come as you are and leave when you please.

I know a few of the books I intend to read – the two which were Booker shortlisted, for sure – but I’ll wing the rest. For the first leg, I’ve ordered all three novels:

Phase 1 (January/February) Early novels – 1950s

• The Comforters (1957)
• Robinson (1958)
• Memento Mori (1959)

That doesn’t mean I’ll read all the books from all the sections, just that I happened upon an omnibus edition containing two out of three, and said what the hell. Why not?

The books are short. Here’s hoping I can manage to get through them in the two months allotted, while keeping up with everything else on my reading plate.

No pressure. I’ll read what I need to, followed by everything else I’m able. But Muriel Spark is at the tippy top. So looking forward to this.

Check out loads of events, and all sorts of Sparkish delights, at the Muriel Spark 100 website.

 

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!

 

Book buying in Scotland thus far

You may want to cover your ears if you don’t already know this: I sold off hundreds of my books before I came to Scotland, keeping only two or three dozen. Even for a temporary move, ownership of that sheer volume of books was problematic. I had nowhere to store them.

My daughter was moving, starting adult life in her first apartment, so I struck a bargain: get these to a bookstore, sell them, and that money’s yours. She took a few for herself, but within a few weeks everything else was gone. I’m glad she took all my vintage Penguins, that she appreciated them. I recommended a few classics I think everyone should read, and there were a few other odd volumes she found intriguing.

My personal library is decimated. I was numbed to that a while, but now that the anesthetic’s worn off it’s a little painful. I can’t say I’m rebuilding my library via purchases in Scotland, because I can only buy a very limited number if I’m going to carry or ship them back to the States. Rather, it’s a pacifier while I’m here – place holders on a small bookshelf so I can turn over in bed and see books sitting there. And when I’m gone, they’ll be mementos, my souvenirs from the time I spent here.

Boswell & Johnson, History of Scotland, and Muriel Spark – Scottish author

On the positive side, those Vintage Penguins I love so much are in good supply here in the UK. I’m picking up a few for half the price of buying them back home, then having them shipped to me in the States.

It’ll take a while, but I’d like to build up this part of my library. I’m starting here, picking and choosing which I’m willing to carry home and/or ship to myself just before I leave.

Mental note: buy these a editions a little more heavily. They’re not nearly as easy to find at home.

A few Vintage Penguins bought so far

I’ll probably over-buy, but if I do I can leave the excess with Chris. Good rule of thumb: only stay with friends who are book lovers.

Slight amendment: only be friends with book lovers.

Maybe it isn’t such a bad thing I sold my books. They’re a huge part of my life, but everything could use a good weeding now and then. I can’t focus on the volumes I’m not likely to find again – better off thinking about the ones I’ll buy from here on.

Once I’m home, I’d bet good money a lot of the books I sold will still be sitting on the shelves of the bookstore that bought them. Obscure as my taste is, I doubt many will move.

I’m sure you see where I’m going here. I’m a plane ticket and trip to Ikea away from having some of those books sitting prettily on shelves again, so when I turn over in bed in my new apartment in the States, there they’ll be.

Book Blog Hop

I'm pooped out after cleaning all day yesterday, readying the house for the graduation party we're having for my daughter this coming Saturday. She's leaving high school behind, marching us straight into the poor house. We're becoming human ATMs – like we haven't always been – but now the numbers are getting a whole lot bigger. I didn't think ATMs were even supposed to dispense such large amounts of money.

Remind me how much I complained now when, in two more years, we have TWO children in college. I feel nauseous. Let's leave all that behind and try a bit of book bloggy fun, letting someone else do all the heavy lifting for a change.

Here's how Blog Hopping works: I start out at a random book blog and link to a post I enjoyed reading, one I'll also comment on at that blog. I'll peruse their list of recommended blogs and choose one, hopping over there, repeating the process. This is something I do for fun anyway, in my "free time" that isn't really free time so much as "blog addiction." May as well share great new sites with you all.

 

Ready? First Stop:

Beth Fish Reads: Reading, Thinking Photography

What I enjoy about her blog is how interactive it is, that she asks for contributions from readers to add to whatever the current subject matter may be. In this particular instance I'm referencing a post called "Weekend Cooking: Dinner with Friends":

"Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. You do not have to post on the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page."

 

Hop!

A Tale of Three Cities

Never been here before but check out her post re: what books she's received through the mail lately. It may make you weep (I know it did me…). Some good stuff here, like Muriel Spark's The Driver's Seat, which I'd never even heard of. And I enjoy Muriel Spark very much:

 

  Driversseatspark"Lise has been driven to distraction by working in the same accountants' office for sixteen years. So she leaves everything behind her, transforms herself into a laughing, garishly-dressed temptress and flies abroad on the holiday of a lifetime. But her search for adventure, sex and the obsessional experience takes on a far darker significance as she heads on a journey of self-destruction. Infinity and eternity attend Lise's last terrible day in an unnamed southern city, as she meets her fate"

Guess who's just added yet another book to her TBR list?

 


Hop!

A Literary Odyssey: My Journey Through 250 of the Classics

Linking to her post on Shusaku Endo and his book Volcano:

Endovolcano

 

"A volcano resembles human life. In youth it gives rein to the passions, and burns with fire. It spurts out lava. But when it grows old, it assumes the burden of those past evil deeds. It turns deathly quiet as we now behold it. Nevertheless, a human being is not entirely like the volcano. When we grow old, will cast a backward glance upon our lives, becoming fully aware of our mistakes."

 

I tried commenting on her post but, Reader, I am embarrassed to say I could not figure out how to do so. I tried the usual way I go about it, which is straightforward, but I didn't receive a comment box. Never mind, though, there's so much here to skim through. She's a sweet person with a huge love of reading the classics and posts about books acquired, book lists, etc. She also participates in lots of literary challenges, which is one thing I sorely lack. Check out this other post on one of those, The Classics Club. These people put me to SHAME!

 

Hop!

The Classics Club originates on the A Room of One's Own blog. To join, you make a list of 50 classics you plan to read within five years, including an ending date. This you post on your own blog. You link your list to Jillian's blog and every time you finish reading and commenting on one of these classics you link back to her blog, to make the whole process interactive. It makes more sense if you read her directions!

Classicsclub

 

And I think this may be a fun challenge to join. Classics are my first love and I only came to contemporary literature a few short years ago. Talk about your steep learning curve…

I still read some classics – mostly for the Classics Book Group at the library – but nothing at all like I used to, when I read them almost exclusively.

So, Jillian… A List of 50 you say…

 

One more… HOP!

Musings is one of the many, many blogs participating in The Classics Club challenge. So, I swung from that vine and wound up reading this post, in which she shares thoughts on Elizabeth Taylor's A Game of Hide and Seek:

Gameofhideandseek

"Taylor’s writing is exquisite.  The story unfolds very slowly, with the rich observational detail Taylor is known for.  And it’s emotionally intense as well. In the first part, the reader feels the pain of young love — we want Harriet and Vesey to accept the love they feel for each other, and live happily ever after.  We feel pain in the awkwardness of their parting, and the pain returns when they meet again in middle age.  By that time, I had come to appreciate her marriage to Charles.  I was caught up in Harriet’s dilemma, simultaneously wishing for things that might have been, and wanting to maintain the comfort and security of her family life.  The ending is ambiguous, and yet felt completely right."

 

She also references a bio of Taylor I didn't know existed!:

Otherelizabethtaylor

 

 

This is the danger of blog hopping: it adds to your TBR list exponentially.

 

 

 

The Other Elizabeth Taylor by Nicola Beauman

Amazon's info:

This is the first biography of one of the greatest English writers of the last century. Betty Coles became Elizabeth Taylor upon her marriage in 1936. Her first novel At Mrs. Lippincote's appeared in the same year (1945) as the actress Elizabeth Taylor was appearing in National Velvet. Over the next thirty years, "the other Elizabeth Taylor" lived and worked in Buckinghamshire and published several titles of fiction. Nicola Beauman's biography draws on a wealth of hitherto undiscovered material.

Nicola Beauman is the author of A Very Great Profession: The Woman's Novel 1914–39, Cynthia Asquith, and Morgan: a Life of EM Forster. She founded Persephone Books in 1999.

 

I enjoyed my romp past a few bookish blogs. I'll have to do this more often. I've clearly never gotten out enough and have become pretty insular. I visit loads of other bookish blogs but usually lose them after one visit and can't find them again. This exercise forces me to slow down, for one thing, and to record my hops. Plus, see what's out there as far as all the fun challenges, what others are reading and what not.

Hope you enjoyed it as well and will visit some of these lovely sites.