The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark

 

The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960)

 

 

 

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?”

“No.”

“Feel my head,”Dougal said.

“What?”

“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.

“What?”

“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
Births:

Helen Fielding

Jeffrey Eugenides

Ian Rankin

Tim Winton

Neil Gaiman

Deaths:

Albert Camus

Nevil Schute

Zora Neale Hurston

Boris Pasternak

Richard Wright

Etc.

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.

Next up, The Bachelors (also 1960).

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.