Facilitating the Facile
John Updike wonders whether "any fiction writer since Hemingway placed more faith [than Muriel Spark] in the simple declarative sentence?" (The New Yorker) In an interview in Art Forum, Spark acknowledges that she could be seen as an experimental novelist, and talks of her admiration for the French nouveau roman writer Alain Robbe-Grillet. Robbe-Grillet was famous for writing novels that wanted to be descriptive rather than psychological, and no matter if the work often wilfully contradicted the theory, he would claim in For a New Novel that there was no place for metaphor. Spark reckons in the Art Forum interview she was, like Robbe-Grillet, always drawn to new possibilities in the form. "I did The Ballad of Peckham Rye, in which I never once mentioned how people feel or think, just what they do and say, and this gives an extraordinary effect. Then I wanted to change the idea of suspense. I realized that suspense is best conveyed when you break it right away: tell the reader, perhaps on page three or four, what is going to happen, and then they will want to know how or why it happened even more."
But are there experimentations in form that nevertheless contain a conservatism of perspective? Is there not something in Muriel Spark's work, in novels like the Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Ballad of Peckham Rye, Reality and Dreams, The Driver's Seat and A Girl of Slender Means, as well as in many of the stories we are focusing upon here, which proposes a hardly radical sensibility? When in interviews Spark says, "I haven't got a difficult talent. I sit down and write and I very seldom revise," one admires the frankness of such a statement, so antithetical to many a writer who wants to appeal to the reader as the protestant work ethic meets the intentional fallacy: if the writer works for a week on a sentence how can it be anything but masterful? Yet there is in Spark's fiction what we may call an ontological sense of haste, a pragmatism in the prose that demands from the reader somehow no more than the assumptions they already possess. One hardly expects Spark to insist as Robbe-Grillet does that his novels are best read by people with a philosophical background: "If you're going to read Repetition, you have to have philosophical training, and it would help to know Kierkegaard." Perhaps Robbe-Grillet is pompously overstating his case, but with many writers - Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Musil and Pavese, to name four novelists included in a book like The Existential Imagination - an inclination towards the philosophical helps us comprehend their work.
Of course for many readers such an inclination is hardly a necessity and often a liability. This type of claim though is frequently offered by a British empiricist hardly aware of its guise, and surely thus a problem when the parochial is taken to be the universal, when a prejudice is assumed to be a principle. But if Muriel Spark for all her experimentation seems to be a minor writer next to, for example, Robbe-Grillet's fellow nouveau romannovelist Marguerite Duras, it rests on the difference between a writer who describes a situation and another who explores it. Duras was a contemporary of Spark's and interested in innovation too, but it is as if she always searched out the inexplicable - that any descriptive capacity was to facilitate the outer reaches of thought and feeling. As she would say even of her own 'profession': "I've talked a lot about writing. But I don't know what it is." If writers like Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Musil, Pavese, as well as actual philosopher/novelists Unamuno and Sartre, find their way into a collection like The Existential Imagination it resides in this notion of exploring reality; the description serves the intellectual adventure. One cannot quite know what it is. Duras would fit into this project; Spark would not.
Consequently there are other Scots, like Kelman and Gray, more given to this existential adventurousness and are subsequently major writers; they are figures exploring the problem of identity within and well beyond the contours of Scottishness that they both consistently investigate. Spark appears to be a writer much more likely to assume language doesn't change our reality, but politely, efficiently contains it. One of the most obvious reasons for this can be seen in Spark's constant use of irony. Claire Colebrook says, "despite its unwieldy complexity, irony has a frequent and common definition: saying what is contrary to what is meant." (Irony) There is frequently in Spark's work a brisk sense of irony's workings, and when Spark talks of suspense in her comment about telling the reader the story before the event, is it because there is always strong suspense remaining within the story that has been revealed, or irony at work as the reader has more information than the character happens to have? If the definition of irony is broad, then one of its meanings is surely where the reader possesses more knowledge than the characters. This would be dramatic irony where, according to The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Theory, "the audience understands the implication and meaning of a situation on stage, or what is being said, but the characters do not." When Gilbert Phelps in an essay on 'The Post War English Novel' says that Spark's work seems "to have little solidity, warmth, or inherent moral content, and her people seem physically and spiritually anaemic, while the coolness and restraint frequently produce an effect of aloofness and disdain," much of this aloofness lies in what Spark is calling suspense and we are calling irony.
Is this not what is at work in perhaps Spark's best known book, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, with its use of literary flash-forwards, of prolepsis? The story isn't so much told in the present with the past looked back on, but in the present with the future alluded to in various statements. For example when Miss Brodie takes her pupils across Edinburgh they pass through the Old Town, where "the smell was amazingly terrible", and one of the girls, Sandy, reflects on the city from the position of one who is no longer young, even though the situation itself is not a recollection to an earlier time. The recollection is instead of a future Sandy looking back on a past Sandy. "And many times throughout her life Sandy knew with a shock, when speaking to people whose childhood had been in Edinburgh, that there were other people's Edinburgh's quite different from hers, and with which she held only the names of districts and streets and monuments in common." At another moment the narrator says, "Sandy was unable to formulate these exciting propositions; nevertheless she experienced them in the air she breathed, she sensed them in the curiously defiant way in which people she knew broke the Sabbath." Concerning another character the narrator says, "Rose Stanley believed her, but this was because she was indifferent. She was the least of all the Brodie set to be excited by Miss Brodie's love affairs, or by anyone else's sex. And it was always to be the same. Later, when she was famous for sex..."
Now there are various ways in which dramatic irony can work, including the humorous, the generic and the retrospective. When a character offers a malapropism, when they say remuneration when they mean rumination, when they say ingenuous for ingenious, when a character often confuses one polysyllabic word for another similar one, this is usually a source of some amusement as the reader knows what the character does not. Equally in generic fiction we know in a way the character doesn't, that they are in a horror novel, or a murder thriller, and so when they go into the shower, book onto a train, take a lift from a stranger, that they should be warier than they happen to be. In retrospective irony a character might insist that the Nazis would never touch a wealthy Jew like themselves, and the reader knows that no matter the character's wealth and status, history will prove them very wrong.
These are all obvious and perhaps usually facile uses of dramatic irony, and Spark is a better writer than one who utilizes the ironic for such easy gratification. Yet its utilization creates a sense of indeterminate authority that makes sense of Phelps' insistence on the aloofness and disdain in her work. This doesn't mean we insist Spark ought to have something to say, but it is to ask that we see in her stories and novels a sense of exploration, and one of the dangers of irony is that it is a literary switchback system that doesn't so much move forward as echo back on itself. The problem with an ironic approach is that if one means the opposite of what one says, does the writer manage to say anything fresh, or do they emphasize the stale or the erroneous all the better to establish their superiority to the stale and the erroneous? When in Reality and Dreams the narrator says that the characters of Tom and Claire had a strangely secure marriage, the narrator adds, "what steadily drew him towards her was her loyalty to him which always predominated over her infidelities; the latter hardly counted. So that, when from time to time Tom muttered to himself or to one of his women friends, 'My wife has a man,' the remark held no foreboding, and no more than a touch of impatience". Is there not here a sense of ontological haste? Equally, when Tom, a film director, says, "So many conversations. All forgotten, and so many have died. John Braine knew a good deal about films, he had a whole lot to say, especially about films adapted from books. But I can't remember a single word of it, not one point that he raised. All I recall of John Braine is that he advised me to drink Earl Grey tea. Filthy stuff, to my taste," again there is a briskness to the prose that doesn't allow for a sense of hesitancy or dawdle. If Jean Brodie remains Spark's most famous creation is it because the author's prose and the character of Jean share an imperious assurance? Jean Brodie at one moment says, "This is Stanley Baldwin who got in as Prime Minister and got out here long ago", adding, "Miss Mackay retains him on the wall because she believes in the slogan "Safety First". But Safety does not come first. Goodness, truth and beauty come first. Follow me". The tone seems consistent with Spark's approach to fiction.
Of course Jean Brodie is an ironic creation, ironic in the sense that she remains oblivious to the threat that Fascism happens to be (the novel is set in the thirties), and oblivious too to her own passing prime, so though she talks endlessly about her promise she is probably past the sell-by date she thinks she is still within. But that doesn't mean because Spark ironises her creations she escapes the problem of assumption. One of the problems with irony is that can it create a double assumption. It illustrates clich and at the same time comments on it. For many writers and critics this is not at all a problem, and in a New Yorker article on Paul Auster's limitations as a writer, James Wood admires many a novelist who doesn't offer the clich too undiluted (as he feels Auster does), but a writer who employs and "impales clich in their work". In a lovely image that seems to capture well Spark's aloofness and disdain, he insists Spark, De Lillo, Martin Amis, Nabokov and other twentieth century writers were "violently conscious of mass culture, [and] extends this idea of the self as a kind of borrowed tissue: full of other people's germs." But alongside Spark, Amis, De Lillo and Nabokov, Wood also mentions Beckett, Richard Yates, Thomas Bernhard and David Foster Wallace. One senses however in their approach to the self-reflexive nature of clich and its countering, Nabokov, Amis and Spark move in one direction, while Beckett, Bernhard and perhaps David Foster Wallace in the other. Both groups wouldn't deny a debt to Flaubert who compares Charles Bovary's conversation to a pavement over which many people have walked, and the importance of escaping the received opinions Flaubert sees so evident in bourgeois conversation at the end of Bouvard and Picochet. But where some writers polished the bon mot, trying to create out of the clich a pavement newly constructed and smoothly distinctive, paved with self-awareness, others accepted the inevitability of crazy paving, of the gap between what we feel and what can be said. If numerous 19th century writers have acknowledged that their purpose was to tell stories with vivid characters, much 20th century writing has been about the language, but this language can move towards polish or apprehension, towards the need to create beautiful, often self-conscious sentences as in Amis's oft-remarked case, or acknowledge the limitations of using language to describe things when there is an inevitable gap between the words we use and the proximate nature of them in relation to how the things exist in the world, between the sign and what it signifies.
Spark does not seem to find the latter problem generally troublesome, and this is both her strength and also her weakness. Her oeuvre is full of fine phrasing and skilful observation. "Most wonderful of all, he had only one arm, the right, with which he painted. The other was a sleeve tucked into his pocket. He had lost the contents of the sleeve in the great war." (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) "I felt a sort of pity towards him then, rather as we feel towards animals we know to be harmless, such as monkeys." ('The House of the Famous Poet') "In this Jennie, I decided, reposed a mystery which I and my life could not fathom." (The Twins) "Eventually Selwyn couldn't laugh for coughing, and again, he couldn't cough for laughing." ('A Sad Tale Best for Winter') But it seems only occasionally that Spark produces a frisson within the prose that contains a mystery greater than its illumination. If one of the problems with the ironic is that it can kill the mysterious through the readily assumed, nevertheless there are occasions in Spark's work where the mysterious returns in the subtlety of her characterization, and in the oblique angle she can sometimes offer the character from.
One sees this in the 'Twins' and its more or less absence in the fine, but somehow limited 'The Black Madonna'. In both stories we have middle-class couples whose attitudes and behaviour are described, but whereas in 'The Black Madonna' one feels any mystery in the story serves the ironic; in 'The Twins' the mystery holds. In 'The Black Madonna' Lou and Raymond are an educated couple satisfied with the post-war consensus, and where many of their neighbours see the council house dwelling as "a mere platform in space to further the progress of the rocket. This ambition was not shared by Raymond and Lou. They were not only content, they were delighted, with these civic chambers." "One day it will be the thing to live in a council flat." This pragmatic approach to housing is matched by their eclectic mix of friends, which include a couple of Jamaicans who work at Raymond's motor works where Raymond's a foreman. As the story establishes them as liberals who go to films only when The Observer recommends it, and who dismiss many ideas as Victorian, with Lou seeing Jane Austen as old-fashioned, so we wait to see how these liberal beliefs will become undone. Sure enough, this childless couple eventually manages to have a daughter, who is born dark, and will become darker. It would seem unlikely that this child is Raymond's and entirely possible that the father of the child is one of the Jamaicans that Raymond and Lou befriended. Though one might wonder before the revelation whether the child will be black, Spark isn't chiefly interested in playing with the reader as our suspicions turn out to be correct, but more with the irony of a progressively middle-class couple being confronted with their worst nightmare: their carefully constructed liberal beliefs count for little next to the appalling presence of a black child as they put her up for adoption. Their friend Tina Farrell - who earlier in the story asked after the Jamaicans had left town "do you miss the niggers" in a moment of typical socio-political ignorance - says near the end of the tale, "if that child was mine, I'd never part with her. I wish we could afford to adopt another. She's the loveliest little darkie in the world." Tina might not be politically correct, but she does possess colour blindness when it comes to human life and feeling. At the very end of the story, after they've had the baby adopted, Lou says, "we've done the right thing. Even the priest had to agree with that..." Tina says "oh, he said it was a good thing?" and Lou adds, "No, not a good thing. In fact he said it would have been a good thing if we could have kept the baby. But failing that, we did the right thing. Apparently there's a difference." Clearly Tina's reference to 'niggers' is the wrong thing, but her attitude towards the baby a good thing; where Lou's refusal to use the word 'nigger' would be the right thing, but her giving the baby up for adoption the bad thing. Right and wrong function socio-politically as one masters the right behavioural codes, but the good and the bad represent much more the emotionally specific. 'The Black Madonna' is a fine story about issues of political correctness before the event, and our purpose here has not been to denigrate Spark as a writer; more to enquire into why we think she is less than a great one, whilst still obviously a good one. 'The Black Madonna' is a brilliantly contained story but that is the point: it seems to have little mystery around its edges.
'The Twins' however is more interesting because of this mystery: Spark doesn't offer the ironic, with the reader neatly placed within the text, but left slightly outside its interpretive meaning. Here, Jennie and the narrator are school friends from Scotland who remain in touch, and eventually the London-based narrator finds time to visit Jennie, her husband Simon and their five year old twins, Jeff and Marjie. Throughout the story, the narrator provides astute observations of character that both go beyond the ironic mode and by the end of the story beyond what the character can reasonably grasp. "Simon bore with himself an integrated combination of all those people he brought to the house; he represented them, almost, and kept his balance at the same time. So that Jennie derived from Simon a knowledge of the world, without actually weathering the world." However, there is a sense here that all the family members are weathering others from the world so that each character's psychology collapses in the face of the different perspectives the narrator has of them as she is consistently wrong-footed by their behaviour, and someone else explains motives and reasons for it. During Jennie's first visit, when the children are five, Marjie asks the narrator if she can borrow half a crown, and assuming Jennie would be displeased by this request, refuses. It transpires that Jennie asked Marjie to ask the narrator, because Jennie wanted to pay the baker. The narrator explains that of course if she had known Jennie wanted the money, or even if she knew Jennie wouldn't have minded Marjie borrowing the money, then that would have been fine. While Jennie has already insisted "I never borrow anything as a rule", she also goes on to say after the narrator's apologies, "Oh they never ask for money. I would never allow them to ask anyone for anything. They never do that." Here Spark doesn't only wrong-foot the narrator, as one might have in an ironic mode where the characters is bumbling through unable to read people whom the reader readily comprehends, but wrong-foots the reader as well, with the Reeves family unfathomable.
Years later when the narrator returns to Essex for another visit, she finds a packet of biscuits kindly placed in her room, and "munched one while looking out of the window at the calm country sky, ruminating upon Jennie's perennial merits." When she adds, "I am too much with brightly intelligent, highly erratic friends. In this Jennie, I decided, reposed as a mystery which I and my like could not fathom" we might wonder whether there are mysteries within even the apparently gentle and kind, mysteries stranger than in the neurotic and selfish. The next day after Jennie has driven off to pick-up the twins who had been swimming nearby, Simon takes the chance to say how upset Jennie was that the narrator had left crumbs on the floor and that Jennie happened to be frightened by mice. "So don't eat biscuits in your room if you wouldn't mind. Jennie was rather upset...but of course she'd have a fit if she knew I'd told you." When the narrator says Jennie put the very biscuits in the room, and she really must talk to her about this, Simon replies: "'Please...please don't do that...go on eating biscuits in your room. I shouldn't have mentioned it'".
By the end of her stay the narrator has had another example of the couple's unusual triangulated complicity when she fills their car up with petrol and the next day Jennie insists on giving her the money saying that Simon would insist. "He's so touchy", she says, even though the narrator the previous evening at a party in their house mentioned to Simon that she had filled the tank, and he hadn't offered money at the time. What Spark creates here isn't a story that is ironic but instead fascinatingly elliptical, as if the motives of Jennie, Simon and also their children cannot quite be grasped as they fall into the spaces the story's limited narrative perspective demands. At the end of the story, after the narrator has returned to London, and after she sends a note of thanks for letting her stay, she receives a strange letter from Simon. In it he announces that he was sorry that she "got the impression that Mollie and I were behaving improperly in the kitchen the night of our party. Jennie was very upset. She does not of course doubt my fidelity, but she is distressed that you could suggest such a thing." The story concludes on this inexplicable letter, and the Reeves family remains a mystery, and as a consequence Spark's story also. The simple, declarative style that Updike so admires meets the ineffability of character, as Spark's experimentation can go almost unnoticed so contained is it by the problem of human behaviour.
Published in a late fifties collection, 'The Twins' possesses something Pinteresque, Pinter-like in its interest in the banalities of everyday experience like biscuits crumbs and petrol tanks filled, but containing within the banal the mysterious. However, where Pinter would often push this mysteriousness into the menacing, Spark keeps the story maybe even more enigmatic by its representational distance. There is nothing sinister or terrifying in the story except the "sedentary dread", to use Maurice Blanchot's gnomic phrase from The Step Not Beyond. The fear of the most microcosmic of events that contain within them the potential hell of other people is astutely captured. But where we of course have the Pinteresque to describe this hell, Spark conjures up no such equivalent nominal adjective. It's as if the sort of world Spark describes in 'The Twins' was often contained by the ironic mode. Pinter on the other hand, would insist, quoted in Anger and After, that "the thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false. A character on the stage who can present no convincing argument or information as to his past experience, his present behaviour of his aspirations, nor give comprehensive analysis of his motives is as legitimate of attention as one who, alarmingly, can do all these things." This is the self as abyss, but one feels that frequently Spark wanted to offer a world slightly more reassuring. Her experiments with form and the impressively declarative sentences rarely imposed themselves enough to make Spark a necessary writer, and one might wonder how many post-war British novelists made a comfortable living writing readily accessible books at the expense of uncomfortable truths that 'The Twins' so subtly captures. There is often in British fiction hints at the horror of the unknowable and the perverse, but also its retreat into irony, assumptions of common humanity, social convention or spiritual assuagement, from Graham Greene to Ian McEwan, from A. S. Byatt to Graham Swift and any number of writers regularly nominated for the Booker.
Spark reputedly once said to fellow novelist Penelope Fitzgerald that it wasn't until she converted to Roman Catholicism that she "was able to see human existence as a whole", and regarded this encompassing approach necessary for a novelist. One might argue the very opposite: that the writer's purpose is to map out an individualizing territory rather than try to have a world view. If fellow Scottish writers like Gray and Kelman are much more significant in the Scottish context and also in relation to the postmodern in Gray's case, and the existential in Kelman's, it is because they have less a world view than a position. Phelps' point concerning Spark's disdain is generally valid: she is a writer of great facility, but does she too often propose little more than the facile?
© Tony McKibbin