Jonathan Coe

  • Symposium by Muriel Spark
    Constable, 192 pp, £11.95, September 1990, ISBN 0 09 469660 8
  • The Inn at the Edge of the World by Alice Thomas Ellis
    Viking, 184 pp, £12.99, September 1990, ISBN 0 670 83274 X

The terms ‘Catholic writers’ and ‘women writers’ were invented by critics to make their own lives easier, at the cost, no doubt, of making the lives of certain authors more exasperating. They are dangerous terms because they tempt us to lump writers like Muriel Spark and Alice Thomas Ellis together, especially when there are other alluring points of comparison, such as a characteristic tone which at first can seem no more than coolly ironic, and even – in these latest books – some clear similarities of plot (both novels touch on the predicaments of women who know they are about to be murdered). As it turns out, though, just about the only thing which Symposium and The Inn at the Edge of the World have in common is a readiness to be ceaselessly entertaining even when absorbed in the treatment of issues which are, for both authors, of the most deadly seriousness. If the contrasts in temperament and narrative method are what strike us first, it seems likely that these will finally boil down to a fundamental difference in the sense of what it means to be a Catholic: so this has to be addressed, however much we may feel – in Muriel Spark’s case, anyway – that the field has already been ploughed pretty thoroughly.

Perhaps another way of approaching Spark’s fiction would be to consider the distinction between those novels which are written around a single, organising consciousness (Loitering with Intent, A Far Cry from Kensington, The Mandelbaum Gate, for instance) and those which, like The Bachelors and Territorial Rights, fly in the face of this convention. Without a doubt Symposium falls into the second of these categories, and the reader’s first (misleading) impression is of a disorienting randomness of focus. The book begins with an extended dialogue between two characters who all but vanish for the rest of the story, and it ends by dwelling on the grief of another character who has only appeared once before, in a short, digressive scene aboard an aeroplane, and whose connection with the mainstream of the novel’s events is made all the more tenuous when his tailpiece is narrated, uniquely, in the future tense. (Here, as in all her novels, Spark is very careful about tenses.)

While this strategy might have its origins in the democratic conviction that no one character has the right to occupy centre stage, it doesn’t – as we might have expected – automatically create a perspective from which reality is seen as chaotic, but draws increased attention to the controlling intelligence of the narrator. It’s impossible not to be impressed by the discipline with which Spark has marshalled the facts of a narrative so slippery and non-linear that the publisher’s blurb can only manage a selective approximation. At the centre of the book is a dinner party given in Islington by Chris Donovan, a rich Australian widow, and Hurley Reed, a successful artist. This party in turn serves both as a meeting-point for the novel’s two converging plots and as a backdrop to the offstage tragedy which marks their collision. If Spark’s Catholicism is important to her fiction at all, its most obvious effect has usually been to fuel her spirit of enquiry (Frank Kermode once aptly referred to her novels as ‘researches’). The elaborate structure of Symposium now allows its author to explore, with a convert’s temerity, the very nature of omniscience, be it divine or authorial: of the several Catholic characters in the novel, by far the most important – although there are only one or two misjudged moments of specific intrusion – is the distinctly inscrutable deity who narrates it with such energy and relish.

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