The Only Problem 
by Muriel Spark.
Bodley Head, 189 pp., £7.95, September 1984, 0 370 30605 8
Show More
Show More

Three years ago, in Loitering with Intent, Muriel Spark returned to the scene of her extraordinary first novel, The Comforters, published in 1957. In The Only Problem she is once again looking back: the new book has much to say about Job and comforters, a topic on which, it seems, Mrs Spark once planned a book. Hitherto nothing more had come of the project except an article called ‘The Mystery of Job’s Suffering’, which, as it happens, is quoted in The Only Problem: Job ‘not only argues the problem of suffering, he suffers the problem of argument.’ The central figure in the novel, a man called Harvey Gotham, is also working on a book about Job, and he finishes it, as, in a sense, Mrs Spark has finished hers, but thirty years on. ‘The only problem’ is what Harvey writes about, and it is simply the problem of suffering, though consideration of it entails many other questions, such as why God allows it; why he was so concerned to make Job admit what they both knew very well – namely, that he wasn’t around when God created the horse, leviathan and behemoth; and why, to win at least a respite, Job, who had done nothing wrong, had to declare himself vile, so winning his reward of thousands of sheep, camels and oxen, seven new sons and three new daughters, one of them named Keren-happuch, which Harvey likes to translate ‘Box of Eye-Paint’ but which is, I understand, more correctly rendered ‘Horn of Antimony’.

If there were a Spark Notebook, like Henry James’s, an imaginable entry might run: ‘Suppose that in our time some rich man were not only deep in the study of Job but himself in a situation of – well, shall I say discomfort, interested in the vague analogy between himself and his subject? Something might be made of it. Remember Georges de la Tour’s Job Visited by his Wife.’ Between the large general idea and the beautiful and blest nouvelle (which is what this writer does best) lie many questions as to how the thing is to be done, many scenarios perhaps. And in the development of these notions it would seem that the painting played a large part. We have this description of it:

Job’s wife, tall, sweet-faced, with the intimation of a beautiful body inside the large tent-like case of her firm clothes, bending, long-necked, solicitous over Job. In her hand is a lighted candle. It is night, it is winter; Job’s wife wears a glorious red tunic over her dress. Job sits on a plain cube-shaped block. He might be in front of a fire, for the light of the candle alone cannot explain the amount of light that is cast on the two figures. Job is naked except for a loin-cloth. He clasps his hands above his knees. His body seems to shrink, but it is the shrunkenness of pathos rather than want. Beside him is the piece of broken pottery that he has taken to scrape his wounds. His beard is thick. He is not an old man. Both are in their thirties... His face looks up at his wife, sensitive, imploring some favour, urging some cause. What is the wife trying to tell him as she bends her sweet face towards him? What does he beg, this stricken man, so accomplished in argument? ... The scene ... seemed ... so altogether different from that suggested by the text of Job... that it was impossible not to wonder what the artist actually meant.

The wife says: ‘Dost thou still retain thy integrity? Curse God and die.’ But in the picture she seems not to be angry or gloating, or even advising Job to give up and have one healthy outburst of anger against God before he dies. In the painter’s vision, it is suggested, Job and his wife are in love. (Job, it seems, liked women. It is said, at the end of the story, that the daughters got the same inheritance as the sons.)

From the gesture she is making over Job’s head with her left hand one might think the wife was gently expostulating, and from his look it might seem that she was being persuasive, though of course what he says to her is: ‘Thou speakest as one of the foolish women speaketh. What? Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?’ As a matter of fact, what the wife says in Hebrew means ‘Bless God and die.’ This might be advice that he should continue to act patiently but give up the struggle to keep himself together: but the word ‘bless’ is, I think, almost universally regarded as a euphemism for ‘curse’, partly on the evidence of Job’s reply. However, the Vulgate takes the verb in its manifest sense, benedic Deo, ‘bless God’, and it seems possible that La Tour, a French Catholic of the first half of the 17th century, knew this version: the wife is full of pity, she advises Job to let go but not to curse God. He thinks the advice wrong but knows it is loving, and gently suggests that his wife is on this occasion talking like one of the foolish women from whom she is normally quite sharply distinguished. La Tour is said to have had Franciscan sympathies, and perhaps that fact, if it is one, helps the gentler interpretation. If it happens not to be right, Job’s wife is a very bad person. If you were intending to transpose the story into a credible modern setting, you might feel you had to make up your mind on this point, or you might want to leave it interestingly ambiguous. In any case, to make the wife an important element in one’s version is to make rather free with the original, where she occupies two verses in a book of 42 chapters: unless she silently returns at the end to bear seven more sons, and also Jemima, Kezia and Keren-happuch, or Box of Eye-Paint.

If you are sure, like Harvey and perhaps his author, that a very old story encapsulates a permanent truth, you may assume great freedom in reworking it in order to accommodate that truth to people who fail to perceive its immediate relevance. Making up stories in order to update or explain older stories, to make sense of them under altered conditions, is a highly traditional activity, and treating Old Testament stories thus is a practice going back at least to the New Testament. When exegetes stopped doing it, poets carried on: Paradise Regained, for instance, is a beautiful and blest brief epic based on a few verses of Luke’s Gospel. La Tour had a long tradition to follow: included in that tradition was a firm belief that Job prefigures the passion of Christ, which he could perfectly well do without ceasing to illustrate The Only Problem, the problem of suffering, and without making it impossible to speculate creatively about Job’s wife as part of the problem. And one way of doing so might be to speculate, not only about the wife as she appears in the original poem, but also on what a former narrative commentator, in the present instance La Tour, made of it.

It has been remarked that book titles divide roughly into those which specify a story and those which specify a theme: The History of Tom Jones, but Sense and Sensibility. In this book Mrs Spark, rather unusually for her, names the theme: but it is part of the story that it is Harvey who states the theme in those words, so that the theme becomes part of the story, and the story makes it hard to be sure of the theme. This process of explaining ideas by telling stories, and so rendering them of very doubtful bearing, actually goes back to the beginning, insofar as we know the beginning: for the Book of Job is itself a palimpsest; earlier narrative interpreters had the luck to get their versions absorbed into the original. What James called the single small seed from which stories began might already have a complex genetic inheritance. Indeed, in the case of Mrs Spark they always do.

Harvey Gotham, whose surname suggests rather unfairly that he is some kind of fool, albeit a rich one, is credited with a certain aridity. Grass grows badly in his neighbourhood, which, at the outset, is a small cottage in France, quite near Epinal where the La Tour picture is. Later he buys the chateau. His sole interest is Job. He is visited by various comforters, a brother-in-law, his estranged wife’s sister with his estranged wife’s baby (by somebody else), the lawyer who looks after his affairs, and a boy called Nathan who has a degree in English Literature but wears a T-shirt inscribed ‘Poetry is Emotion Recollected in Tranquillity.’ All of them talk to Harvey about Job, but to very little purpose.

Harvey has left his wife Effie, much as he misses her (she bears a striking resemblance to Job’s wife in the painting), because she is a hypocrite, a petty thief and wholly selfish. He sleeps with the sister, who strikingly resembles Effie, but his main business is his monograph on Job and The Only Problem as this ‘pivotal’ book of the Bible presents it. Effie is pursuing him for a divorce settlement, which he refuses; being rich enables one to do some enviably nasty things. Soon the plot takes off. Effie, or so it appears, moves on from stealing bars of chocolate to more serious shoplifting, and then into terrorism. This is a rather characteristic move of the later Spark. She has always been interested, in a chilly, amused way, in the way people snoop, pilfer, spy and pry, but of late she has taken up kidnap, blackmail and urban terrorism as if these were the same things on a larger scale. This is a pity in a way, because it makes for complicated plots, and the best of the books are not over-plotted: but it reflects the temperament of a writer who has said she mistrusts indignant representations of injustice and would prefer ‘less emotion and more intelligence’ in literature that deals with it. Lack of indignation sometimes looks like sheer pleasure in recording the behaviour of crooks and twisters. Fleur in Loitering with Intent enjoys the absurd and the immoral very much and does what she can to augment them.

In this new book the Job business doesn’t disappear behind the capers, but a great deal of capering occurs. Harvey, his attention elsewhere, is always complaining that nobody tells him what’s going on. Effie’s conduct, if the wanted criminal really is Effie, causes him a lot of trouble with the police and the press, but he remains conscious of the fact that he isn’t suffering enough to warrant an analogy with Job. ‘How can you deal with the problem of suffering if everybody conspires to estrange you from suffering?’ His bone and his flesh remain untouched, and he is sure it was the boils that loosened Job’s tongue. At a press conference about his wife he lectures the media on Job, pointing out that everybody talked exhaustively to Job but never told him anything. He is accused in the papers of having cursed God, though he hasn’t. He has no great cause to, for, as he notices, being distracted from his study of the Book of Job isn’t exactly suffering on the appropriate scale. And yet ‘it is only by recognising how flat would be the world without the sufferings of others that we know how desperately becalmed our own lives would be without suffering.’ Harvey has a theory that we have all entered into a pre-natal contract with God, an agreement to suffer: but distresses aren’t suffering, and anyway he is well aware that only God knows the answers. His theodicy is pretty feeble compared with Job’s; however, he finishes his book, dealing among other matters with its tragic happy ending.

The aim of the novelist is truth. ‘What is truth?’ asks the rather Sparkian narrator of Loitering with Intent. People telling their own stories, she suggests, may aim at frankness and achieve only falsity. They may even say, credibly, that nothing has happened to them. ‘But you must understand that everything happens to an artist; time is always redeemed, nothing is lost and wonders never cease.’ The artist manages all this by manipulating fictions, working with données that may seem odd but are no odder than God’s; his stories are often apparently rather queer, morally speaking. However, his world is true, and so is the world of good fiction.

Mrs Spark’s most inspired manipulations tend, I think, to be brief, and four nouvelles, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Girls of Slender Means, The Public Image and The Driver’s Seat, strike me as the summit of her work, the first two funnier than the others, but the others wonders of a colder, harsher kind. The most brilliant exercise in pure manipulation, showing in a comical way what it is for a novelist to redeem the time, is Not to Disturb, which is also brief. The best plots are intense, even slightly paranoid. And – another point in common with James – the fantasy of paranoia may drift plausibly into the fantastic genre of fiction. One can imagine Mrs Spark rewriting ‘The Jolly Corner’ or possibly even The Turn of the Screw, but not The Portrait of a Lady or The Tragic Muse, much as their subjects would interest her.

The claims I have been making – for the whole oeuvre, I should add – are high, and I do indeed think of her as our best novelist. Although she is much admired and giggled at, I doubt if this estimate is widely shared. This may be because virtuosos, especially ‘cold’ ones, aren’t thought to be serious enough. Another reason is that although we have a special niche for certain religious novels, Mrs Spark’s kind of religion seems bafflingly idiosyncratic. In fact, she is a theological rather than a religious writer; when she writes about holy poverty, as in The Girls of Slender Means, or about suffering, as she does in this book, she sounds quite unlike a Catholic novelist; and the brilliant inventions of The Mandelbaum Gate are concerned with the intellectual aspects of large spiritual issues quite unlike, say, the torments of unworthy priests or of sinners taking the sacrament unshriven, such as Graham Greene used to dramatise. Treachery, adultery, even murder are aspects of the commonplace, and matter only as parts of a world: that is, they are as a rule treated not as sins great and small but as having their value from the parts they play in the paranoid fantasy. When somebody in Territorial Rights remarks, ‘I don’t know why the Roman Catholic church doesn’t stick to politics and keep its nose out of morals,’ one can’t help feeling that part of the joke is that the author would, up to a point, agree.

The author, indeed, inhabits, while writing, a bizarrely serious world, entirely of her making and marked with her mark, which might be on the stainable clothes of The Driver’s Seat or the stray balloon of The Public Image or the ‘fluxive precipitations’ of the old lady in Loitering with Intent. While she is writing, the world itself seems, she says, to behave as she says it does, full of aged people in Memento Mori (another idea James might have liked, but only for a story) or epileptic bachelors in The Bachelors. And no matter what the characters say they all speak in some version of her voice.

This ventriloquial quality (something she does share with another Catholic novelist, Evelyn Waugh) may be another reason why she is not classed with the heavies. It is always, in the end, a monologue we are attending to. The recovery of Bakhtin’s work, and especially of his Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics,* has, I suppose, been a boon to defenders of the ‘traditional’ forms of the novel. From Bakhtin we learn that the best novels will be like Dostoevsky’s in that they will have ‘a plurality of independent and unmerged voices, a genuine polyphony of fully valid voices’, and not offer a world ‘illuminated by a single authorial consciousness’. This is the great tradition (traced back to Rabelais, Shakespeare and Cervantes) that culminates in Dostoevsky. Bakhtin illustrates this and many related themes with encyclopedic learning; he is speaking not for the past but for a future in which such novels – ‘dialogic’, non-ideological – will be a principal instrument of human welfare. Mrs Spark is excluded, point by point (by inference, of course), from this tradition. If we wanted to construct a rival tradition on similar lines we should have to choose Ben Jonson as an English precursor, full of humours yet essentially ‘monologic’. Bakhtin detests what he calls ‘finalisable’ characters; Mrs Spark’s are all finalised, by her, as we all are by God. Of course the antithesis isn’t absolute, for Spark is very much the kind of writer Bakhtin calls ‘seriocomic’ and certainly has a quality he thought essential – namely, ‘a carnival sense of the world’. He thinks that carnival promotes the dialogic: yet it is the inversion of a monologic order, and that, in the end, is how Mrs Spark treats it.

The carnival in these books actually proceeds from the technique of humours; Miss Brodie is the most famous instance, for she is identified by tricks of speech and carnivalises her school. In The Only Problem Harvey, worried about leviathan and behemoth, asks his brother-in-law to visit the Zoo and check the eyes of crocodiles. In reporting back, this man remarks that he found the Zoo boring ‘to a degree’. ‘What degree?’ asks Harvey; and the little odd pedantry is his own but also his author’s. ‘I see no reason,’ says the young woman author in Loitering, ‘to keep silence about my enjoyment of the sound of my own voice as I work.’ She is, after all, conveying ‘ideas of truth and wonder’. So, no doubt, was Dostoevsky, only the method is different. He would not have said that people were the ‘straws from which I make my bricks’. He wouldn’t have said, either, that the world simply complied with his fantasy, as when, at the end of Loitering, the author meets some boys playing football,

and the ball came flying straight towards me. I kicked it with a chance grace, which, if I had... tried hard, I never could have done. Away into the air it went and landed in the small boy’s waiting hands. The boy grinned. And so, having entered the fullness of years, from there by the grace of God I go on my way rejoicing.

The suggestion is not, certainly not, that Dostoevsky never experienced the grace beyond the reach of art. Perhaps for him also it was a matter of daily or weekly proof that when he sat down to write the obedient world arranged itself accordingly. But there are various ways of accepting this grace. Think of the fascinatingly ample, comic opening of The Possessed, full of grace on one view, a very slow run-up on the other; and then of the totally mastered world of Mrs Spark’s nouvelles. Bakhtin chooses one, very plausibly; Henry James, the patron of doing, might choose the other. But of course the notion of necessary choice is absurd.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences