For the past half-century Muriel Spark has been the recognised master of detachment. The closer she approaches matters of terror or outrage or betrayal or shame the more controlled her voice. To memory-summoned menace and ritually recalled violation her response has been severe amusement or colder revenge; to the threat of madness or obsession (her own or another’s), controlled glee. Her achieved indifference, the spectrum of its neutralities as wide as the world, is balanced on a point of lucid joy. She saith among the trumpets, Ha, ha.
From the beginning she has taken a fierce delight in being in a world full of strangeness. The lovely and the grotesque alike exhilarate. The schools, boarding-houses and so on in which she likes to set her fictions are akin to zoos, their inhabitants oddly aware and just as oddly unaware of one another, their enforced proximity and subjection to accidental intimacy and unelected witness a curious and sometimes parodic simulacrum of neighbourliness; and until late in her career her settings were secretly boarding-houses even when they seemed not to be. Spark herself (for she sets herself in these scenes, half-disguised) is as much spectator as inmate. Her emotions have no privacy from one another: affection hears malice coughing and taking off its shoes on the other side of the wall and sighs at the mess curiosity always leaves on the tub. As the young mid-century Fleur of Loitering with Intent, she contemplates an old woman with a visual greed as unsettling as it is endearing: ‘As to her bizarre appearance, I liked it. I liked to see her shaking, withered hand with its talons pointing accusingly, I liked the four greenish teeth through which she hissed and cackled.’ It is the same with moral and sociable failures as with bodily ones. To the treachery of her ‘marvellous friends, full of good and evil’, she responds with the happy freedom of the intended novelist whose judgment and interest move independently of one another, an ambidexterity that causes those friends, her own characters, to call her cold. ‘I was aware of a daemon inside me that rejoiced in seeing people as they were, and not only that, but more than ever as they were, and more, and more.’
Spark treats herself with the same keen disinterested arrogance she directs towards others. Her fictional stand-ins (who can be spotted, sometimes in multiples, in every novel) have no protection against readerly doubt or condemnation. Spark holds up to mockery her own poetry, her own hallucinations; offers up her own cool, unscrupulous exactions to disapproval or horror. If, on the one hand, she is the joyous Fleur and benevolent Mrs Hawkins (A Far Cry from Kensington), she is, on the other, the unscrupulous Emma Loy (Far Cry), the haunted or possibly delusional Caroline (The Comforters), and Selina as she slips past the terrified and the doomed to save a Schiaparelli gown (The Girls of Slender Means). Spark is almost certainly the variously merry or sinister fakers who can’t be identified as versions of her old collaborator and ritual enemy Derek Stanford, and she is probably in part the fakers who can be identified with him too. Most of all, she is the voice on the other end of the telephone (Memento Mori) warning: ‘Remember you must die.’
For Spark’s great subject, however improbable, is the paradox of creatureliness, the condition of not owning one’s life or one’s death or the meaning of either. The suicidal Lise of The Driver’s Seat is in the same boat as Margaret of the evil eye in Symposium: each is unable to control the murderousness she would use but finds her will thwarted by the accident or irony that is more truly mortal. Not through defiance or collusion or resignation is there any escape. The most moving figure in Spark’s fiction, and perhaps the most suggestive, is the epileptic Ronald in The Bachelors, his need to know the truth enabling him to remain conscious during even his worst seizures.
Ronald swayed. He fumbled in his pockets for his pills. They were in his other suit, at home. He gave up. He stumbled down the steps and fell two steps before he got to the bottom. There he foamed at the mouth. His eyes turned upward, and the drum-like kicking of his heels began on the polished wooden floor.
Of all this Ronald is conscious. Spark’s poets, lapsed Catholics, schoolchildren, schoolteachers, obsessives, charlatans, murderers and movie stars are in their ultimate helplessness little different from her ghosts, her Baudelairean remnants, her animated coffee pots, her abandoned clamorous sketches, Job, her readers, herself.
As she notes in Curriculum Vitae, her 1992 memoir, Spark has always regarded her imagination as ‘a definite “something beyond myself”’, a source of ‘knowledge that I couldn’t possibly have gained through normal channels’. In childhood it formed her early idea of religion; by the time of her friendship with Derek Stanford it was a complacent bounty, something that taught her, as he remarked, to regard ‘her gifts with expectant fondness’. But it was also, as in her 1956 poem ‘Intermittence’, ‘her old ridiculous partner’, her ‘embarrassing vancourier’, her ‘old she-wolf’, dangerous and resistless. No more than a wolf is imagination to be trusted, or memory, or even that defence against their treachery and the consequent or inconsequent mistrust of readers, documentation, though Spark clutches at this last in her memoir. There she proceeds as if she believed misunderstanding or misrepresentation were a genuine threat to her life, as if she believed her being depended on her proof of it. Declaring herself ‘determined to write nothing that cannot be supported by documentary evidence or by eyewitnesses’, Spark presents herself as one who has always expected to be doubted, and prepared accordingly. ‘Since 1949 onwards I have thrown away practically nothing on paper,’ for ‘I have always known . . . my well-ordered archive . . . would stand by me, the silent, objective evidence of truth, should I ever need it. It has given me the confidence to proceed.’ Yet documents can be mislaid, as, to her published dismay, were the records of the Poetry Society covering the period of her editorship in the late 1940s (though, she assures us, ‘the present kindly director . . . and his staff have done their utmost to trace for me documentary evidence of my even having been there’). Or they can be misappropriated, as she contends early manuscripts of hers were; or misused, like the letters that ended up in the hands of an apparent blackmailer.
Writing early and late as if uncertain about which side of the paper she inhabits, Spark performs a perpetual disowning and reowning of creaturely and particularly writerly self-loss: to write or to speak is to borrow a power capable of being turned unnervingly against one, and autobiographical connection yields not security of possession but a sense of the uncanny. Spark’s fiction seems not merely to recall her life but – just slightly too often – to predict it or to draw on an impossibly later knowledge. It is in childhood (in a juvenile fiction entitled ‘The Black Star’) that she inaugurates her favourite theme of blackmail; and the tapping of a ghostly typewriter following or perhaps dictating the thoughts of the protagonist of her first novel, derived from Spark’s experience of dexedrine-generated hallucinations and paranoid ‘involuntary word-games’, turns out to have been the sound of Evelyn Waugh, who was simultaneously, outside the range of Spark’s awareness, converting his own similarly hallucinatory experience into The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. Any sudden access of words – Mrs Hawkins’s ‘pisseur de copie’ in A Far Cry from Kensington, the servants’ hypercivilised jabber at the end of Not to Disturb, frugal Lise’s last, terrible brief linguistic extravagance (‘“Kill me,” she says, and repeats it in four languages’) – can signal chaos. ‘We’ve been looking for you for some time,’ a couple of characters abandoned in an unfinished manuscript tell their author. ‘Now you’ve got to give us substance otherwise we’ll haunt you.’ Such menace is Spark’s prime matter.
Spark reminds us in a hundred ways that fiction is only fiction and that reality is too. Sometimes this is taken as a sign of her spiritual humility. If so, it is a humility somewhat defective in reverence: ontological hierarchies are treated as comic provocations, as occasions for the derivative, the dependent or the fraudulent to challenge the original and for the original to respond. It is almost as if (as in the Book of Job) the ultimately real too were answerable, as if it too were teased by a creaturely desire for justification. So in ‘The Seraph and the Zambesi’ (the first story Spark ever published), Samuel Cramer, living near the Victoria Falls, dressed in mosquito netting and greasepaint for a Christmas masque, his storied past abandoned a century before, is annoyed by the appearance of a many-winged ‘living body’ radiating a terrific heat that melts his make-up. ‘Altogether unlike other forms of life, it had a completed look. No part was undergoing a process; the outline lacked the signs of confusion and ferment which commonly indicate living things.’ It is a seraph, and though Cramer shouts and quarrels and threatens it with gasoline, it won’t shoo.
‘Once and for all –’
‘That’s correct,’ said the Seraph.
‘– this is my show,’ continued Cramer.
‘Since when?’ the Seraph said.
‘Right from the start,’ Cramer breathed at him.
‘Well, it’s been mine from the Beginning,’ said the Seraph, ‘and the Beginning began first.’
The Seraph’s principal and most wittily suggestive sublimity is its independence of relation, its refusal ‘to conform to the law of perspective’: it remained ‘the same size when I approached as when I withdrew’. Yet in the jealous quarrel, all the Seraph’s seraphitude amounts to is an edge more or less equivalent to having better lines or a fast car; it can go at seventy miles an hour on tarmac using just two of its wings. It is an advantage that makes victory possible, or escape at least.
Spark delights here and elsewhere in the collapse of ratio and replays it often, to vertiginously heterodyne effect. Evidence that what had seemed a suicide was in fact a murder is accidentally destroyed, but the destruction seems hardly to matter (A Far Cry from Kensington); a man sees another man kill a woman and stuffs the relic of a meaningless practical joke into the departing murderer’s shirt (The Girls of Slender Means): hideous crimes are inconsequent. Or they turn on clichés: ‘He looked as if he could kill me and he did,’ says the ghost of a woman called Needle, whose corpse was found in the haystack in which she was smothered (‘The Portobello Road’). Or they produce puns: as the bodies of a bloody romantic triangle are taken away by the police, ‘here they come, says Lister to his troop, “Klopstock and barrel”’ (Not to Disturb). Or they produce the narrative equivalent of puns: a young man foolishly falls as he runs across a roof towards his lover and falls again a moment later; the first fall masks from us the meaning of the second, just as the dust thrown up when a bomb explodes in a garden masks the smoke of the fire it starts, and as the screaming of girls whose hips are too wide to allow them to escape death through a narrow window is a repetition of their screams when the window stunt was merely a prank (The Girls of Slender Means, whose title, too, of course, is a pun). The pain and terror are real and unreal at the same time, like the characters Spark creates in order for them not to matter, such as the frenetic dead in The Hothouse by the East River who do not know they are dead, or Mrs Hogg in The Comforters, who literally vanishes from being because she does not, humanly speaking, exist except when someone sees her.
The freakish anticlimax, the symmetry of incommensurables, the fall of import into accident: all suggest a terrifying compression of scale, like the space of divine dialogue in the Book of Job, like the oppressive intimacy of a boarding-house, like the outrageous joke of a boarding-house falling down. The middle space of human life and appreciation and discrimination of value becomes all space, becomes no space at all. At mapping this space that is no space, at evoking the cries of those caught in its collapse, Spark had, during her prime, no equal.
From the opening pages in Spark’s collection All the Poems, we know something is amiss. Looking back, she announces in her foreword, at her early poems, whose arrangement by mixture with the poems of her old age she has left to her editor, she finds herself baffled as by the work of a stranger, which in some sense (as she says) she was. Her long since written words – many of them manifestly designed by a young, impudent, absurdity-loving poet to puzzle her readers, some of them no more than ordinarily ambiguous – now puzzle her; she cannot as a reader understand her own writerly way with words. A line from ‘Edinburgh Villanelle’ particularly exercises her: ‘What did I mean by “Heart of Midlothian, never mine”?’ She guesses awkwardly but comes up with nothing: ‘I have no idea what I meant,’ she admits; the sense is ‘unfathomable’. Though she cannot penetrate her own obscurity, she knows, like the proud aunt of a precocious niece, that if she wrote it, it must be good. ‘I can’t disapprove of those poems whose significance and origins I forget.’
Nor, in the case of these early poems, should she disapprove. Though not so exceptional as to explain why she has professed all her life to think of herself as primarily a poet, many of the poems of the 1940s and 1950s are vivid pieces of wit, observation, meditation or fantasy, full of the freshness of wonder. The world she writes of at mid-century she tends to catch in metamorphosis:
Each player felt reluctantly compelled
To know what mystery the other held;
As one white neck rose taller with desire
The other three stretched likewise snakier . . .
By dawn they bent and buried their flexible
Extending isthmuses beneath the table
It is haunted by voices and meanings not altogether human and not altogether natural:
And the roots of the willow, lying
under the bed of the pool were crying,
it is the twisted cord that feeds this tree
which is your clay and entity.
In her voice reverberate the voices of others (Blake, Tennyson, Yeats, Eliot, Coleridge), sometimes to grotesque (‘The new moon like a pair of surgical forceps/With the old moon in her jaws’), and sometimes to lyrical effect. She is alive to the pressure of breath against word. She is alive even to the responsive pressure of vacancy, as when, in Archimedean demonstration, ‘The cat subsiding down a basement/Leaves a catlessness behind it.’ The reader is unwontedly aware not just of the dynamism of the world Spark sees but also of the physical vitality of the young writer herself, whose enjambed runs of chaotic stresses, for example, ache for air and shudder, inhaling:
This is the pain that sea anemones bear
in the fear of aberration but wilfully
aspiring to respire in another
more difficult way, and turning
flower into animal interminably.
This sense of vital respiration, this subliminal appreciation of what a fine thing lung capacity is, is missing in Spark’s later verse. Reading invidiously, as the volume’s juxtaposition of new and old verse unwittingly invites one to, one begins to wonder how far talent – Spark’s at least – depends on visual acuity and breath control. As if short-winded, she can’t manage the subtle and surprising vocal effects she once delighted in, and her enjambments seem to wheeze. Unable to make out ‘dinkety details’ without her glasses, she remarks on the improvements being ‘dim-sighted’ brings about: ‘Everyone’s skin is smooth./ Everyone’s eyebrows are arches./Everyone’s eyes are black points./Everyone’s clothes are clean.’ What might make for concentration to imaginative essence makes here for reduction merely. The world is flat and (except for the sound of her own voice, which is the voice of that elderly aunt at the stub end of her imagination) mute, disanimated. Where before there were freaks and spirits and talking office furniture, now there are frauds and foreigners, a shoe she pities as it lies abandoned on the road, a sad scarecrow, and the alarming fact that if you should need your furnace repaired over the holidays, ‘Money doesn’t speak.’ Spark concedes that something has gone missing, but suggests it is a painting a thief takes from her wall one night or a poem about hats, stolen, along with her handbag, while her back is turned (‘How did it go, that poem?/I wish I could remember’); and she thinks that the critics and extortionists are as bad as the thieves (‘I will dish he said/the dirt scream scream/ . . . I/am a scholar I spook I rake’).
What else is lost with the loss of youth, and what passions these losses provoke, are much on Spark’s mind in The Finishing School. Rowland Mahler, founder of College Sunrise and not yet quite out of his twenties, has left the brief glory of literary celebrity behind. The sole event of his ‘young person success’ consisted of a play he wrote eight years ago, which attracted favourable notice and aroused for some weeks high expectations; what he has written since then no one will touch, and recently his powers of composition have so decayed that he has been unable to write even a school brochure without plagiarising. Rowland falls into obsessive and obscene envy of a red-headed 17-year-old student called Chris whose literary fluency mocks Rowland’s hopeless blockage. At first horrified at his desperate need to stop the boy from finishing the novel he is writing about Mary Queen of Scots and the murders of Rizzio by an envious Darnley and then of Darnley by (in Chris’s version) Rizzio’s avenging brother, Rowland neglects his responsibilities to his horrified wife, Nina, and to his other students and increasingly gives himself over to increasingly malevolent irrationality: ‘Many times, now, Rowland thought of how it would be if Chris were dead. It wouldn’t do. It wouldn’t be enough. There would always remain the fact that Chris had lived, had been writing a novel while still at school, had prevented Rowland from writing his novel.’
Whether Chris’s novel is worth Rowland’s obsession with it is unclear. We may be tempted to discount Rowland’s conviction (driven as it is by self-tormenting jealous horror) that the book proves the boy’s literary mastery, but the narrator, omniscient and neutral to the point of slackness, seems to agree with Rowland’s assessment, at least at first. Readers are given nothing to judge. We see not a word of what Chris has written; a book within a book, its purpose is to give back aspects of the story Spark tells, its recitation of jealousy, murder and the corruption of letters reflecting what the fact of its composition provokes. We know it only by its mirror-like effects. All around it, authoriality begins to fail in ways it has always tended to fail in Spark. Characters meaning to say one thing find themselves saying another; bits of text are pointlessly scrambled; the writing of anonymous others finds its way into notebooks believed to have been private. Among these distractions the significance of Chris’s talent (if talent is what it is) is lost, until finally precocity occludes genius, the transience of the one perhaps figuring the unreliability of the other. Chris (or perhaps Spark) begins to treat his age as a heraldic device (‘I am a red-haired novelist of 17, soon to be world famous as such’), and by the time editors and producers show up to discuss a deal the chief and possibly sole merit of Chris’s novel seems to consist in its writer’s youth. ‘The book itself,’ a contemptuous editor tells him, ‘is actually full of shit,’ but ‘it will be all right because of your youth and the publicity you’ve spread about.’ ‘You’re 17,’ a producer reminds him. ‘Under-age. That’s a selling point. If you wait till you’re 18, 19, you might as well be anybody.’
Rowland might as well be anybody too. It is useless for Spark to tell us that, for Rowland, Chris is ‘no longer a boy-student, he was now a meaning, an explanation in himself’ or to have Rowland say to his wife, ‘I was thinking of my father, thinking a lot about him. His death took Chris completely off my mind. But now, I can hardly wait till I get back into my brooding environment, if you know what I mean.’ His envy is mechanical. His obsession, though loud, is unconvincing. He himself is little more than a mouthpiece for a leftover idea about a violent but in this case not particularly interesting theme.
The school itself is an easy target for crude satire. Admitting any student whose parents are rich enough to pay the fees and perpetually moving to keep ahead of its creditors, it offers Rowland’s courses in creative writing and Nina’s in deportment, or comme il faut. The pupils take lessons in how, if you find yourself being chased by an elephant, you should ‘stand still and wave a white handkerchief’ (‘this confuses the elephant’s legs’) and how to eat a plover’s egg (‘I read about this in a manners’ book, perhaps it was a joke’). All this, Nina tells her admiring students, she teaches because ‘your jumped-up parents (may God preserve their bank accounts) will want to see something for their money.’ The pupils are unoffended; in any case, they have a lot to keep them occupied. They spend their time commenting on Rowland’s obsession and Nina’s affair with a neighbour, planning cruises, getting pregnant by the gardener, discussing their parents’ shady dealings, learning to cast off ‘the grammatical function’, and using a ‘slick and self-confident’ carelessness about facts to launch their careers. They parade one by one down a runway, dressed up in seven pages’ worth of shell-pink taffeta, black satin, golden antique Cambodian scarves (plus the ‘cream tropical suit with silk scarf of dark blue and white spots’ worn by the gardener) for a fashion show. This ought to make them colourful, and it does make for relief from the dull, crude melodrama of Rowland (‘I want my obsession’). But perhaps the colour is of the wrong kind; the pupils remain so nearly indistinct that, 119 pages in, Spark resorts to emergency measures, handing their characterisation over to gossiping servants: ‘Lionel, he’s serious, Leg’s fun, Tilly’s rather a bitch but, well, she’s Tilly. Lisa, Joan, Mary, especially Mary, who adores Rowland – they’re charming. And Opal’s going to be a woman priest, how long will that last?’
Like so much else in The Finishing School, the remark is a placeholder. So are the characters. So is the satire; so are the jokes and the enigmas. So, indeed, is the novel itself, which reads like its own caret. Such things have been said before about Spark’s novels, and said as often in admiration as in complaint: if something is missing or broken, Spark has taken it away or broken it on purpose. Spark’s novels have often provoked outrage before admiration. So it may turn out to be in this case; the impression of failure may not be the final one.
Nevertheless, it is my impression now. Though Spark may mean us to see through the gaps and seams to the paper behind, though this may be yet another of her attempts to remind us of the fictiveness, the confectedness, of fiction, though all this could be a stunt and the disabling of interest a belated experiment in minimalism, the disappointments of the novel this time are indistinguishable from the defects of composition. The Finishing School reads like an early draft of the kind of novel she once wrote, or perhaps the bored summary of one. The obsessions with envy, with fraudulence, with the relation of fiction to falsehood, with literary treachery, with ways in which writing can be interfered with or turned against the writer, with control and its loss, with obsession itself, all of which once generated her most brilliant fictions, persist as accustomed cynicism, urgent no longer. The scandal of the Casket Letters, an instance of precisely that cluster of enigmatic horrors around which her literary career has long revolved, is mentioned and then disregarded. What may have been meant to be jokes neglect their punchlines. Apathy falls heavily between paragraph and paragraph. Lover is incurious about lover. Loose ends trail off to nothing. As she mocks her characters’ verbal faults and gaucheries Spark commits her own, and not one vital line redeems the waste.
Loss of talent, envy of talent (which may be no more than youth), the degradation of literacy and the substitution of personality for artistry – the targets of Spark’s mockery are dismayingly plain and dismayingly personal. The book is bad. But what is most shocking about The Finishing School is not its crudeness (which is nevertheless astonishing) or its tedium (which is a surprise) or even its apparent contempt for the reader. It is that it gives every sign of knowing just how bad it is, rages against its own badness, hides humiliation behind its own self-evidence. Spark was always brave; she is brave still, perhaps more now than when she had her youth and brilliance to protect her. She has set herself beyond defence; she has made herself her own target. We watch her aim and fire.