Old Testament Capers

Frank Kermode

  • The Only Problem by Muriel Spark
    Bodley Head, 189 pp, £7.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 370 30605 8

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.)

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[*] Mikhail Bakhtin’s Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, edited and translated by Caryl Emerson, with an Introduction by Wayne Booth, is now published as Volume VIII of the ‘Theory and History of Literature’ series. Manchester University Press, 333 pp., and £11.50, 2 August, 0 7190 1458 1.