Conversions

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.

On the few occasions when it is mentioned, Catholicism serves as a context for intellectual rather than spiritual self-examination. Ernst Untzinger, an EC bureaucrat of uncertain sexuality, ponders his own compulsive materialism and laments the fact that even when he visits the Pope he can’t help calculating his worldly riches (‘life-proprietor of the Sistine Chapel, landlord of the Vatican and contents ...’). Hurley Reed launches into a brilliant disquisition on marriage, maintaining that, as a Catholic, he can’t agree that it should be final: marriage vows are made under the influence of amorous love, which is ‘a state of mental imbalance’, and ‘there is a reservation, under Catholic laws of annulment, that allows for madness.’ His logic is unyielding, and it’s appropriate that he should remind us, in the course of this speech, that Catholics are ‘supposed to belong to the most rational religion’. If we are hoping that the book will convey any sense of the numinous, then it seems we shall have to look for it elsewhere.

What we have to do, in fact, is to look much closer to home, and to remember that Sandy Stranger in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie once wrote ‘an odd psychological treatise’ entitled ‘The Transfiguration of the Commonplace’ (surely a heaven-sent gift for Spark explicators the world over). It is the patterns and routines of everyday life which make up, for this writer, a kind of ritual. Note how often, for instance, her characters will carry around with them some private verbal formula – frequently in French – which is clung to less for its actual meaning than for its talismanic value: Miss Brodie’s crème de la crème, Mrs Hawkins’s pisseur de copie, and here Margaret Murchie’s threatening preoccupation with les autres. And note how, even more impressively, Spark takes some militantly obscure detail – telling us that the newly-weds in Symposium met in the fruit section of Marks and Spencer’s – and harps upon it obsessively, making each of the characters allude to it, puzzle over it, worry away at it until it begins to take on the quality of litany, becoming the central unfathomable fact upon which the plot will finally turn.

The hypnotic recurrence of this detail also has the effect of anchoring the book, of perpetually drawing us back to the contemplation of one significant moment from which all the threads proceed. This does not make the novel static, exactly (it has too much vigour for that), but it does collapse our sense of the linearity of narrative. Symposium is overtly and ambitiously concerned with the nature of evil, but Spark seems to know that any attempt at a psychological investigation would be futile: what she homes in on (and it’s here, if at all, that the book becomes religious) is her sense that evil is bound up with mortality, that corruption is something which happens within time. Although it takes place on a specific date (18 October), time seems to stand still for Chris and Hurley’s dinner party, which is narrated in the present tense and has the air of some beautiful Platonic tableau, ageless and incorrupt. The events which feed into it, however – the sinister belowstairs intrigues, the sexual dissatisfactions, the Murchies’ implacable scheming – are all related with careful emphasis on the time factor. In fact, it becomes almost formulaic to draw attention to this at the beginning of each chapter: ‘Three weeks before the dinner party at Hurley Reed and Chris Donovan’s house ... ’; ‘It was the first week of October, over two weeks before the dinner ... ’; ‘It had been in September, while the young Damiens were still on their honeymoon ...’; ‘Long before Margaret Murchie met William Damien in the fruit section of Marks and Spencer’s in Oxford Street – nearly two years before ... ’

Plato’s dialogues tend to be filtered through a qualifying apparatus which in the case of the Symposium is particularly complicated: Appollodorus relates the story to Glaucon, but he himself has only got it second-hand from ‘a little man who never wore shoes’ called Aristodemus. In this way the imperfection of the dialogues themselves can be slyly accounted for, by suggesting that they fall short of the ideal only because nobody can remember them properly. The relationship between Hurley and Chris is also held up as ideal (‘there was probably nothing more pleasant in the whole of London than the charming love between Hurley Reed and Chris Donovan’), and their dinner party, at which they seek to share this relationship with their most carefully-selected friends, radiates an aura of present-tense impermeability, as if it were meant to stand as a model of society itself at its most harmonious and inclusive. That, at least, is the plan, but Spark manages to undermine it at every level, from the thinly-veiled sarcasm in her choice of words (‘pleasant’, ‘charming’), to the strong vein of social commentary which suggests – as in Not to Disturb – that anybody who relies this much on servants has got it coming to them. Above all, she takes brilliant advantage of one of the novelist’s least used and least recognised privileges – the ability to manipulate time – in order to show the inextricable connection between wickedness and our dogged temporal progression through the world. The achievement of Symposium is to make us realise that perfection, if such a thing exists, can only be understood as timelessness.

By comparison Alice Thomas Ellis is an altogether less risky novelist. Formal experimentation holds little appeal for her: the most adventurous steps she has taken in that direction are to be found in the three interior monologues, each providing a different slant on events leading to the last-minute cancellation of a wedding, which make up her recent trilogy, The Clothes in the Wardrobe, The Skeleton in the Cupboard and The Fly in the Ointment. While analogies can be drawn between Muriel Spark’s Catholic God and her equally lofty and all-powerful narrators, Alice Thomas Ellis does not seem so excited by the idea that novel-writing provides an opportunity to inhabit and analyse the creative mind. She modestly declines the invitation to announce, by virtuoso displays of manipulation, her own controlling presence, and since she can’t find it in her to mimic divine intention, she is left with little option but to regard herself, like her characters, as being on its receiving end. For this reason you often find at the centre of her novels a character whom it is hard not to regard as spokeswoman for the core of embattled values – a taut mixture of feminism, spirituality, common sense and sheer mischief – which creates their by now unmistakable ambience. Lili from the trilogy and Lydia from Unexplained Laughter are perhaps the most overpowering of these figures: an occasional problem with The Inn at the Edge of the World is our sense that the narrator, having bravely decided to go it alone this time, can sometimes be spotted scouting around for someone who might be prepared to smuggle in a particularly choice authorial observation, even if it means stepping out of character for a moment. Neither of her usual choices – Harry, a bereaved and dignified ex-soldier, or Jessica, a semi-famous actress – is really equal to the task.

In her trilogy Alice Thomas Ellis made extensive use of non-linear narrative, including flashbacks which placed the exoticism of Egypt and warm memories of a Yorkshire childhood in painful juxtaposition with life in a peculiarly cheerless corner of Croydon. Her new novel marks a return to the simpler procedures of Unexplained Laughter, where events were narrated in their regular order. The reader’s expectations were ruffled, in that novel, not by shifts in time but by the interpolation of a series of ‘supernatural’ passages presumed to be coming from a disembodied child’s voice deep in the Welsh mountains. The book began and ended with these italicised monologues, implying that the natural and supernatural worlds, having co-existed uncomfortably for a while, had parted company and would remain essentially self-contained, but in The Inn at the Edge of the World their relationship becomes much more problematic and disturbing. The plot has five London misfits, all of them either jilted or bereft or just plain lonely, answering an advertisement which invites them to escape Christmas by coming to stay in a hotel on a remote Scottish island. This island is mostly populated by interlopers – the dentist who uses it as somewhere to conduct his affairs, the inn-keeper with the tarty wife who misses the bright lights of Telford – and the locals are an uncommunicative lot: which is hardly surprising, because among them are to be found the ‘selkies’ or seal-people, who have webbed fingers and smell of the sea and sometimes, according to Finlay, the boatman, have been known to ‘come ashore ... and they take off their skins and they dance on yon strand, and sometimes they wed with the children of men.’ The interpenetration of the two worlds this time leads to tragedy, although a contributing factor is also the very human problem of Jon, a vain young actor whose self-obsession shades slowly to a murderous impulse.

Like most of Alice Thomas Ellis’s plots, this one is not in itself amusing: in fact, it verges on the sinister. But while Spark structures her novels around any number of lively ironies, revelations and about-turns, it’s Ellis who has us laughing out loud, because she is queen of the local joke which dares to take hold of a vicious and mundane reality and yank it into the realm of the sublime. Jon appears in the dining-room one morning wearing ‘a smile that he had last used in a commercial for tinned soup’, which sounds merely flattening until we are told that ‘it was the sort of smile that the Elect might wear for the Second Coming,’ and suddenly the book’s scale of values has fanned out, encompassing everything from the angelic to the diabolic. This means that her jokes are probably best explained not by the secular formulations of Freud and Bergson, but by Baudelaire’s essay in which he saw laughter as being ‘at one and the same time a sign of infinite greatness and of infinite wretchedness, infinite wretchedness in relation to the absolute being, of whom man has an inkling, infinite greatness in relation to the beasts. It is from the constant clash of these two infinites that laughter flows.’

In Muriel Spark’s fiction ‘the commonplace’ soon turns out to be full of mystery, routine can take on a ceremonial glamour and Catholicism is the reassuring ‘norm’ against which human eccentricities are to be measured. Supernatural or mystical elements in her books are typically associated with impostors like Patrick Seton in The Bachelors or Tom Wells in Robinson or Hector Bartlett in A Far Cry from Kensington. But for Alice Thomas Ellis faith is something nebulous and magical, it is God rather than man who moves in mysterious ways, and it’s all too easy to take the measure of everyday life, which at its best can be dismissed with a viperish aphorism and at its worst becomes a nightmare of endless, deadening repetitions. One very fine passage in The Inn at the Edge of the World has Harry thinking about his wife, who died when she was still young and beautiful, and reflecting on the good fortune of married couples who have learned to grow bored with each other:

How fortunate they were ... How strangely blessed to have learned that love is an illusion, to have been given time to see its blossoms moulder and spot and not to have had it snatched away from them in perfection. He told himself that if his wife had lived she might now be a false-toothed harridan, sitting up in bed behind him demanding to know what he thought he was doing staring out of the window like that ... How peaceful that would be, thought Harry; how painless to have learned to the full that love withers and nothing matters. How pleasant to have realised completely the tedium of life and to have no fear of loss and no pangs of remembrance. That would be the consolation of age, and he had no such solace, for his wife and child had gone in beauty and youth, cheated him of disillusion and left him endlessly bereft.

Here as in her previous three novels, Alice Thomas Ellis presents a view of marriage bleaker and more openly needful of the consolations of religion than just about any in modern fiction. That a large and enthusiastic public should find it palatable is a tribute to her glittering skills as an entertainer: to them or, more worryingly, to the quietly accepted truth of what she is saying.