A Turn of Events

Frank Kermode

  • Reality and Dreams by Muriel Spark
    Constable, 160 pp, £14.95, September 1996, ISBN 0 09 469670 5

Despite her obvious liking for complicated plots, Muriel Spark usually seems happiest when writing very short novels (which, it is true, often have complicated plots). Among her earlier novels it is The Public Image that Reality and Dreams most resembles, though they are separated by 28 years, and there are differences of tone. Once more she looks into, or down on, the movie business. In the older book the principal figure is an actress, without talent but with eyes that photograph so well that she becomes an international star. There is a good deal of bad behaviour, treachery and bad faith; everybody is, by the standards insinuated, inauthentic, and thus the movie scene on the via Veneto, with its adulteries, genuine or faked for publicity purposes, is silently contrasted with the other Rome which, in principle at any rate, has infallible access to truth.

The new book about the movies lacks the moral chill of The Public Image. It has as its central figure a 63-year-old movie director who falls off a crane while directing a movie and is badly hurt. It seems there is no longer any need to use such cranes – ‘an ordinary dolly is perfectly all right for directing a motion picture these days’ – but he insists on being up there, playing God, not having to bother about the opinions of the performers, moving them around in accordance with his will or whim. The virtuoso opening of the novel presents this man in hospital and very sick; it is cut like a film, cheating time. We meet his rich and agreeable wife, who has many lovers, his rich daughter Marigold, whom he finds abominable (‘an unfrocked priest of a woman’), and his daughter Cora, by a previous marriage, whom he likes much more.

Although nearly all these characters are well-heeled, one of the book’s main themes is redundancy. Many people in Tom’s circle have become redundant, either because they have lost their jobs or because they simply are, as persons, superfluous; and now he himself is a redundant movie director. Film, however spurious, is life: acting, however talented, is a form of hypocrisy. When he meets people Tom automatically asks himself how he would cast them. He regrets that neither of his daughters has a talent for acting, though in the end he manages to cast even Marigold.

Although he usually finds it necessary to sleep with his leading ladies, Tom specialises in the wives of redundant men, who are rumoured to suffer a loss of potency, so leaving their wives vulnerable to seducers. He is also fascinated by ordinary women, like his nurses. The movie interrupted by his accident had at its centre his memory of a nondescript girl glimpsed making hamburgers on a campsite in the Haute Savoie. In his hospital dreams he imagines himself anonymously giving this girl, Jeanne, of course without thought of sexual payment, an immense fortune. Since he hasn’t one himself, he dreams of murdering his very rich wife and inheriting her money.

The gyrations of these redundant people make a tersely complicated plot: Tom wants to return to his film; Cora’s husband runs off with his redundancy money and she, to her father’s chagrin, takes a lover; Tom’s wife Claire, so besotted with her new man that she recognises his ring on the telephone, brings him to live in the house where Tom is convalescing. Marigold tediously researches the fate of the redundant and then dramatically disappears.

Growing old with the century, Tom longs for less redundant company and wishes some of his old friends were alive to visit him: Wystan Auden and Chester Kallman, Graham Greene, Allen Tate, Louis MacNeiec, Tennessee Williams, Noel Coward, John Braine, Mary McCarthy ... (a shade slyly, Mrs Spark, after all a director in her own way, may here be self-indulgently thinking of some of her own old pals). He meditates the great turn of the times that may be upon us, and dreads God’s dreams because, unlike his, they are real. His solace is a black taxi-driver, with whom he cruises innocently at night, talking about life and movies, until some enemy takes a shot at the driver; they accept this as a warning and even this non-redundant friend has to be given up.

The film he was making when he fell off his crane had at its centre the girl Jeanne – a small part, just a few shots of her making hamburgers; and the part is played by a girl called Jeanne, who subsequently makes quite a nuisance of herself, largely by her awkward failure to distinguish the film-dream from life. There, as also in movies, she is merely a bit player, her interest deriving entirely from the perversity of Tom, his having wanted to make something of his divine glimpse of her. She had no real part in his plot and outside it is irritatingly redundant. Meanwhile the leading lady of the film falls ‘commercially but genuinely in love with Tom’. The film having been successfully finished, he thinks up another, set in Roman Britain, with the same leading lady and even a small part for the tiresome Jeanne – a flash-forward of Marie Antoinette on her way to execution. He insists on acquiring another tall crane, which will eventually supply the dénouement and provide Jeanne with a leading role after all. Meanwhile there has been a rather dispirited search for the missing Marigold, whom even her parents can’t bear.

‘Let us go then, you and I ... ’ Eliot’s lines are quoted at seemingly random moments throughout the book, possibly because they can be thought to introduce that no man’s land between dream and reality where some of the book is said to be taking place. Prufrock is certainly redundant: ‘I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker, / I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat and snicker.’ It has even been suggested that Eliot when writing ‘Prufrock’ had in mind Turgenev’s ‘The Diary of a Superfluous Man’. And Eliot’s epigraph, from the Inferno, is spoken there by a character in Hell who knows, or supposes, that nobody can get out of it, a plight which may be a bit like that of modern redundancy.

Mrs Spark is sometimes quite affectionate towards her characters, making some of them beautiful and some talented and some even useful (Marigold, perhaps) as well as greedy and lecherous and troubled by their redundancy, but they live in a dream that Tom thinks may be God’s when it isn’t his own. Like Annabel, the heroine of The Public Image, they are all seduced by celebrity; unlike Annabel, they do not, in the end, have a bold encounter with the truth.

It is not Mrs Spark’s way to make explicit judgments, and the sense that human beings, including novelists, can mimic God in writing and directing plots, and that there is an abyss of meaninglessness or possible damnation between their plots and his, is always present, though never as plain as it was in the earliest books (most plainly, perhaps, in the first of them, The Comforters). This reticence enables her to enjoy, and to make available for enjoyment, the complexities of behaviour, especially in matters of love and money, that the crookedness of our hearts is liable, or perhaps obliged, to engender. She can have her plots, with all manner of hypocrisy, violent death, dishonesty, coincidence and second sight, and they can be fun. Yet they are all in some sense unreal, matters of dream not reality (which, nevertheless, also has all of them).

Their connexity may suggest a certain resemblance to the connexities of Catholic doctrine and practice, but the resemblance is somehow delusive, and she is having it both ways: the fun of plotting and of delicious dialogue, and the conviction that such games are merely distorted echoes of real plots and authentic communications. One couldn’t help noticing how uneasy she seemed in her autobiography, how much more lively were the autobiographical elements in such plotted novels as A Far Cry from Kensington or Loitering with Intent. In that novel the heroine, a poor young writer around 1950, confesses that she dearly loves ‘a turn of events’. This is certainly true of Mrs Spark; although she knows that some such turns are deplorable, it is not her business to deplore them, but merely to let you know that they are deplored. It is hardly necessary to add that in this, her 20th novel, she remains inimitable – surely the most engaging, most tantalising writer we have.