Complacent Bounty

Susan Eilenberg

  • All the Poems by Muriel Spark
    Carcanet, 130 pp, £9.95, October 2004, ISBN 1 85754 773 X
  • The Finishing School by Muriel Spark
    Penguin, 156 pp, £6.99, April 2005, ISBN 0 14 100598 X

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.

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