There are times when the novels of Muriel Spark suggest a mildly hallucinatory card game in which the dealer declares the trump suit only after the last card has been played and then proceeds to take all the tricks. This is not to say that Spark cheats or ignores the rules of the fictional game she is playing; however, she does add to her picture of the world some element of unearthly surprise, and she presents her people from an odd angle of vision, throwing an oblique light on the troubled condition of human beings—and, since she is a Christian writer, on their relation to God or the devil. All of her novels deal in one degree or another with the problem of faith: the grace with which people accept it or the ways by which they try to evade it. The result is an original body of work that cannot be mistaken for that of anyone else.
Satire is the literary climate in which her lively art appears to flourish best. Nevertheless, satire, touched with fantasy or the supernatural, is always a risky business. It demands, among other things, a sharp wit and a spirited style. The reader must also be sufficiently involved in order to go along with the game of pretense, and the story must make its point if the reader is to accept the satire as an insightful comment on the absurdities of the material world or the mysteries of the soul.
Spark takes on the risks deliberately. Her first novel, The Comforters (1957), relied for much of its effect on ghostly presences and double identities. In one scene, a character hears the clatter of the author’s typewriter at work on the book. Robinson (1958) brought into congruous relationship such disparate elements as a desert island, a murder, and a spiritual dilemma resolved in a rather bizarre fashion. Memento Mori (1959) was the novel in which Spark revealed to the fullest that audacity, altogether her own, which became the guiding principle of her fiction. In this book, Death is a disembodied voice on the telephone making calls to a group of old people and reminding them that they must die; what this chilling fable offers is a contrast between the selfish, trivial concerns of these people’s lives and the inescapable fact of their mortality. The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960) brings to the pubs and rooming houses of a London suburb a devil incarnate who provides the people of Peckham with opportunities to display humankind’s natural capacity for error and evil. By means of devices such as these, Spark shows a critical and moral imagination at work among observations of the clutter and waste of the contemporary scene.
The Bachelors is more restrained. It contains no open struggle with otherworldly forces, whether of God or of the devil. The only touch of the supernatural comes when a quack spiritualistic medium does, apparently, establish communication with the dead in an episode so briefly presented that it gives little...
(The entire section is 1200 words.)