Muriel Spark was an adept storyteller with a narrative voice that was often distant or aloof. Her tales are psychologically interesting because Spark was reluctant to reveal all that her characters think and feel; in consequence, readers are forced to evaluate the stories, think about issues from a different perspective, and try to fill in the gaps. Critics regard Spark’s novels as her strongest genre, but her short stories are also well constructed and intriguing. Her volumes of short stories, published over four decades contain many of the same stories reprinted, with new stories added to each new edition.
Spark’s tales are often set in England, British colonies in Africa, or European locations. Her works reflect a sense of moral truth, which some critics view as the influence of her conversion to Catholicism in 1954. Her narrative is rarely wordy. The story line relies on the impressions and dialogue of the characters or narrator to convey the plot. She made frequent use of first-person narrative, but none of her voices “tells all.” One of the distinguishing elements in Spark’s style was her penchant for leaving gaps that her readers must fill for themselves.
“The Seraph and the Zambesi”
Spark’s first short story, “The Seraph and the Zambesi,” won an award in a Christmas contest sponsored by The Observer in 1951. In characteristic Spark style, this story does not mince words but focuses on action and sparse dialogue. Set in Africa at Christmastime, the story portrays the events surrounding preparations for a Christmas pageant. Besides sweltering temperatures, curious natives, and preoccupied performers, the presentation is “hindered” by the presence of a heavenly Seraph, complete with six wings and a heat-producing glow. The writer of the nativity play is incensed when a real angel appears. He expresses rage rather than awe and destroys the stage in his attempts to banish the Seraph. Though Spark refuses to offer a moral at the close of “The Seraph and the Zambesi,” the story resembles a parable, illustrating the egocentrism of human beings, especially “artists.” The narrative also serves as a metaphor for the definition of genuine “art.”
A related story dealing with art and creativity is entitled “The Playhouse Called Remarkable.” This story, published several years after “The Seraph and the Zambesi,” features a character named Moon Biglow. Moon confesses to the narrator that he is really a native of the moon who migrated to Earth on the “Downfall of [the] Uprise” some time in the distant past. His primary mission was to save earth’s residents from suffocating aesthetic boredom. It seems human beings had no form of recreation other than that of gathering in groups to chant “Tum tum ya” each evening. The moon migrants organize the “playhouse called Remarkable” to offer alternative entertainment and also to give earthlings a creative outlet for their imaginations.
“The Pawnbroker’s Wife”
Often Spark’s short fiction depicts varied types of female personalities. These stories, narrated in first person and set in Africa, tell little about the narrators themselves but focus on the manipulative power of the central female characters. In “The Pawnbroker’s Wife,” the narrator tells the story of Mrs. Jan Cloote, who is never identified by her first name. Her pawnbroker husband has disappeared, and Mrs. Cloote carries on the business herself but denies the slightly sordid reputation of her vocation by claiming that she is only the pawnbroker’s wife. Thus, in her name and her speech, she tries the separate her actions from her image. Such “distancing” allows Mrs. Cloote freedom in refusing to accept responsibility for her conduct, no matter how cruel or petty, as she performs the duties of a pawnbroker (and ironically she is far more successful in business than her husband had been.) She uses a show of politeness to remain corrupt without having to admit fault or make concessions. She breaks her promises to customers and sells the pawned items of her friends at the first opportunity. Mrs. Cloote’s poor taste, grasping manipulation, and innocent pretense give her character an insidious cast. Yet the narrator who reveals these facts refuses to pass judgment regarding Mrs. Cloote’s morality. That matter is left to the reader.
“A Curtain Blown by the Breeze”
In a similar story, Sonia Van der Merwe, the female protagonist in “The Curtain Blown by the Breeze,” gains power over her domain in the absence of her husband. Mr. Van der Merwe, who lives in the remote territory of Fort Beit, is imprisoned for fatally shooting a young native boy who was a Peeping Tom. While her husband’s conviction and imprisonment might have prompted a feeling of tragedy, the opposite occurs. Sonia finds that she has considerable financial resources at her disposal with her husband gone. Like Mrs. Cloote, Sonia takes charge, encouraged on by the British medical women serving in the colony. She soon learns to use her feminine wiles to access power and control in Fort Beit. The male...
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