Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1200

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.

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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 weight to Spark’s swiftly paced and crowded narrative. In this novel, her focus is on bachelordom, the noncommunity of the unattached, uncommitted male. The bachelor state is viewed as damnation, and for the ten examples presented, the writer provides an atmosphere of fearful reality. The lodgings in which they live, the pubs they frequent, the stores where they shop, their problems with meals, mothers, and women—all are images of the private hells of loneliness and trivial self-preoccupation in which each separately revolves. This vision is one that the more discerning of her bachelors share with their creator. Matthew Finch, who is Irish, Catholic, and plagued by sex, says that one’s duty is to marry, to choose between Holy Orders and Holy Matrimony. Anything else—and he speaks from experience—is an unnatural life for a Christian. Ronald Bridges, a graphologist who is unable to fulfill his desire to become a priest because he is an epileptic, claims that he is a confirmed bachelor, but at the end of the novel he experiences a vision of the bachelor’s selfish and uneasy life on the fringes of society: He imagines 17.1 bachelors in each of London’s 38,500 streets, restless, awake, active with their bed partners, or asleep.

In this noncommunity, the solitary individuals try to find substitutes for solidarity and faith. Some, such as Ronald, find another vocation. Others, such as Martin Bowles, become social and moral hypocrites. Still others, such as Walter Prett, revile the world out of drunken self-pity. A few, such as Patrick Seton, prey on human credulity. Most, like Matthew, simply struggle; his predicament, trapped between spirit and flesh, is amusing and nevertheless real.

The uses to which Spark puts her social outsiders are crafty and entertaining. Patrick, the fraudulent medium, is charged with converting to his own needs two thousand pounds that Freda Flower, a rich widow, gives him for the work of The Wider Community, a spiritualistic group. Freda and another patron of the circle, Mrs. Marlene Cooper, are already rivals for the place of leadership within the group, and the charge against Patrick further widens the split. Marlene sees in the division an opportunity to direct the Inner Spiral, a secret group within The Wider Community; Freda hopes to bring the members under the influence of Mike Garland, a clairvoyant of notorious reputation, and of his friend Father Sockett. Ronald becomes involved because he is the friend of Tim Raymond, Marlene’s nephew, and because, as a handwriting expert, he is asked to testify to the authenticity of a letter forged by Patrick. Other complications include the fact that Martin, who is also Ronald’s friend, is the prosecuting counsel against Patrick, and that Matthew falls deeply in love with Alice. Through information innocently supplied by Matthew, Elsie Forrest, Alice’s friend, is able to steal the letter from Ronald’s lodgings. Meanwhile, Mike and Sockett are also after the letter for reasons of their own.

Spark handles this complicated material with skill and dash. After Patrick is convicted and sentenced, Matthew will marry Alice, and Ronald will continue to suffer from the nightmares of his epileptic seizures. They are his cross, but because of them he achieves a kind of wisdom and insight into the need of faith and the grace of compassion. This, the reader senses, is the meaning of Spark’s conclusion, but she is too much an artist to flog a thesis or to point to a moral. Her characters are good, foolish, sinister, and kind. They exist larger than life and are illuminative of life, because they are self-contained in a world where sin and salvation coexist in precarious balance. It is a world where a man must earn the right to share commitment to his fellows or to God. This writer handles serious matters with a light but sure touch.

Spark’s novels create an effect of wild improvisation, but actually the opposite is true. These works have been carefully planned and are cleanly structured and lucidly styled. Few writers have had a surer hold on the comic convention of the English novel, which brings the fantastic and the real together in a coherent whole.

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