Muriel Spark Spark, Muriel (Vol. 8) - Essay

Spark, Muriel (Vol. 8)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Spark, Muriel 1918–

A Scottish-born novelist, poet, short story writer, playwright, essayist, and biographer, Spark now lives in Rome. Her novels are distinguished by her satirical approach and the sense of intellectual distance she puts between herself and her characters, an imaginative assortment of tyrannical nuns, languorous jet-setters, and enigmatic spinsters. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 3, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

[Muriel Spark] seems to lack some important, or at least useful human dimensions—such as humor, compassion, generosity or tolerance.

This intrinsic compression of spirit she tries to disguise in satire, and brings it off well, as our attention is usually drawn to the glittering rapier and its victim, not the wielder. But does she satirize society, fashions in people, fads in pretension and hypocrisy? No. What Spark is after is the quick of her character's soul, and that is less satire and more hatred of life, vampirism in fact. And done in most competent if brittle prose. Tight, disciplined stories, yes; but satisfying to think over, no. There is a taste of scorched metal. Again, why?

It is because the narrator she usually employs is too often the stereotypical convert, joyless and sexless; sometimes it's a disembodied voice, literally a spook; or it's intellectualist, bored by the drab English, or English (African) colonial, life; or it's neuter, hysterical, grim, as though suffering from menopause from the onset of puberty, and wishing only to find refuge or surcease from the life of the whole person. And that refuge is too easily found in an attitude that is self-consciously catty and complacent, spiritualistic rather than spiritual, smug about rosaries, icons, rituals, embarrassed by faith and not exalted or empowered by it, as though faith demands a show of warmth that is in poor taste. Evelyn Waugh and Greene both suffer from it too.

In consequence, death stalks through much of Spark's fiction, which is full of arbitrary violence: her stories are often spitefully ghostly, or allegoric confessions (like two long ones, "Bang-bang You're Dead," and "The Go-Away Bird"); many of her sympathetic characters are penitents, exemplifying various states of what she chooses to call sin and hell-suffering, whether or not they are aware of what she's doing to them. What saves her work from triviality, from being merely boring, is her deft touch, and a sort of queer honesty emerging from it: for, while her kind of Catholic writing suffers Protestants and deplores utilitarians and pragmatists, it also shows itself acutely aware that its true purgatory is that well-deserted one of the other Catholics, as in "Come Along, Marjorie," and "Alice Long's Dachshunds."

As for her poetry—on reflection one sees that its prosaic ideas are merely tendentious, its tight and clogged syntax and vocabulary, its habitual expression in the traditional forms of ballad or blank paragraphs or misshapen quatrains, its poor and unnatural rhythms—all this mirrors a terrible split rather well-hidden by her swift light touch in fiction. It is a split suggesting a sad inability to integrate body and mind, as though in loathing the flesh and yet longing for its sensual life Miss Spark's spirit had retired to a snug apartment in the top of her head and left the building below untenanted, hollow yet dusty and full of strange thumps and knockings. Had she called her volume verses, not poems, she might have been able to claim to be in the tradition of vers de societé: verses of social comment, and witty, metaphysical observation that survives somehow from the early part of this century and can find its audience.

Jascha Kessler, "Sojourn in the Joyless World of Bitter Satire," in The Los Angeles Times (copyright, 1968, Los Angeles Times; reprinted by permission), July 14, 1968, p. 40.

Muriel Spark converted to Catholicism in 1954, and all her novels have been "religious" in the sense that they have all dealt with faith or morality. But unlike "Catholic writer" Graham Greene, her mode is comedy: a ruthless, biting comedy which strips off the mask of hypocrisy and reveals the absurdity—and often the viciousness—of human beings. (p. 22)

Like Spark's Jean Brodie, in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, like her Dougal Douglas in The Ballad of Peckham Rye, the Abbess of Crewe [in The Abbess of Crewe: A Modern Morality Tale] has a God-complex: she believes herself to be above ordinary standards of right and wrong. Like the famous Miss Brodie, she is an autocrat, an elitist, a tyrant, convinced that God's standards are identical to her own. Spark believes that the Catholic Church's strict hierarchy of obedience makes it particularly vulnerable to this kind of person….

In all her books, Spark uses some mysterious or simply outrageous phenomenon as a catalyst to shake up our accepted notions and force a reexamination of them. In this book, the device is the electronic listening system which Abbess Alexandra has installed throughout the convent to make herself all-seeing and all-knowing, thus all-powerful. Her fondness for the wonders of modern technology contrasts ironically with her strict insistence on the ancient Benedictine Rule. But there is a double standard: one for the Abbess and her coterie, another for the plebeians. (p. 23)

Betrayal figures in all of Spark's novels. The Abbess, the Nixon-figure, has committed the greatest betrayal: that of a sacred trust. All the high comedy, the grotesqueries that are the heart of Spark's wit … are in the service of a deeply serious concern with the ancient moral problem of absolute power, which corrupts absolutely. Spark calls her novels "fiction out of which a kind of truth emerges … I am interested in absolute truth … I believe things which are difficult to believe, but I believe them because they are absolute." In short, she believes in Christianity….

The problem with all this is that Spark makes her satanic characters too attractive. Ordinary craven mortals can't help admiring the magnificent certainty of a Miss Jean Brodie or an Abbess of Crewe that God and Truth are on their side. The Abbess of Crewe is such a delight to read that even its real-life prototype, Watergate, emerges seeming like more of a lark than a crime. (p. 24)

The Abbess of Crewe is a little gem, a fable very much of our time, yet, like all good satire, universal. (p. 27)

Gail Kessler Kmetz, "Come Let Us Mock at the Great …," in Ms. (© 1976 Ms. Magazine Corp.), May, 1976, pp. 22-4, 27.

The Takeover is certainly about the collapse of fortunes, dinner parties, Palladian retreats, civilisation as we know it, as well as our culture's less tangible appurtenances—established religion, moralities and relationships which, having likewise been turned into objects over the past few hundred years, and made spiteful and ignoble by greed, cannot reasonably complain of also finding themselves subject to the physical laws of decay.

In its sharp idiosyncratic detail, the manner in which the wit derives from the author's detached tone, the milieu of sensual conspiracy and moneyed gossip, the characters as slightly cracked decadent archetypes, vehicles for an overall attitude of mind, the book is very much akin to the disciplined farce of Ronald Firbank who was monitoring a similar collapse of civilisation as we know it fifty years ago.

As a tribe Muriel Spark's characters are highly appealing. They promise fun, sexual adventure and plenty to drink surrounded by some of the world's most beautiful architecture. Their problems are entertaining without being trivial, their passions betray a remarkable sense of proportion. It is unlikely that Jacqueline Onassis will drop in to deaden things but if she does you can always go upstairs to join somebody's son or daughter in a secret cinquecento bedroom, smoking marijuana in front of a wonderfully pagan vista of blue hills. Above all, life is not dull here, even if it is socially gracious to say you are bored now and again….

People would be shocked. They want us to go back to wearing bed socks as a bulwark against the spread of anarchy. This misses the point entirely, which Miss Spark does not. The threats against our system—which in the West have gone further in Italy than anywhere else—bring a tremendous exhilaration into the lives of these characters. I daresay this book will be seen as an indictment against the new mood, a work of unguent malice, but it is not.

Maybe Maggie, a jetsy American of middle years whose riches incite all the action (plotwise), imagines that what she most wants in life is to flop down beside as many different private swimming pools as possible before dying in one. But the plain fact is that without the jewel robberies, tantrums, kidnaps, financial swindles, intrigues, and lovers, she would have no sense of significance whatsoever. She thrives on this action and at the end manages to recover her fortune in high spirits by kidnapping the quack financier who has gone off with it….

[Muriel Spark's] people are not drama types to engage your pity. They are events to engage your optimism. Next time somebody suddenly deprives you of a Veronese, don't feel guilty about that uncanny sense of release. It's the opposite of being murdered.

Duncan Fallowell, "Campo dei fiori," in The Spectator (© 1976 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), June 12, 1976, p. 23.

Muriel Spark calls her latest novel, The Abbess of Crewe, "A Modern Morality Tale," and a superficial reading of this witty and amusing story of a scandal-ridden abbess election will suggest that the object of Spark's allegory is Watergate. Watergate and political corruption, however, form only the skeleton of this brief but biting tale; Spark's real target is the mass media and its all-pervasive influence on contemporary life. In the phenomenon of Watergate, with its obsessive examination in the mass media, its verbal and visual clichés, and its unique association with electronic surveillance, Spark has found the perfect vehicle to convey her image of media as the religion of modern man.

Spark, whose twelve novels and numerous short stories examine contemporary life in the light of her religious vision, has for some time been preoccupied with the impact of the mass media on modern consciousness. (p. 146)

In The Abbess of Crewe (1974), the story of the Abbess Alexandra who drinks Le Corton 1959, reads Machiavelli, and quotes Herrick, Marvell, and Milton, Muriel Spark shows how modern tools for recording and communicating reality have become instead instruments for its creation. She has created hilarious parallels to Watergate events and figures in this novel, and readers of course will be tempted by the game of identification, but this identification is not central to the novel. As Spark demonstrates convincingly, the media have insured that the images and phrases of Watergate have entered "the realm of mythology," and mythology, as the Abbess informs her sisters, is "history garbled"…. Events lose accuracy in the public mind, Spark suggests, as the media create a global village and a common mythology. Words and images, once specific to an event, become a common language, their sources garbled and insignificant.

Images of Watergate have thus been cut loose from their original associations and now float free in the common consciousness of the public. Spark utilizes these images to evoke recognition and ironic laughter and to demonstrate by this very recognition the point of her modern morality tale. Recurrent motifs from the media further highlight Spark's theme: she creates a collage of communication images with her descriptions of the electronics laboratory, repeated references to buggings, television news, and photocopy machines, constant interruptions by telephone calls, and repeated calls to the roving nun Gertrude on "the green line." (pp. 148-49)

Spark puts her modern morality tale, a familiar tale of intrigue and scheming for worldly recognition and power, in the context of "the levelling wind"; and in her concluding lines she turns from the transcripts of the Crewe tapes … to a vision of eternity: "that cornfield of sublimity which never should be reaped nor was ever sown, orient and immortal wheat". (p. 153)

Barbara Y. Keyser, "Muriel Spark, Watergate, and the Mass Media," in Arizona Quarterly (copyright © 1976 by the Arizona Quarterly), Vol. 32, No. 2, Summer, 1976, pp. 146-53.

Muriel Spark is an enigmatic novelist, and her forte is to imply that she knows much more than, in her short novels, she chooses to say. At times her tone is omniscient, Godlike, as when, in "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," she disposes of her characters not only in the past and present, but also in the future; at other times she is, more simply, knowing. She writes of the rich, the clever, the sophisticated, the experienced; the innocent and the unknowing receive hardly more than a derisory nod or an astonished salute in her collected works. She and her characters move easily from London to Paris to New York to Rome, filling in time by expensive purchases of the right shoes, the right paintings: they are the jet set of fiction….

This kind of mixture has worked well before, and it works well [in "The Takeover"], at least superficially: the book presents a glittering surface. We all like gloss: we like to read of those so wealthy that they can no longer afford to insure their possessions, and we love to suffer vicariously as they attempt to foil their predators—by hiding their jewels in hot water bottles, by making false floors to false kitchens, by burying their ill-gotten gains in their mothers' well-tended graves. But, as ever, Muriel Spark raises the question: what lies beneath this dazzling game? Anything? Nothing? And, as ever, she leaves us on our own, for most of the book, to try to answer it.

At times one suspects she may not know the answer herself. It is easy to appear knowing if one says little, or if one works, as she did in "The Abbess of Crewe," on the level of tediously protracted fantasy. "The Takeover" exposes itself much more dangerously than did that last highly-praised fiction, for it can be related to everyday reality. (p. 1)

"The Takeover," despite its studied frivolity, is concerned with a very interesting subject indeed. It is true that one may read half the book, with much pleasure and some impatience, before this becomes clear, but on page 126 precisely, Muriel Spark drops her enigmatic allusions for long enough to tell us, plainly, that she is writing about money. In a couple of brilliant paragraphs, she describes the change that overtook the world in 1973, with the rise of Arab oil power and the fear of global recession….

It is a wonderful subject, and one admires her for tackling it. She is well equipped to write of the kind of colorless, odorless, tasteless, unspendable money that passes in hieroglyphics through computers from one part of the globe to another. She also raises, in a comic and orgiastic scene towards the end, the conflict of Christianity and wealth….

The theme is, not surprisingly, too large for the book, but that is a welcome relief, after the thin subjects of those thin novels, "The Driver's Seat" and "Not to Disturb." It asks more questions than it can answer, but it asks them boldly. Muriel Spark does not claim to understand the new global economic situation, witty though she is about some of its effects; nor does she tell us what the future will be like, after the watershed of 1973. The omniscience that sat so easily on her in her earlier novels has been shaken. There is a future, after all…. It is almost as though, midway through this novel, the author recognizes that all the trappings of her former style have, in the economic sea change, lost their meaning and value too: the scenario, of Palladian mansions and expensive hotels and grand apartments with Louis XIV chairs, must change; so must the cast list of millionaires and servants and spongers; so must the wardrobe of Gucci shoes and Bulgari steel watches, the backdrop of Gauguins and Porsches….

Where is glittering sophistication in this new harsh world? What will Muriel Spark do next? Will she, like her heroine Maggie, put on shabbier clothes for a shabbier future, dissimulate, learn new tricks? Will she shake off the confines of a public image and a public style that have at times looked like a haute couture straight jacket? It is hard to praise a plain future and a Christian ethic in jeweled prose. It will be interesting to read the speculations of post-'73 Spark. (p. 2)

Margaret Drabble, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 3, 1976.

The first thing one notices about [The Takeover] is that it is longer and fuller than Spark's brief, dry, ungenerous-seeming experiments of the past few years. In fact, this is her longest novel but for The Mandelbaum Gate of 1965, and for the reader this is all gain. Of the very brief novels, her last, The Abbess of Crewe I judge the best, since the brevity there seems just right. But now, taking myth—a Diana myth—and modern Italy, the Italy of international superriches, of robberies, kidnappings, blackmail and the Mafia, as her material, she has given herself room in which to create several Italian scenes and situations based on witty observation—the rich at table, a couple of Italian servant women meeting in a street and talking scandalous things over (to me the finest bit of observation and writing in the book)—scenes and situations for which the extreme distillation of works like Not to Disturb and The Hothouse by the East River allowed her no scope.

What The Takeover is precisely about, what the authoress's precise intentions are here, I leave you to decide for yourselves. What matters most at the moment, it seems to me, is the satisfaction to be derived from seeing one of our leading post-mid-Fifties novelists giving of her impudent, stylish best in the post-mid-Seventies. If ever a civilisation needed impudence in the approach to it and style in dealing with it, ours does.

Whether the central character, American Maggie Radcliffe,… is supposed to symbolize the Goddess Diana from one of the myths collected by Frazer in The Golden Bough …, I don't care a damn. Whether the authoress has succeeded in giving us a parallel of that myth in modern times and in modern Italy, which is strictly parallel all through, interests me even less. What does interest me is that in this tale, in which several of the bogus people with which our world is at present cluttered—worshippers of the Golden Calf, thieves, parasites, inept idealists, founders of phoney cults, hangers-on—Muriel Spark has written another sparkling parable. One which, while illustrating the pursuit of the Seven Deadly Sins, with covetousness and lechery in the van, is a joy to read and which, in the mere fact of its existence, is a tribute to man's intelligence. It provides the hope, if not the guarantee, that we have still mind enough to see ourselves and, seeing ourselves, to survive.

No, I'm wrong. What matters most to me is that by writing this book, Spark has demonstrated again that art and the art of satire, besides being a weapon, is a joy, if not for ever, then at least for 266 pages. (pp. 60-1)

Effective, too, is a feature which does not seem to have been present in Spark's work before, a consciousness of the beauty and peace of natural scenery, 'the kindly fruits of the earth', as compared with man's frenetic getting and spending and dashing about in all directions but the right one….

Paul Bailey … started his review of The Abbess of Crewe … [see CLC, Vol. 5] with 'There was once a novelist called Muriel'. Enough said. But no, it wasn't. A few lines later, Bailey added: 'Early in her career she created a real character called Jean Brodie …' who had to be put down for getting the better of her author. But has Muriel Spark ever been concerned with creating character? It seems to me that that has always been beside the point to her, so that such criticism of her writing is, too. In fact, it is irrelevant. One must find authors lacking on their own grounds and not on those one would like to see them standing on. Besides, surely we have abandoned character today? Surely, today, we are left with only ideas, folly and telecommunications?

A further objection raised to Spark's work is that she always seems one up on the reader ('Muriel was a very knowing writer'—says Bailey). But surely, again, we have known that from the start, have always accepted that she writes sitting on God's knee—which is only a more visual way of saying sub specie aeternitatis, that now very tired old phrase, where her work is concerned….

All I have to say further of The Takeover is: read it. Not only because of the author's name, but also because it is relevant to our Western society and age and, while parading man's folly, restores some faith in him, because a part of mankind, called Muriel Spark, achieved this novel. (p. 61)

James Brockway, "New Spark of Genius," in Books and Bookmen (© copyright James Brockway 1976; reprinted with permission), November, 1976, pp. 60-1.

"I knew," the narrator of Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon says, "that since 1933 the rich could only be happy alone together." Muriel Spark, in The Takeover, suggests that since 1973, with the oil crisis and the onset of the new Dark Ages, the rich have lost even that insulated happiness. Sponged on, held up, ripped off, blackmailed, kidnapped, they have become an endangered species, their paintings, antiques, cash, and multiple international holdings mere invitations to swindle and looting; all their assets transfigured into liabilities. There has been "a change in the meaning of property and money," we are told….

[There is a clear implication in The Takeover] that the rich and the crooked are birds of a feather, that the rich make the best survivors because they make the best crooks, and that the more sea-changes in the nature of reality there are, the more it's the same thing. The rich have the sufferings, to paraphase Auden, to which they are fairly accustomed.

Spark enjoys the thought of charming larceny, and no writer of fiction, I suspect, can feel truly ill-disposed toward confidence men…. Spark's ironic sympathy for both victims and crooks (and especially for victims who become crooks) turns into a rather prim horror of promiscuous thieving and a too eagerly articulated notion that recently the world really has changed past all recognition. So she sounds, briefly, like the reactionaries in her own novel, who keep saying that things will never be the same again, and that "something is finished for always." She quickly picks herself up, though, and on the very next page remarks that if one of her characters had been able to envisage the reality to come, she "would have considered it, wrongly, to be a life not worth living."

Wrongly is marvelous, it is the voice of the writer's sanity refusing to be left out of whatever world there is. It is striking that the only other sloppy passage in this brisk and brilliant book concerns "eternal life," which remains, Spark says, "past all accounting." Accounting too ambitiously ("a complete mutation"), or accounting not at all ("the whole of eternal life carried on regardless"), Spark momentarily loses her subject, which as the title of her novel suggests is neither money nor the pulsations of everlasting nature but greed and panic and the competition for limited space and a finite number of goodies.

Whether the people in this book are rich or crooked or what Spark calls, in a graceful glance at another Seventies phenomenon, "avid for immaterialism," they are reacting to the idea of wealth, and this note is sounded throughout the novel….

The point is less the omnipresence of thoughts of lucre than the quirky, obsessive behavior the unrestrained economic motive can induce: perfect material for a comic writer with a moralist's eye….

The best and final refutation of Spark's notion about the sea-change in the nature of reality is the security of her own vision. She sees, she implies, just what there is to see and that is pretty much what she is used to seeing. (p. 30)

Michael Wood, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1976 NYREV, Inc.), November 11, 1976.

Muriel Spark is a disturbing writer because she refuses to offer plain sermons; she never underlines her articles of Catholic faith. She assumes that we will get her slanted messages. She is usually correct.

[The Takeover] is, however, especially troubling. If we merely accept the "mad" goings on—the pairing of servants and masters, the odd speech-patterns of foreigners …, and the shifting powerplays—we are inclined to dismiss them as an odd jumble or mistake.

But The Takeover surmounts most of its difficulties. Perhaps the best way to grasp its central meaning (and pattern) is by studying its title. Spark is concerned with possession—all kinds of possession. Superficially the plot concerns the role of money. Maggie, the heroine, is a wealthy lady who owns (or tries to own) houses, people, and antiques. She controls the money-flow; she is the materialistic queen.

But Maggie cannot completely "take over the world" because she cannot control superior, mysterious forces. The oil shortage, the computerized accounts, the "mysterious and intangible" transformations of property—the novel is filled with reproductions and fakes—are examples of unpredictable and unknown aspects of the pattern that she believes she creates.

Maggie is "stupid." She refuses, except toward the novel's end, to admit that she is simply another "servant." Thus she provokes Spark's satiric thrusts: she lives in rich darkness "hardly needing her flashlamp."

Hubert, the sometime secretary-advisor-enemy of Maggie, is also a cunning fool…. [He] is only another false prophet who, like Maggie, refuses to see through money. Hubert is perhaps more dangerous than she; he speaks in metaphors and myths, recognizing that he can clothe his materialism in striking words: "The concepts of property and material possession are the direct causes of such concepts as perjury, lying, deception and fraud. In the world of symbol, and the worlds of magic, of allegory and mysticism, deceit has no meaning, lies do not exist, fraud is impossible." He "takes over" his flock, but he is seduced by his own words.

The novel is, then, a battle for ownership—over people as well as house—but it does not stay on one comic level. Spark subtly suggests that art itself is her underlying subject. She reminds us, as she did in her first novel, that she as writer is on uneasy ground. She is, after all, the owner of all of her characters—she possesses them—and she has to fight the very principles of lying and deceit they practice. But Spark must lie in order to create truth and to instruct us about spiritual life. There is an odd—and, I must add, an ancient—battle between art and divine truth.

If we can return to Hubert's words about the falsity of language, we can see that Spark uses these not only to point her accusing finger at his ill-conceived plots but at her own artistic struggles. She implies that many readers will settle for cosy coincidence, delightful reading and forget that her novel pursues other directions.

The Takeover is, strangely enough, a fake. Although it seems made for Hollywood … it is underneath all the glittering and showy details, a meditation upon the relation of art and religion. It compels us to search beneath the painted surface. Once we do, we see that it deals with the passing of eras, religions (save one!), pseudo-mystical concepts, prophecies, and earthly life…. The Takeover maintains that only one kind of truth can comfort us—to play with the title of her first novel [The Comforters]—and that heavenly wisdom can barely be glimpsed in earth-bound texts. (p. 25)

Irving Malin, in Commonweal (copyright © 1977 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), January 7, 1977.