Muriel Spark’s The Takeover, the author’s fourteenth novel, is a fine and subtle rendition in novel form of the witty comedy of manners whose tradition began during the Restoration period of the late seventeenth century. The tradition has surfaced in drama several times since then throughout literary history, each time with a fresh perspective underscoring several basic ideas. Its counterpart in novel form, never really disappearing, yet at some times more successful than at others, shares the same premises: the affectations of an elite social group are both characteristic and valid material for satire; satire and the ambience in the novel’s setting are to be emphasized over the significance of plot; and life is seen through a comic realism that focuses on the social situation, often with a slightly cynical slant.
Spark has selected a perfect backdrop for these various purposes to converge: contemporary Italy of 1972-1975. The Takeover slips in nicely with more somber Italian cinematic counterparts commenting on Italian upper class lifestyles of the same time, for example, Wertmuller’s Swept Away and Visconti’s Un gruppo di famiglia in interno. This is a period of tremendous political and sociological upheavals and reversals, witnessing, among other severe changes, the plunge in value of the lira as well as the ushering in and triumph of Italy’s own form of Communism. As Spark states, “... a complete mutation of our means of nourishment had already come into being where the concept of money and property were concerned, a complete mutation not merely to be defined as a collapse of the capitalist system, or a global recession, but such a sea-change in the nature of reality as could not have been envisaged by Karl Marx or Sigmund Freud.”
Yet, unlike other artistic interpretations of Italy’s transformations in the first half of this decade, Spark’s novel does not center strictly on the Italian upper class. The central figure is Maggie, an American whose wealth extends beyond comprehension. Clustered around her is an international assortment of the privileged who are equally culpable of her monied callousness. Therefore, the novel is not limited to being a mere study of Italian misfortune or American crassness—it is instead a story of the complexities of maneuvering the rules of rich living in such a way that the inevitable clashes with the rules governing the rest of society are less than devastating.
Maggie has bought several parcels of land in mythically entrenched Nemi, not far from Rome. Two existing structures have been carefully renovated and remodeled; on the third piece of property Maggie has constructed a large villa to the specifications of one Hubert Mallindaine (some say that he has altered the last five letters of his name in order to make his claimed direct lineage from the goddess Diana less obvious), an individual who figures heavily, yet not intimately, in Maggie’s past. Maggie’s affections have recently turned. She has married a wealthy Italian who now urges her to evict Hubert from her property since he has refused not only to vacate civilly, but also to pay rent for the time he has occupied the house. Hubert has nested himself down firmly and comfortably pulled the complexities of Italian law around himself as protection. Furthermore, Maggie’s husband, the Marchese Adalberto di Tullio-Friole, discourages Maggie from attempting to evict Hubert through the court system for fear of creating a scandal for which his family would suffer greatly. What follows is a series of events on the parts of others to exploit Maggie’s vulnerability while she, in the meanwhile, attempts to reclaim her house through existing sotto tavola methods.
It is through this strange and contorted network of conventionalities that Spark most skillfully executes her satire on manners, propriety, and other accepted codes of conduct of the wealthy classes. The wealth of Maggie and her familiars forces them to maintain a certain self-protective distance from the rest of society, who occupy lower positions on the social scale. Lauro, one of Maggie’s servants recently lured from Hubert and his dwindling resources, however, provides a perfect buffer between these distinctions for one such as Maggie who wishes to maintain the distance but who knows she must keep an open line of communication if she is to utilize successfully the system’s shadiness to regain her absconded properties. Consequently, Lauro performs the duties of butler with impeccable precision, waiting patiently behind half-open doors to attend to any need of his employers. Yet, at the same time, he is willing and able to assume the role of surreptitious lover for Maggie and any number of women when the occasion arises.
But Lauro also demonstrates the difficulties and contradictions inherent in the ideologies of the present-day Italian working class. Although Italy’s Communism is not only...
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