Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2029
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 viable but in many cases successful and quite beneficial, it seems that its true defining characteristics have not been able to solidify in the minds of Italy’s intelligentsia without confusion. Considerable contradiction exists: intellectuals and workers cry for fair wages, equality, and dissolution of Italy’s wealth; but more often than coincidence will allow, these same people scramble for the outward appearances of the idle rich—jaded social affectations, fine cars, showpiece homes where whispers disturb nothing, and expensive clothes worn less than a season.
Lauro embodies these contradictions. First of all, he is a servant of working class origins. But second, he is revered by other members of his class since he has had the experience not only of observing how the wealthy class lives, but of living roughly the same lifestyle they do with the same expectations. The mark of success in serving the wealthy class is being able to expect nothing but exquisite service of oneself for one’s employers, as well as being accustomed to expecting equally superb surroundings in food, lodging, climate, and diversion. Lauro has assimilated these values not only into his work ethic but also into his personal repertoire. As a result, his fiancée’s family’s preparations for the wedding with their attention to every last detail of nicety revolts him: “In the world Lauro knew, there was silence in between the talk, and afterwards music and space, and nobody talked of the food at all; they took the good food for granted and if the men discussed wines or the women certain dishes, it was all like a subject that you study in a university like art history or wildlife.”
If there are any fools in Spark’s novel, they are fools only because they lack enterprise and are incapable of manipulating the existing structure to their own purposes. The social-legal-political structure as a whole is impossible; but to someone who is able to compare the structure to his own designs point by point, it is a useful tool toward a desired goal. Only two characters appear to fit this description, but it only appears so because their own system has manipulated the entire world to its own end for centuries. These characters are the two American Jesuit priests, Father Cuthbert Plaice and Father Gerard Harvey. The two scurry about on the outskirts of the story completely absorbed either in their own personal ends or in the sheer delight of enjoying the visible results of the unseen intrigue that lies within. Although Father Gerard ostensibly is involved in his research into the “ancient ecological cults,” both are actually quite free to dally in virtually anything that strikes their fancy. They do not have to learn how to comprehend and manipulate the system; they have been duping the world for centuries.
But Fathers Cuthbert and Gerard function in the novel in ways similar to Lauro, who bridges the gap between the working classes and the idle rich classes. The fathers with their dauntless enthusiasm for anything that succeeds in keeping them amused bridge the gap between the yoking demands of the Catholic religion, which still manages to keep a vice grip on Italy despite recent social and political progress, and the opportunistic cult of the Friends of Diana proselytized by Hubert Mallindaine.
Hubert believes that the greatness of his religion depends on the fact that it is somehow older, simpler, and consequently more true than that which is offered by other religions available today. His actual belief in what he is doing is unquestionable. But regardless of its origins and its unfettered existence, his cult of Diana, too, has succumbed to the corruption which characterizes other religions. This is so because Hubert himself is corrupt, and Hubert is corrupt because he is obliged to live in a precarious society in which only those who are capable of a discreet corruption survive.
Corruption is the key word to understanding the machinations of contemporary society epitomized by Italy, the same Italy which epitomized all the beauty, art, culture and idealism of the world in the past. But just as one finds it necessary to redefine the boundaries and concepts of Communism when one discusses it in relation to Italy, so must one learn to redefine the term “corruption.” The corruption here is not based on malice or immorality or even amorality. Instead, it is an actual necessity since it is the same corruption that permeates and in a sense gives shape to the entire culture. And just as fish cannot be taught with patient understanding to exist out of water, neither can an individual exist in this epitomized culture without the adaptive mechanism of an inherent corruption in his character.
Hubert succeeds in living in and with this corruption for several years. Although he eventually loses control over his position in this society, he never actually succumbs because he possesses the survival mechanism. Lauro, pouting though he is over minor setbacks, succeeds beautifully since he not only understands the mechanism, but he also lives, breathes, and exudes it. With the exception of careless Coco, only Maggie comes close to actually being destroyed by this aspect of her society. But she experiences her near-miss precisely because she has allowed her money to isolate her from recognizing what the machinations of that society are.
Initially, she contented herself with extramarital affairs and slick avoidances of bothersome conventions, claiming her right to ignoring the norm by virtue of her wealth—she had never been exposed to convention and therefore could not be expected to conform to it. However, when she suddenly realizes one day that she has nearly lost every penny she once had, she at the same time realizes that she is in danger of losing that protective device that prevents the necessity of learning convention. Her solution to this perplexing dilemma is simple; she exposes herself just enough, like a shy girl sampling the water at the shore, to learn what conventions might help her regain what society’s corruption is about to take from her. And what she extracts from this experience is simple: it is corruption itself.
So, by the close of the novel, each of the primary characters has not only experienced but also wielded corruption to one degree or another; each has achieved his goal to various extents. Order, however inequitable that order once was, has been restored once each of the characters has been purged in the cleansing bath of corruption. There is a contorted form of justice to this resolution. It is a justice because each character exits with essentially the same properties he rightfully entered with (Maggie’s property, which had never been purchased through legal means, has been restored to the rightful owners only in turn to be inherited by cunning and clever Lauro) and no one is punished. Punishment has been avoided because the scales of justice were able to return to their rightful position without the intervention of police or law. Consequently, even Coco’s kidnaping and ransom bespeak of justice without punishment, since all that is necessary for him to do to be sprung from captivity is to pay the ransom to his abductors, from whom the ransom money was stolen in the first place. The drama has ended, resolution is imminent, and the proverbial “happy ending” is inevitable.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 23
Bold, Alan, ed. Muriel Spark: An Odd Capacity for Vision, 1984.
Stanford, Derek. Muriel Spark: A Biographical and Critical Study, 1963.
Stubbs, Patricia. Muriel Spark, 1973.
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