The Comforters by Muriel Spark

A few weeks ago, Amateur Reader was posting about the grinding gears of plot, and I said something in the comments about how I would have to start looking out more for how novelists use plot like a machine for developing characters and themes. Shortly thereafter I picked up Muriel Spark’s first novel, The Comforters.

It was wonderfully apt. In The Comforters, Caroline, a writer herself, begins hearing things one night when she goes to bed. She’s just been thinking about her boyfriend, Laurence, and how he’ll take her side if necessary regarding her early return from a retreat.

On the whole she did not think there would be any difficulty with Helena.

Just then she heard the sound of a typewriter. It seemed to come through the wall on her lefft. It stopped, and ws immediately followed by a voice remarking her own thoughts. It said: On the whole she did not think there would be any difficulty with Helena.

Hearing her own thoughts voiced aloud, accompanied by typing noises, Caroline fairly flips out. The sounds continue, and after she wakes her whole building in her agitation she takes herself off to a friend’s house for the night, hoping to be comforted or at least distracted.

Thus begins the ingenious metafiction of The Comforters. It doesn’t take Caroline long to catch on to the game. Her friends and acquaintances think she’s crazy, but she decides to respond to the situation as if she really is inside a book. And she’s not going to just go along with what the author wants. Rather than let the writer push those gears of plot along, Caroline insists on gumming up the works.

When she hears that she and Laurence will take drive down to the country rather than taking the train, she insists on the train even though it’s inconvenient. But the author is hardly done; another obstacle is thrown up and the car it is. But Caroline was right to worry and to resist a plot she considers phoney.

‘I haven’t been studying novels for three years without knowing some of the technical triks. In this case it seems to me there’s an attempt being mde to organize our lives into a convenient slick plot. Is it likely that your grandmother is a gangster?’

Caroline recognizes all the tricks. Implausible characters, flat characters, absurd coincidences. And she does what she can to resist them, acting unnaturally with Laurence, giving him out-of-character answers, refusing to participate as she is meant to.

Her sense of being written into the novel was painful. Of her constant influence on its course she remained unaware and now she was impatient for the story to come to an end, knowing that the narrative could never become coherent to her until she was at last outside it, and at the same time consummately inside it.

Spark is a smart writer, and she’s good at playing with these ideas. It’s even more impressive considering this was her first novel. It has all her characteristic wit and is really quite a joy, a cut far above just about anything else I’ve read in the “characters realize they are in a novel” genre. Tomorrow, a post on who that metanovelist is.

4 comments to The Comforters by Muriel Spark

  • Every time I read a blog post about Spark, I become more intrigued by her and eager to check her out. She seems like just my kind of writer: smart, inventive, thought-provoking. Will look forward to your further posts on The Comforters.

  • I can’t imagine you not liking her.

  • This does not sound much like The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

    That was not much of a comment. Let’s see.

    Oh, yes – the plot, in the end, works well? The machine runs smoothly? It’s exactly in books like this where plots are typically excellent. If there’s some gap, some problem the novelist can’t solve not just adequately but well, the whole thing falls apart. The artist either makes it across the tightrope, or falls.

  • It is remarkably unlike The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, though Spark’s humor is the same.

    The machine runs very smoothly. Spark is all there right from her first book. Tomorrow is a little bit about that.