I’m aiming to do a few “quick hit” type posts this week, both to help get back into the swing and to put off writing about The Good Soldier Švejk for a while (though I should be writing about Švejk immediately after my other war post, sigh).
Today’s I’ve got Robinson, Muriel Spark’s second novel, on the menu. It’s the story of a mid-twentieth-century plane crash of which there are three survivors, stranded on a desert island. Scratch that—the island is not desert, but inhabited by on Robinson (and named after him). Robinson is a man of some independent means who has chosen, for apparently religious reasons, to live basically as a hermit.
The narrator of the novel, January Marlow, is, like a major character in The Comforters, a convert to Catholicism, and though pragmatic is quite serious about the faith. There are Catholic, and specifically Catholic-among-the-English, subtexts to much of the novel. This is a feature of Spark’s writing I’m curious to see develop further as I go further into her novels chronologically, and I don’t have much to say about it at this point other than that Spark seems to me to be an overlooked “Catholic writer,” especially “Anglo-Catholic writer.” I don’t think many put her in the same camp as an Evelyn Waugh or a Graham Greene or a T.S. Eliot (or a Flannery O’Connor or Walker Percy) in this respect, and I’ve been wondering more and more whether they shoud.
As for Robinson itself, it’s an exploration of the bounds of civil society and of trust, of religion and reasonableness, of coping mechanisms for both being alone and being among people, and of the changing behavior and even nature of human beings as they shift from a modern-sized society to a small—perhaps suffocatingly small—group. It’s also a bit of a mystery and a thriller.
I haven’t yet gone wrong with Spark, though she doesn’t always do exactly what I wish she would, and I think that’s probably healthy. I’ll be (slowly) continuing through her oeuvre, and look forward to what more I might discover about her writing and my thoughts on it as I go.
I mentioned yesterday that Caroline begins The Comforters on a retreat, and I meant the kind of retreat lay Catholics go on to get away from the world for a bit and contemplate things. Outside the time period of the novel, Caroline converted to Catholicism. Before that she was living in sin with Laurence, an irreligious Anglo-Catholic of devout (but understanding) family. Caroline’s reason for conversion is unclear (that is, she seems simply to have acquired faith at some point), but she’s very serious about her faith and it’s changed their relationship significantly.
Muriel Spark too was a convert to Catholicism, so of course it’s tempting to see Caroline as at least somewhat based on herself. According to the Wikipedia entry on Spark, she considered her conversion “crucial in her development toward becoming a novelist.” Yet the same entry claims of The Comforters that “It featured several references to Catholicism and conversion to Catholicism, although its main theme revolved around a young woman who becomes aware that she is a character in a novel.”
Not that we should take Wikipedia as super reliable here anyway, but I must protest. The Comforters is almost supremely concerned with religion, especially with its relation to free will. Caroline’s determination to thwart the author is obviously along these lines, and the very fact that she can thwart the author—and yet still remains firmly a part of the book, just a somewhat different book&mash;falls very much in line with non-Calvinist Christian ideas about free will (n.b., though Spark was apparently never a Presbyterian, she was born and raised in Edinburgh).
And the whole effort to exercise her free will in this way is a matter of faith for Caroline, because her belief in the existence of the book is a matter of faith. She is defiant when all her friends think her mad. “I don’t demand anyone’s belief,” she tells her friend the Baron. “You may call them delusions for all I care. I have merely registered my findings.” Ultimately, this is the same relationship Caroline and her religious beliefs have with all the non-Catholic characters in the novel. Laurence doesn’t actually belittle her Catholicism—he is awfully used to it from his family—but he does see it as a kind of quirk of her personality that he basically puts up with or ignores. He treats her belief in the book the same way: he doesn’t share it, and he doesn’t really care unless it starts to inconvenience him.
By the last third of the novel, Caroline is waiting impatiently for the book to be finished. She knows that she won’t be able to understand what’s been going on until it’s done. And her most basic answer about how she knows she’s right: “The evidence will be in the book itself.”
And here’s the thing: Caroline is right. There is a book. I held it in my hand. They are all characters. The awful Georgina Hogg is such an artificial being that she actually disappears when no one is watching her. And there’s an author, who can grind those gears of plot to show just what she wants—that Caroline’s faith is justified, and there is a book. That when Laurence, frustrated by her unwillingness to go along with the plot rather than attempting to exercise free will, thinks, “Why the hell should we be enslaved by her secret fantasy?”—meaning, of course, the metafiction business but also the fact that she’s destroyed their sex life—he‘s the fool, and her fantasy is all too real.
I must say this was a bit of a disappointment for me, if only because it seems so awfully commonplace. It is ingenious as well. There’s an aha! But isn’t it just a little bit of a cheap trick as well?
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.
It can be hard to blog when you know someone else has already said everything you want to. In this instance, it would be James Wood in the essay Harper Perennial included in their edition of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I’ll press on in any case.
Before I read the novel, I pretty much knew one thing about Miss Brodie: she is in her prime. She’s got a lot more little aphorisms than that, and they’re all excellent. “For those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like.” “You are the creme de la creme.” “Safety does not come first. Goodness, truth, and beauty come first.” And there’s a reason this is what people remember—this is all we know about Miss Brodie.
We have a narrator with the benefit of hindsight, who can warn us about Sandy’s small, peering eyes “which it was astonishing that anyone could trust” and who bends the timeline expertly. This novel has some of the most effective flash-forwards I’ve ever read. But this chronological omniscience is tempered by impressive control over perspective. We can be alone with the girls, but never with Miss Brodie. We only see her through the eyes of her set, so we only get the aphorisms of a teacher. Muriel Spark is really good at this, and I’m looking forward to reading a lot more of her work.
One thing that’s still haunting me about this book a bit is why Sandy clutches the bars at the convent. It just seems that it “was her way,” but I wish I felt I understood it better, her conversion and then her entering a convent and then her clutching the bars instead of sitting back in the shadows like the other nuns.
In record time after reading this, thanks to Netflix, I ended up watching the 1968 film starring Maggie Smith. What a great movie! Very different from the novel in some important ways, including in its views into Miss Brodie without the girls. And the confrontation between Miss Brodie and Sandy—but I was a bit glad it was so different, because by then I was enjoying Pamela Franklin’s performance so much that I really liked this scene.
I seem to be on a bit of a Scottish kick lately, between Humphry Clinker, The Provost, this…I’m sure there is other stuff too I’m not thinking of, or maybe it’s just stuff I’m thinking of reading. But I’m really enjoying it. There was lots of great stuff in Miss Brodie about Edinburgh that I wish I had a better feel for. It’s become a place I’d really like to visit though.