Posts Tagged ‘Muriel Spark’

These three books were not as diverting as I’d wished them to be.

Perhaps in another mood at another time I would give them better reviews – and I do intend to give Priestley’s Adam in Moonshine a second trial at some point – but today I’m calling them as I see them.

It won’t be a brutal massacre, I hasten to say, as all three had various degrees of enjoyability, but neither do I plan to hide my disappointment in their failings to entirely amuse.

As always, one person’s opinion – please don’t take it to heart if you love these novels, and do try to convince me otherwise if you think I’ve missed the point. One of my favourite things is when someone says, “Hey, wait a minute…” and eloquently defends something I’ve scorned, inspiring a second look from a new perspective.

Here we go.

adam in moonshine j b priestleyAdam in Moonshine by J.B. Priestley ~ 1927. This edition: Heinemann, 1931. Hardcover. 293 pages.

My rating: 6/10

That “6” is a very generous rating, given mostly because of Adam in Moonshine’s “first novel” status by a writer I mostly admire, and the more than decent quality of the writing.

The plot, on the other hand, might be described as virtually non-existent. Interesting reading for a Priestley collector, but if the author was someone unknown to me I’m thinking this one would be in the box by the door, waiting to be passed along.

Of course, because it is a Priestley, and because I went to the trouble to seek out and order it from England, and because it is an interesting read in view of the author’s later works, I will keep Adam in Moonshine and, yes, eventually re-read it. But I will not recommend it to the rest of you for amusement purposes, because it is ultimately not even as solid as fluff. Like the referenced moonshine, its genuine but slight pleasures are purely transient.

Handsome young bachelor Adam Stewart, setting off on a country holiday, is in a mopish state. He should be thrilled at the thought of rambling over the dew-fresh North Country moors, hobnobbing with the birds and the bees and the little wild flowers, but he can’t seem to wind himself up to the appropriate mood. And when his railway compartment companion turns out to be a sternly bombastic, pessimistic cleric, the holiday atmosphere deteriorates even further.

But wait – what’s this?! Here comes a third man, flustered and rushing and escorted by a bevvy of lovely young ladies  – well, only three when Adam takes a closer look, but the effect is that of a bevvy – and as the train pulls out to the fervent goodbyes of the girls on the platform, Adam has perked up considerably, because it turns out that there is a rendezvous planned between the mystery man (father of one of the young lovelies) and the girls at the very village which Adam is himself heading for.

The sudden and disastrous opening of an attaché case filled with false beards catapults the action surreally forward, and before he knows it Adam is deeply embroiled in a ridiculous scenario having something to do with a conspiracy to bring back the Stuart line of royalty to the throne of England.

A case of mistaken identity – “Stewart” being assumed to be “Stuart” – takes our Adam into the heart of the not-very-clever plot, and leads to his infatuated and ultimately unfulfilling dalliances with all three of the lovely maidens.

He gets his share of wandering about the moors in all sorts of weathers, and emerges back into the sunlight of his everyday life blinking and bemused. Was it all a dream…?

If so, a jolly solid one, at 292 pages.

kitty foyle christopher morley 001Kitty Foyle by Christopher Morley ~ 1939. This edition: Grosset & Dunlap, circa 1940, with movie tie-in dust jacket featuring Ginger Rogers. Hardcover. 340 pages.

My rating: 7/10

I enjoyed this one rather uneasily, as Morley’s man-writing-as-a-woman wasn’t entirely convincing, and our heroine’s stream-of-consciousness narration often felt forced.

Chock-full of casual racism towards pretty well everyone of every colour and race, but, to be fair, never in a mean-spirited way.

In our present time, “Kitty’s” casual commentary would be read as utterly politically incorrect – a heads-up for those hyper-sensitive to these nuances – but if taken with a dash of “era-acceptable” tolerance, rather an interesting take on how a character of the time might conceivably think.

The October 1939 Kirkus review had this to say:

Surprise! Surprise! This proves how facile Chris Morley can be, for this is a far cry from everything he has done, whether whimsy, humor or intellectualized satire… This is primarily the story of a shanty Irish girl, how she was born, bred, and put through the mill, done in stream-of-consciousness tough-baby style… But it’s right good reading. Kitty is a high spirited, strong, and very straight young woman. Her early childhood in Philadelphia, daughter of a crude but lovable cricket coach, is nicely done, giving quite a feel of the city, its lethargy, immutable traditions, etc. At sixteen she meets Wyn, a sweet weakling from a blueblood family, whom she is to love for all time. She lives with him, becomes pregnant, but does away with the child because she is unwilling to tie Wyn to her, knowing that he cannot buck his family if he marries her, and knowing that she will be dishonest with herself if she broadens her a’s for him. Career girl on the side, she works later in New York for a cosmetics outfit, and at the close thinks of marriage to a man she does not love for companionship and stability. There’s some telling background detail on Philadelphia, points east and west, there’s some ingenious writing on the stunt side, but all in all it’s semi-light fiction…

There you pretty well have it.

I confess I was a bit taken aback by the frankness of much of Kitty’s narration – she discusses the most sensitive topics with slangy candour – the physical relationship between her parents, her father’s prostate disorder, the realities of living with chamber pots and a “backhouse” for toilet purposes, her own adolescent physical development, including the onset of her first menstrual period while travelling alone on a train, the sometimes very active sex life of the single “white collar” working girl, an unplanned pregnancy and her subsequent abortion of the baby…all in all, rather strong stuff for a popular mainstream novel. No real surprise that it was soon labelled as “filthy” by various church groups once its bestseller hype brought it to their attention.

Mixed with this hyper-realism is a strand of fairy tale fantasy, for Kitty is portrayed as being something of a perfect person – smart, funny, beautiful, and very lucky in her casual acquaintances, and always, despite her frequent hard knocks, falling jam side up.

Sure, she voluntarily gives up her One True Love, the aristocratic Wynnewood Strafford VI, because she is so darned sterling-natured as to want to spare him the disgrace of having a not-quite-top-drawer wife, but it’s not the hardship it might be (aside from the “he and she will secretly pine forever” bit, and that abortion) because going her own way seems to be Kitty’s reward to herself, and fate proves consistently ready to cushion her every fall.

Kitty Foyle was made into a very successful 1940 movie, starring Ginger Rogers in her first “serious” movie role. “Very successful” should be repeated, as her portrayal of Kitty Foyle won Miss Rogers the 1941 Oscar for Best Actress, which would perhaps make this novel one for the vintage movie buff to investigate.

Chock full of period colour, and fast-moving enough to keep one entertained, so I will say “check it out” to those so inclined, but to be completely blunt this is a very minor sort of novel – Kirkus’s “semi-light” says it well. Solid melodrama, in case that hasn’t quite come across.

And oh, yes, this is the same Christopher Morley who wrote Parnassus on Wheels, The Haunted Bookshop, and the very weird (as in featuring anthropomorphic dogs) Where the Blue Begins, among dozens of other novels. Kitty Foyle is nothing like any of these; you have to give Morley credit for not getting stuck in any sort of a “formula” groove!

Of these three novels, Kitty Foyle is the only one I would recommend as worth going to some effort to experience, but mind the caveats and please don’t expect a masterpiece of any sort, though the writing is much more than competent.

aiding and abetting muriel sparkAiding and Abetting by Muriel Spark ~ 2000. This edition: Viking, 2000. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-670-89428-1. 182 pages.

My rating: 4.75/10

Hmmm. An odd little novel, even taking into consideration the quirkiness of this particular writer.

I occasionally felt the “chuck it across the room” urge, in particular during the cannibal scene near the end (yes, you read that correctly), but I soldiered on and made it to the end with an unwilling smile on my face. Dame Muriel pulled it off yet again, to my reluctant admiration – I finished it despite myself.

So – does everyone remember Lord Lucan? If not, go take a quick gander here.

For summation of the plot of Aiding and Abetting, I am going to fall back on yet another Kirkus review (they are so nicely succinct, when done well) this one from November of 2000.

With her usual and famous narrative economies—though without the deeper energies she’s created in other of her books—Dame Muriel weaves her own fabric out of the real-life bits and threads left by the vile Lord Lucan.

On November 7th, 1974, the seventh Earl of Lucan mistakenly bludgeoned to death his children’s nanny instead of his divorced wife—whom he managed only to wound badly in spite of his feeling that “destiny” called for her death (he was angry, it seems, that she’d been given child-custody). And then? After wreaking his cruel havoc, the shallow Lucan quickly disappeared, wanted for murder and attempted murder but aided by influential friends in escape and hiding. Twenty-five years later, as the present novel opens, there appears in the office of a Paris psychoanalyst a patient claiming to be Lucan—followed by another claiming the same. Which, if either, is the real Lucan? And what does he, or they, want? Money, not surprisingly, which he/they hope to gain by blackmailing the shrink, she being one Hildegard Wolf, herself still wanted for an earlier and successful life of criminal fraud under a previous name—a vulnerability that makes her, think the Lucans, unlikely to turn them in. But of course it’s got to be cleared up as to which Lucan is Lucan—as, meanwhile, other complications ensue, such as Hildegard Wolf’s quick disappearance into hiding in deepest London; the pursuit of the real Lucan by a pair newly in love but connected from far back indeed with Lucan and the horrible murder; and the skilled and timely maneuverings of Pierre, Hildegard’s lover back in Paris, which will result in—well, in the Waughesque end of the story.

Quick, incisive, often entertaining, sometimes mysterious, at a moment or two compelling, but overall and generally, slight…

I nod in agreement with the summation of the last line, except for the incisive bit.

I thought the tale much too repetitive, in fact, and not so much incisive as lazy. Corners were indeed cut, regarding character and plot development, but a certain cluster of sanguinary details was endlessly repeated, and in my opinion needlessly so, for I felt that they weakened the impact, though I suspect the author felt they might have some sort of talismanic effect. (“Blood, blood, blood…”)

The final fate of one of the Lucans is bizarre even for a typically morbid Spark dénouement, and do I detect a certain racist element (the “primitive” Africans) which is out of place even in a purely satirical end-of-the-20th-Century tale?

Rated rather generously at very close to a “5” because of who the author is, for I have enjoyed many of her other novels in varying degrees, though usually with some reservations.

As an example of her end-of-career work (Aiding and Abetting was her second to last published novel) it is acceptably diverting, but it’s not one of her best by a far cry. More of a novella than a novel, and not particularly well-developed or well-edited. In fact, for such a generally crisp writer, this one is sloppy. Firmly on Muriel Spark’s B-list, in my opinion.

What one is left with most memorably is the thought of all that sticky, sticky blood…

 

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a far cry from kensignton pb muriel sparkA Far Cry From Kensington by Muriel Spark ~ 1988. This edition: Penguin, 1989. Softcover. ISBN: 0-14-010874-2. 189 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

I am breaking my several-weeks’ book-discussing silence to applaud this brief novel by the increasingly enjoyable Muriel Spark.

Isn’t it interesting that there sometimes seems to be a proper time for certain writers in a reader’s life? I think I may have entered into a deliciously Spark-ling phase of my own, for recently I found The Mandelbaum Gate to be unexpectedly good, as is this other nicely crafted thing.

A Far Cry From Kensington turned out to be happily mesmerizing, being a tightly written tragi-comedy narrated by once-obese Mrs Hawkins – I mention the obesity because it is crucial to the plot in a most bizarre way – looking back three decades to her life in 1954-55.

At the period of time which is the focus of her reminiscences, Mrs Hawkins works “in publishing” – she is employed as an editor at a soon-to-be-doomed small press situated in Kensington – and throughout the novel we get intriguing glimpses of the workaday side of the flourishing-yet-troubled literary scene of London in the 1950s, an era and an atmosphere which Muriel Spark knew in intimate detail.

Widowed soon after her impetuous wartime marriage, Agnes (“Nancy”) Hawkins, always a large girl, has effortlessly transformed into a cheerfully fat woman, “massive in size, strong-muscled, huge-bosomed, with wide hips, hefty long legs, a bulging belly and fat backside; I carried an ample weight with my five-foot-six of height, and was healthy with it.” And people confided in Mrs Hawkins: “I looked comfortable. Photographs of the time show me with a moon-face, two ample chins and sleepy eyes… It was not until later, when I decided to be thin, that right away I noticed that people didn’t confide their thoughts to me as much, neither men nor women…”

Living in a rooming house presided over by the warmly maternal and personally high-principled Milly, Mrs Hawkins is fortunate in her housemates, whom she describes with concise but living detail: the ultra-respectable and preternaturally quiet married couple, the Carlins – he an accountant, she a nursery school teacher; the cleanliness-obsessed district nurse Kate; the gloomy and excessively emotional Polish seamstress Wanda; the young and vivacious post-deb Isobel, trying out her downy wings in London as a secretary, though in constant close contact with her doting father via a private telephone of her very own; and, not least in eventual importance to Mrs Hawkins’ personal story, the brilliantly promising, dragged-up-by-his-own-bootstraps medical student William Todd.

All of these lives are intertwined with that of Mrs Hawkins; some exceedingly closely, as we will discover later in the narrative, though Muriel Spark frequently dangles just the briefest, most tantalizing fragments of information in front of us in the course of Mrs Hawkins’ tale.

Mrs Hawkins is prone to giving advice, much of it quite good, as it turns out. Pragmatic common-sense spiced with opinionism is Mrs Hawkins’ style. We learn how simple it is to lose weight (eat just half of your regular portions, and then, when the willpower is adjusted, half again); to control rheumatism (eat a banana a day, as advised by “an American negress met on a bus”); to write an engaging narrative (pretend one is writing to a single close friend); to attain concentration (acquire a cat).

This last was one of my favourite asides in this vignette-rich novel. At a dinner party, Mrs Hawkins meets a gruff, red-faced, retired Brigadier General, who mentions that he “could write a book” about his life.

‘Why don’t you?’

‘Can’t concentrate.’

‘For concentration’ I said, ‘you need a cat. Do you happen to have a cat?’

‘Cat? No. No cats. Two dogs. Quite enough.’

So I passed him some very good advice, that if you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat. Alone with the cat in the room where you work, I explained, the cat will invariably get up on your desk and settle placidly under the desk-lamp. The light from a lamp, I explained, gives a cat great satisfaction. The cat will settle down and be serene, with a serenity that passes all understanding. And the tranquillity of the cat will gradually come to affect you, sitting there at your desk, so that all the excitable qualities that impede your concentration compose themselves and give your mind back the self-command it has lost. You need not watch the cat all the time. Its presence alone is enough. The effect of a cat on your concentration is remarkable, very mysterious.

The Brigadier listened with deep interest as he ate, his glaring eyes turning back and forth between me and his plate. Then he said, ‘Good. Right. I’ll go out and get a cat.’ (I must tell you here that three years later the Brigadier sent me a copy of his war memoirs…On the jacket cover was a picture of himself at his desk with a large alley-cat sitting inscrutably beside the lamp. He had inscribed it ‘To Mrs Hawkins, without whose friendly advice these memoirs would never have been written – and thanks for introducing me to Grumpy.’ The book itself was exceedingly dull. But I had advised him only that the cat helps concentration, not that the cat writes the book for you.’

Ha!

If you smiled sympathetically at this excerpt, this book is for you.

Read it, then, and discover just what a pisseur de copie is, and what significance The Box in the esoteric (and deeply weird) practice of radionics holds, and just what Muriel Spark really thought about one of her ex-lovers, here immortalized as the deeply dislikeable Hector Bartlett.

And, for another agreeable opinion, click on over to His Futile Preoccupations, one of many other favourable reviews of this quietly malicious minor masterpiece.

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the mandelbaum gate muriel spark 001The Mandelbaum Gate by Muriel Spark ~ 1965. This edition: Penguin, 1977. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-00-2745-9. 304 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

Well, now, this one started out rather slowly but became increasingly enjoyable as I sorted out the many story strands the author tossed out and put names to characters and figured out how everyone knew everyone else and what the significance of all of the confusing references were. But it was toughish going for the first third or so. I’m glad I persevered – I almost didn’t.

For a long time I was afraid this was going to turn out to be one of those dismal and fatal tragedies, hearts all broken and dismal suicides and arbitrary deaths-by-misadventure – well, check out the sad face on the cover of my Penguin! – but the author graciously pulled a quickie on me there, resolving everything mildly and without bloodshed, except for one background character who perishes awfully far from the scene of the novel, and who we rather think deserves her nasty fate from what we’ve heard of her.

I liked this book. A lot. Which surprised me, because my expectations were low, after reading a number of dismissive comments regarding its place in the Muriel Spark canon on book blogs which are generally highly reliable indicators of “good” and “bad”.  Which just goes to show that one should remember that taste in books remains a nebulously personal thing.

I must be off and away again this morning, but I wanted to post something about this book and move on – my stack of “want to write abouts” is intimidatingly tall and I hesitate to add yet another. Drawing something of a blank on how best to frame this review, so I am going to refer you over to this excellent précis at Vulpes Libris, where Sharon Rob concisely identifies all of the important bits of this nicely complex novel.

A tiny excerpt here:

Protagonist Barbara is in her thirties, a Catholic convert from Judaism, (whose) status as a woman and a Jewish-Catholic one at that is one way in which Spark takes the thriller genre in hand and gives it a good shake. Barbara is gutsy, bloody-minded and heedless of other people’s opinions, but also committed to her own strong moral code. She is closer to the ideal of the intrepid hero than Freddie Hamilton, the novel’s central male protagonist…a fifty-something diplomat (who) in some ways is more of an archetypal female character than Barbara …who is bound by nothing she didn’t choose…

Barbara has decided, against all advice, to cross over from the Israeli-held side of Jerusalem to the Jordanian side through the titular Mandelbaum Gate, the “Checkpoint Charlie” of its place and time, in order to continue on a personal religious pilgrimage of the Holy Land. The fact that her fiancé, an archeologist working on the Dead Sea Scrolls dig in Jordan, is also “across the line” may or may not be a factor in her determination to put herself at serious risk (as a “person with Jewish blood”) and venture into forbidden territory.

Throw in Freddie’s well-intentioned attempts to save Barbara from herself, a Jordanian family of “fixers”, a couple of turncoat British spies, nuns, disguises, a scarlet fever epidemic, varied sexual liasions, the Catholic Church’s policy on valid marriages for its members, the sudden appearance of Barbara’s ex-roommate and ex-boss Ricky-the-scary-English-girls’-school-headmistress hot on Barbara’s trail, and – with chilling reminder of the atrocities of the Holocaust just past – the Eichmann trial (which Barbara attends as a spectator for a sobering afternoon), and you have a glorious muddle which eventually settles out into separate-though-interrelated strata and against all odds works.

Perhaps not a “typical Spark”, but as I haven’t read enough of her work to have a really good handle on what that even is – I have previously read with enjoyment The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, though I failed to see the charms of Robinson – it struck me as quite good enough to make me keen to read some more of her novels and fill in the Muriel Spark-shaped gaps in this region of my reading history.

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