The Comforters, by Muriel Spark, is probably the only novel to feature a talking typewriter. It ‘belongs’ to Caroline Rose, who is writing a book about the 20th century novel – Form in the Modern Novel, we are told. But she’s having difficulty with the chapter on realism… Which is hardly surprising when you consider that she now believes herself to be a character in a book and her life is turned upside down by Typing Ghost. Not only does she hear the ghostly tap-tappity-tapping of typewriter keys, she also hears a voice (or voices) reciting her every thought, word and action. It is, as I’m sure you’ll agree, most unnerving. Here is her first encounter with the Typing Ghost:
“Just then she heard the sound of a typewriter. It seemed to come through the wall on her left. It stopped, and was followed by a voice remarking her own thoughts. It said: On the whole she did not think there would be any problem with Helena.
There seemed, then, to have been more than one voice: it was a recitative, a chanting in unison. It was something like a concurrent series of echoes.”
Is what she hears real or illusory, she wonders. Is she going mad? Being haunted? Imagining things? Spark famously described how the Typing Ghost was inspired by her own hallucinatory experiences whilst taking Dexedrine. In her case letters formed and re-formed on the page, a phenomenon that couldn’t be replicated on a printed page. And talking about her craft in the early 1960s she explained: “Fiction to me is a kind of parable. You have got to make up your mind it’s not true. Some kind of truth emerges from it.” I think that needs to be borne in mind when reading The Comforters.
Published in 1957, it was Spark’s first novel, but she was already a very accomplished writer. Her trade mark pared-back prose is already there, and the theme of religious belief, that blurring of boundaries, the mix of reality and unreality, sanity and madness, goodness and evil. The novel poses philosophical questions about life, art, belief and creation, revealing layer upon layer of meaning. It’s difficult to establish what is fact and what is fiction, because this is a book about someone writing a book who is herself a character in a book. I loved this – Spark’s witty, elegant prose is second to none, and she’s very funny, but also very malicious, and a bit of an iconoclast, knocking down societal institutions and behavioural norms. And, as always with spark, there is a dark edge to the humour.
It dodges about in time and place as the perspective shifts from character to character, and the various threads of the plot twist, and pull apart, and twine together again, taking in smuggling, bigamy and blackmail, with passing references to the possibility of a Russian spy ring and black magic. The characters (presented with superb ironic detachment) fail to connect with each other in any meaningful way, although they all seem, somehow, to be linked. And they are, on the whole, self-consciously self-obsessed.
There is Caroline herself, recovering from a mental illness and converting to Catholicism, which appears to bring her little joy or comfort – her three days at the Pilgrim Centre of St Philumena are unforgettably awful. Then there is her boyfriend Laurence Manders, who finds diamonds in his grandmother’s bread and wants to know about the strange men who keep calling on her. Who are they, and what do they want? And what about sinister Georgina Hogg, who is the kind of Christian who gets Christians a bad name. A former employee of Laurence’s charitable mother, she is now catering warden at St Philumena’s, but pops up elsewhere when least expected, revealing an uncanny ability to winkle out secrets best left undisturbed.
*This is my first contribution to the year-long celebration of Muriel Spark being held by HeavenAli to mark the centenary of the author’s birth. It’s dead easy to join in and you don’t have to struggle with one of those link thingies – read her introductory post here.