A Typing Ghost…

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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.

the comforters
The Comforters, by Muriel Spark.

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.

Muriel_Spark_1960
Muriel Spark. (Pic from Wikipedia)

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

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Spellbound by a Sparkling Story!

Happy New Year people! I’m still here – I haven’t gone anywhere, and I certainly haven’t given up blogging. But I cannot believe I haven’t posted anything since the middle of November, and I haven’t really got much of an explanation. I’ve been trying to get ‘social media’ stuff up and running for Oxfam Lichfield, and I’ve been focusing so hard on that, it seems to have squeezed everything else out – I even wrote an Advent Alphabet, highlighting things in the shops and the charity’s work. Here’s the rhyme for ‘H’ on December 8. 
For warmth when it’s cold
Or shade in the Heat
A Hat on your Head
Makes an outfit complete.

And it was the anniversary of my Father’s death, which always gets me down, and then I don’t feel like doing much. And it there was the run-up to Christmas, and New Year, and my Mother has been to stay, and my Daughters visited, with their boyfriends, and I had a lovely time over Christmas, but The Book Trunk got a bit forgotten! 

Now it’s January 1, and I’m trying to organise myself for the year ahead… Back on the diet, lots of walks planned, crochet and sewing to finish, lists to write – you know the kind of thing. Anyway, Oxfam Lichfield’s Facebook page is doing quite well after being ignored for ages because no-one had any time to do anything with it. It’s generating ‘likes’ and a few comments, and almost runs itself. I take photos, and write little bits, then schedule them to appear. Scheduling is like magic I’ve decided, because you can do masses of stuff in advance, then more or less forget about it all – I should use it more here, and it might stop me getting behind! And I wish I could use it on Oxfam Lichfield Twitter, I’m sure it would make life easier – when I’m stuck, then whatever the weather I tell people it’s ideal weather for buying books! The weather can never be too bad or too good for buying books – wouldn’t you agree?
And I’ve set up a blog for our two Oxfam shops. It’s in what can only be described as an embryonic stage, but I’ve got posts scheduled to appear, someone cleverer than me is going to work on the design and, hopefully, it will gradually acquire its own identity. So you can see, I really have been busy, and haven’t been idling my time away.

Anyway, this is supposed to be a book blog, so I shall stop wittering on about my volunteering project, and enthuse about a book – Loitering with Intent, by Muriel Spark. With the exception of The Mandelbaum Gate, which I wouldn’t read again even if you paid me, I just love Spark’s novels, and this is one of her best – way up there with my favourites, The Ballad of Peckham Rye, and The Girls of Slender Means. 
Spark doesn’t do heroines – she doesn’t do heroes of villains either – but Fleur Talbot is as near a heroine as you’ll find in Spark’s work. Fleur takes a mysterious job as secretary to Sir Quentin Oliver, who is the director of the Autobiographical Association, a very peculiar organisation whose idiosyncratic (positively batty even) members are compiling their memoirs, but no-one has got beyond the first chapter. They’re hampered by dodgy memories and lack of talent, and it falls to Fleur to try and make sense of their efforts .
She herself is writing a novel, Warrender Chase, which Sir Oliver steals, and somehow life and fiction become strangely and inextricably mixed as things Fleur believes she has created in her story actually happen, and it becomes more and more difficult to tell what’s real, and what’s not, and you start to wonder is Fleur a reliable witness to events – or is the whole mad, chaotic story spun out of her imagination.
Actually, Fleur reminds me a little of Pompey in Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper – I know I said you are unlikely to ever read anything quite like it, but I hadn’t read this then, and quite apart from the fact that Pompey is writing a novel while she works as a secretary for publisher, there is something in these characters’ outlook on life, that is similar, and the way they stand back observing things and people.
I assume Fleur is based on Spark, and her thoughts on writing fiction and the creative process are, presumably those of the author. As in much of her other work, Spark raises issues about the nature of reality and fiction, belief in God, immortal souls, love, death, truth and lies. None of the characters ever quite connect with each other, and they all seem to have shaped their own little worlds from their own realities, but none of the realities fit together – and in any case does anyone ever know what truth really is. Loitering with Intent is darkly funny, very witty, beautifully written in classic Sparkling style, and held me spellbound from start to finish. How could anyone not like a book which opens like this:
One day in the middle of the twentieth century I sat in an old graveyard which had not yet been demolished, in the Kensington area of London, when a young policeman stepped off the path and came over to me.
And if you think that sounds gentle, then beware, because Spark is never gentle, and never safe. She’s wickedly funny, but she’s sharp and spiky and can be very unsettling indeed as she probes below the surface of polite society and turns the world upside down, and at the same time she poses those big questions about life, the universe and everything.

A Spark Without Sparkle

Well, Muriel Spark Reading Week is over, and it seems the only novel unread and unblogged (which may not be a word, but never mind) is The Mandelbaum Gate, which I did actually pick up at the beginning of the week and start reading, but I gave up because I just couldn’t get on with it. However, in the interests of fair play, I picked it up again last night and have persevered. I did get to the end, but only because I skipped quite large sections, and I can see why it has been languishing on the bookshelf for years, and why I’ve never managed to stick with it in the past – none of which is much of a recommendation.
For a start, it is longer than Spark’s other work – a full-length novel – and her wonderful wit and spikiness is mostly missing. I think her style is best suited to short novellas where the action, such as it is, is very contained. Perhaps it’s difficult to sustain that kind of spare, tight writing over a longer work, or perhaps Spark just wanted to try something a little different. Whatever the reason, if I had read this without knowing who the author was, I would never have guessed it was by Muriel Spark, and it certainly wouldn’t be a good choice for  first read.
Anyway, here, as briefly as I can, is a synopsis. Freddy Hamilton, who works for the British Consulate in the Israeli section of Jerusalem, meets teacher Barbara Vaughan, a half-Jewish Catholic convert who wants to embark on a pilgrimage to visit Christian shrines in Jordan, despite the fact that her Jewish blood could put her in danger in Arab territory.
 Barbara disappears, and Freddy loses his memory, and no-one is who they seem to be. There are spies, lies and double dealings everywhere, and nothing can be taken at face value. In fact, duality and the nature of identity are themes running through the book. Jerusalem itself is a divided city; Barbara with her dual heritage of Jew and Gentile must decide her own identity, and many other characters must decide who they are, and where their loyalties lie.
There are various side-plots, which didn’t really add much to the story, and a lot about religion and the nature of faith, which felt preachy – Spark has explored religious issues far more subtly elsewhere. I’ve read quite a number of her other novels and loved them, so this was a huge, huge disappointment. It all seemed a bit laboured, and I failed to engage with the characters or care about the plot.
By the way, for those who don’t know (and I didn’t), the Mandelbaum Gate was the checkpoint between the Israeli and Jordanian sectors in Jerusalem, and was dismantled in 1967, two years after Spark’s novel was published.
The Mandelbaum Gate in 1955
Muriel Spark Reading Week was organised by Simon at Stuck in a Book (http://stuck-in-a-book.blogspot.co.uk) and Harriet at Harriet Devine’s Blog (http://harrietdevine.typepad.com) .  You can see a complete list of linked posts on their blogs. 

Meet The Girls of Slender Means

I did have an older edition of  this,
but I cannot find it, so when I found this
copy in a charity shop, I bought it
because I like the cover illustration,
which is by Leo Duff.

Welcome to the May of Teck Club, once an up-market, many-storied house overlooking Kensington Gardens and the Albert Memorial, but now a kind of hostel for impoverished young women. It’s 1945, in the few short months between VE Day and  VJ Day, but  the club’s occupants are concerned not with war or peace, but with love, money and food.  According to the first of the Rules of Constitution, drawn up way back in the Edwardian period:

The May of Teck Club exists for the Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years , who are obliged to reside apart from their Families in order to follow an Occupation in London.
So the scene is set for Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means, in a world where ‘all the nice people were poor, and few were nicer, as nice people come, than these girls at Kensington’. Debutantes and vicars’ daughters rub shoulders in their shared lives – and lust after a glamorous Schiaparelli dress, loaned out by its lucky owner  in return for hard-to-come-by luxuries, like soap. Materially, it’s obvious the girls have slender means: they survive on small incomes, hoping to escape their genteel poverty through good marriages. But they have slender means in other ways, for they are spiritually ill equipped to cope with the world and what it has to offer.
There are snapshot portraits of the girls. Beautiful Selina is sleeping with two men, has a string of other followers, and has her heart set on a wealthy marriage.  Joanna, a rector’s daughter, gives elocution lessons and has sublimated her desire for handsome young curates in her passion for poetry – the many literary quotes are one of the great joys of this book. Fat Jane (Spark’s description, not mine) works for a down-at-heel publisher and is considered brainy. Actually, I’ve always felt a degree of kinship with Jane, possibly because, like me, she is on the plump side, so she can never wear the coveted Schiaparelli dress. And she asserts that her work is essentially mental and therefore her brain needs to be fed more than most people’s – which is the best excuse for not dieting I’ve ever come across. Anyway, back to the book. The cast of characters also includes Nicholas, one of the intellectual young men Jane meets through her work, who is intrigued by Joanna, but spends the summer sleeping with Selina.
On the back cover Leo Duff has created this scene of the
Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens, which can be
seen from the May of Teck Club

Things fall apart – literally – when an undiscovered bomb explodes in the garden of the club, and a group of the girls are trapped on the top floor, not slender enough to squeeze their way out on to the roof through a slit window in the washroom. According to Spark the maximum size of hips which can be accommodated by the gap is thirty-six and a quarter inches, a measurement which I always feel is satisfyingly precise, even if it is unobtainable. Having escaped, Selina, who is very slender indeed (in body, spirit and pocket) returns to collect the Schiaparelli dress, which does not belong to her, while Joanna calms the terrified girls as she recites the evening psalter of Day 27 of the Anglican order, and continues to do so as the building collapses around her.

The story is told in flashbacks, largely through the eyes of Jane, who is now working as a columnist, and we learn that following the tragedy Nicholas was converted, became a Brother and a missionary, and has been martyred in Haiti. The reasons for his conversion are never clear, and may have their seeds in a period well before the disaster. Rarly on the novel Rudi, one of Jane’s less reputable literary friends, predicts that Nicholas will finish up as a reactionary Catholic, and also reveals that Nicholas has already flirted with Jesuit philosophy. Nicholas remembers crossing himself, involuntarily, when Selina reappears with the dress, and there is a suggestion that the gesture is in superstitious relief that she is safe. There’s also a theory that Joanna’s example sparked the conversion – but Jane could be closest to the truth when she recollects that a note in Nicholas’ manuscript says ‘a vision of evil may be as effective to conversion as a vision of good’.

Muriel Spark was a Catholic convert, and beneath the dark wit and humour many of her novels deal with religion, and the nature of good and evil, and The Girls of Slender Means is no exception.


If you want to know more about Muriel Spark and her work, Simon at Stuck in a Book (http://stuck-in-a-book.blogspot.co.uk) and Harriet at Harriet Devine’s Blog (http://harrietdevine.typepad.com) are hosting a Muriel Spark Reading Week.


A Devilish Visit to Peckham Rye

The photo on the front of my 1966 Penguin
 edition of The Ballad of Peckham Rye
is by Robert Croxford.

Dougal Douglas was born with horns on his head, like a goat, but they fell off in a fight – or maybe they were surgically removed. You never know if Dougal is telling the truth, but he definitely has has two small lumps which can be felt through his curly hair, exactly where horns should be. He has a gleaming, sinister smile and a crooked shoulder, and takes a gleefully malicious delight in turning people’s lives upside down. He may not be actively responsible for the chaos and confusion that trails in his wake, but he seems to act as a catalyst, bringing out the worst in the people he meets, before moving on to wreak havoc in other communities.

I read The Ballad of Peckham Rye when I was at school (but not for school, if you see what I mean), attracted by the title and the cover – a photograph of a man wearing a smiling devil’s mask, complete with horns, as he peers over the shoulder of a marble angel. It was the first Muriel Spark novel that I came across, as well as being one of the first contemporary novels I encountered (until then most of my reading was classics based). More than that, it was written by a modern woman, and opened up a whole new world in my reading life. I loved the spare quality of the writing, the wry humour, the subversive feel of the book, and the fact that there were no heroes and heroines in the conventional sense, just ordinary men and women going about their everyday lives, completely unprepared for the advent of Dougal Douglas and the devastation that accompanies him.

Since then my admiration of Spark grows with each novel I read, and I return, periodically, to the world of Peckham Rye. It’s a while since my last visit, but now seems a good time as Simon at Stuck in a Book (http://stuck-in-a-book.blogspot.co.uk) and Harriet at Harriet Devine’s Blog (http://harrietdevine.typepad.com) are hosting a Muriel Spark Reading Week.

The book opens with an account of Humphrey Place jilting Dixie, his bride-to-be, as they kneel at the altar.

The vicar said to Humphrey, ‘Wilt thou have this woman to thy wedded wife?’
‘No,’ Humphrey said, ‘to be quite frank I won’t.’
He got to his feet and walked straight up the aisle. The guests in the pews rustled as if they were all women. Humphrey got to the door, into his Fiat, and drove off by himself to Folkstone. It was there they had planned to have their honeymoon.

This is only the second page of my battered 1966 Penguin edition, but I’m already hooked. I particularly like the way the guests rustle – it’s such a small, but telling detail. And, intriguingly, although we haven’t yet met Dougal we know that people think he is to blame for the wedding fiasco, that he has given Humphrey ‘disgusting ideas’, and that Dixie has never liked him.

At this point it occurs to me that Peckham Rye is where ten-year-old Blake saw angels in a tree ‘bespangling every bough like stars’, a heavenly vision which contrasts with the devilish doings of
Spark’s dark tale. For Dougal is no ordinary rogue. He is, as we are frequently told, ‘different’, and various characters describe him as ‘inhuman’ and ‘unnatural’, or even ‘a diabolical agent, if not in fact the Devil’. Dougal himself insists: “I’m only supposed to be one of the wicked spirits that wander through the world for the ruin of souls.” But maybe he’s just joking – as I said before, it’s hard to know if he’s telling the truth.

However, from the moment we meet him we are aware of his almost supernatural powers. When interviewed for a job he

… leaned forward and put all his energy into his appearance; he dwelt with a dark glow on Mr Druce, he raised his right shoulder, which was already highly crooked by nature, and leaned on his elbow with a becoming twist of the body. Dougal put Mr Druce through the process of his smile, which was wide and full of white young teeth; he made movements with the alarming bones of his hands. Mr Druce could not keep his eyes off Dougal, as Dougal perceived…

The visionary poet William Blake, seen here
in a portrait by Thomas Phillips, saw angels
at Peckham Rye – a far cry from Muriel Spark’s
devilish visitor.

There he is, dark, devilish, skeletal, mesmeric, otherworldly, steering the interview the way he wants it to go, changing his shape from the stillness of a monkey puzzle tree to a professor, to a television presenter and then, finally, a man of vision with a deformed shoulder. It’s the first indication of how devious and manipulative he can be, making himself whatever he considers will best please others, while suiting his own mysterious purposes. The textile company employs him in an unspecified role, but the exact nature of his work doesn’t matter, as he spends most of his time out of the office conducting human research. Not content with that, he talks himself into a similar job at a rival firm, where he insists on carrying out industrial research in the local community. In addition, he’s creatively engaged in ghost-writing an autobiography for an ageing singer and actress.


He attracts and repels in equal measure. Characters who tearfully bare their souls to him find that far from finding solace or resolution, their lives fall apart as their true natures are revealed, with terrible consequences, ranging from mental breakdown to murder. Those who don’t succumb to Dougal’s peculiar charm may keep their souls, but they are still in jeopardy as they rifle through his rented room searching for clues to discover who and what he is.

The only person who knows the answer is Nelly, the down and out who ‘has lapsed from her native religion on religious grounds’ and now stands on the pavement shouting shouting Biblical slogans at the passers-by – but her warning about Dougal comes too late:

The words of the double- tongued are as if they were harmless, but they reach even to the inner part of the bowels. Praise be to the Lord, who distinguishes our cause and delivers us from the unjust and deceitful man.”

I love the way the dark, fantastical elements of the story sit alongside the humdrum, everyday activities, and Spark’s ability to raise questions about Christianity, the class system, and the moral code of the day so quietly you hardly notice what she’s doing. But there is a lot of humour here as well, often based on her observations of people’s behaviour, like the moment when Dixie’s mother tells her husband (Dixie’s stepfather): “Turn on that wireless. If we’re going to have a row I’m not letting the neighbours get to know.” And poor Mr Weedin gets little sympathy when he admits that sometimes he thinks he is going to have a breakdown. “It would not be severe in your case,”Dougal said. “It is at its worse when a man is a skyscraper. But you’re only a nice wee bungalow.” If that’s not one of the greatest put-downs ever I don’t know what is.

Anyway, I’ve rattled on quite long enough, and the only other thing I can say is please read the book.