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The Comforters by Muriel Spark #bookreview

The ComfortersThe Comforters was Muriel Spark’s first novel. She went on to write a further 21, gaining a reputation for blending wit and humour within darker themes of evil and suffering.

It contains two broad plot lines.

Once concerns the suspicions of Laurence Manders that his elderly grandmother Louisa Jepp is heavily involved in a diamond-smuggling operation. The other focuses on his on-off girlfriend Caroline Rose,  a writer who is a recent convert to Catholicism. While working on a book about 20th-century fiction called “Form in the Modern Novel” she is visited by what she calls a “Typing Ghost”, an invisible being that repeats and remarks upon her thoughts and actions.

Every time Caroline has a thought, it gets echoed by the Typing Ghost. One day she writes:  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 left. It stopped and was 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.”

Most of the novel is connected to the differing reactions of Laurence and Caroline to these mysteries. Laurence is excited and intrigued when he discovers jewels hidden in a loaf of bread at his grandmother’s cottage and finds her in a conflab with three mysterious figures. Mr Webster the baker and the Hogarths, a father and his crippled son could, he surmises be “a gang … maybe Communist spies”.

Caroline on the other hand is is frightened by her mystery.  Her friends cannot hear the noises of typewriter keys being tapped and a voice that sounds “like one person speaking in several tones at once”. Nor do they manage to record them on tape. Caroline thus fears the worst, that the visitations mean she is going mad. This adds to the isolation she feels because of her religious beliefs and the fact other converts she encounters are either distasteful or a bit dense.

With the aid of Laurence, her friends, and her priest, Caroline comes to see that another writer, “a writer on another plane of existence” is writing a story about her. She, and everyone around her, exist as characters within a fictional realm of an unknown author’s imagination. The Comforters is thus about the question of reality versus truth using a variation on the device of a novel within a novel.

I’m conscious that this summary of the plot doesn’t truly convey how complex and convoluted this is as a novel. As it progressed I found it more and more confusing. I reached the final third hoping all the pieces would fall into place but they never did so I abandoned the book.

I noticed that The Comforters was lauded by Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, both of whom saw a manuscript of the novel and encouraged Muriel Spark to find a publisher. Greene called it “One of the few really original first novels one has read for many years” while Evelyn Waugh deemed it Brilliantly original and fascinating.’ Waugh did however seem to suggest that the first part of the book worked better than the latter sections.

That was also my reaction.

I enjoyed the light comedy opening where we’re introduced to Granny Louisa and Laurence, a young man which a lively imagination who sees nothing wrong in opening letters addressed to other people or rummaging through the drawers of their cupboards.

 

There were times when I thought this part of the novel wouldn’t have been out of place in an Ealing comedy film. We get a part-gypsy old lady who relies on pigeons for communicating with her ‘gang’ members, diamonds smuggled inside plaster casts of saints and transported to a London-based fence in granny’s home-made pickles.  Stanley Holloway would have been perfect as a gang member with Katie Johnson (from The Ladykillers) as Granny Louisa.

The plot line involving Caroline’s hallucinations was an interesting meta-fictive element but the rest of the book was way too jumbled. I couldn’t work out the point Spark was making through the Baron (a bookseller friend of Caroline’s) who is obsessed by a man he thinks is England’s leading Satanist or the oppressive, malevolent figure of Mrs Georgina Hogg, a former servant to Laurence’s family. Other, more astute readers, will probably have understood the significance but it went over my head, and I wasn’t so deeply engaged with the novel otherwise that I wanted to expend any more energy in trying to work it all out.

Footnotes

About the book: Muriel Spark finished writing The Comforters in 1955 but it was not published until 1957. It quickly became a commercial success, though not to the same extent as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, published in 1961.

Why I read this book:  Ann at Cafe Society has embarked on a project to read something from every year of her life. I’m dipping my toe in these waters too. Since 2018 is Muriel Spark’s centenary and her first novel was published in my first year on this planet, I thought The Comforters would be as good a place to begin as any. I’ve also enjoyed the two other Muriel Spark novels I’ve read (Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means) so expected I would be similarly entertained by this one. Hmm.

Other opinions: Other reviewers have enjoyed this far more than I did. Take a look at reviews by HeavenAli  (who is hosting a#ReadingMuriel2018 project) and piningforthewest. 

 

 

 

 

 

Books for Christmas… more please!

sundaysalonThe only part of Little Women that struck a chord with me was Joe’s lament that ”Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without any presents”.  Substitute the word ‘books’ for ‘presents’ and you’d have my sentiments expressed exactly. Giving and receiving books is a fundamental part of Christmas for me, starting with the shiny new Bunty or Jackie annual I looked forward to all year when I was a very young teenager.

This year I asked Santa kindly for a few novels that are either on my Classics Club challenge or my Booker prize winners challenge. Santa must have decided I already had plenty of Classics to get on with reading so he ignored the appeal for Trollope’s Palliser novels (I can always hint again when my birthday comes around)  but I did end up with a few surprises in the shape of the Barnes and Mullan collections of essays.

These are some of the books in the package:

2012-additions
Since I also love giving books as well as receiving, almost everyone in my immediate family was a recipient. This is what I gave away:

  • Richard Burton’s diaries
  • The Slap – Christos Tsiolkas
  • Pure by Andrew Miller (I loved this when I read it earlier this year)
  • A Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks
  • Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
  • Prague Cemetery – Umberto Eco
  • Restless – William Boyd
  • David Copperfield – Dickens
  • The Land of Painted Caves – Jean Auel
  • Sarah’s Key – Tatiana de Rosnay
  • The 100 year old man who fell out of a window – Jonas Jonasson
  • Hangover  Square – Patrick Hamilton

Other News

Finally got to finish Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (only taken me 2 months or more). And managed to get the review done Also read one from my Classics Club list – Muriel Spark’s Girls of Slender Means – still means I’ve only read 3 classics this year so will need to get my skates on to complete the 50 in 5 years challenge. The Spark review is here. I’m ending the year by reading C. J Sansom’s Dissolution for my book club meeting in early Jan. First time I’ve read anything by him and so far its a pleasure.

The Girls of Slender Means – Muriel Spark

‘Thsparke most gifted and innovative British novelist of her generation’. (David Lodge). “One of the greatest British writers since 1945” (The Times). When Anthony Burgess, created his list 0f  The 99 Best Novels in English since 1939, he singled out The Girls of Slender Means, Muriel Spark’s 1963 novelette, calling it “Brilliant, brittle, the production of a fine brain and a superior craft.” Reading these accolades created high expectations in my mind that The Girls would sparkle with the kind of comic, waspish style of prose for which Muriel Spark was renowned.

The novel was indeed clever. It appears to be a simple story about a group of women who live in The May of Teck Club, a rather shabby but genteel boarding house in central London. It’s 1945 and the war in Europe is over but the girls who live in the club still struggle suffer with clothing rationing and shortages of basic food items like tea.  Jane is the brainy one, forever using her work in a publishing house as an excuse for eating; the elocution teacher Joanna is the cultured voice of the community, whose voice can be heard throughout the house as she recites poetry with her pupils, while Selina is the beautiful, wilful inhabitant who cares little for the men she sleeps with beyond the fact they give her entry to parties.

There is much larking about; swapping of lipsticks and dresses and merry escapades including smearing their naked bodies with butter in order to squeeze through a narrow bathroom window and get onto the roof to sunbathe (inevitably one of them gets stuck). But as we get to know them and their eccentricities, the darker sides of their lives become more apparent. Joanna’s devotion to her work is the product of an unrequited love for a curate  while Jane’s much vaunted ‘brainwork’ involves writing letters to famous authors to try and wheedle money out of them.

Burgess’ review of this novel talks of Spark’s ability to look at human pain and folly. While there is a darker side to the novel (particularly in the ending), the pain and violence that Burgess saw in The Girls of Slender Means wasn’t as obvious to me. This maybe because the darker tone is masqued by the way that Sparks uses the omniscient narrator to constantly undermine any pretensions these girls have about themselves. Jane for example, becomes attracted to Nicholas Farrington (a man who seems to be something in British Intelligence yet professes to be an anarchist).

She felt she had a certain something to offer Nichols, this being her literary and brain-work side. This was a mistake she continued to make in her relations with men, inferring from her own prference for men of books and literature their proference for women of the same business. And it never really occured to her that literary men, if they like women at all, do not want literary women but girls.

The difficulty I experienced was that the novel was too short to really see the main characters developed fully so by the end I didn’t feel particularly engaged with their lives and experiences. The novel structure also worked against my engagement – it’s comprised of very short scenes which switch the focus of attention quickly from one girl to another in a mix of dialogue with prose and snatches of poems and told in a non linear chronology.

Overall, I enjoyed reading it but wouldn’t consider it as a particularly remarkable book.

Sunday Salon: Something old Something New

sundaysalon

The two books I’ve been reading this past week couldn’t be more different. In one corner of the bedside table sits Claire Tomalin’s award winning biography of Samuel Pepys The Unequalled Self. And in the other corner is  The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark, an author I’ve known of for years but never got around to reading.

I loved Tomalin’s book – my review is posted here.  Much of the information she presents was a revelation for me since all I really knew of Pepys was that he lived through the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London and captured his thoughts for posterity in his diary. I had no idea he was a key figure in government or that he was an avid reader and collector of books while also being somewhat of a rogue. Now I really want to read the diaries themselves.

It’s too early to give any thoughts on Muriel Spark’s novel. It’s set in ‘The May of Teck Club’, a kind of ladies rooming establishment opposite Hyde Park, London, ‘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”. It concerns the lives of  its residents in the immediate aftermath of VE Day in Europe. So far all that’s happened is that we’ve been introduced to some of the main characters but there isn’t really any sense of a plot as yet.

 

Both of these texts are diversions from the book I should really be reading – Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.  I’ve been reading this now for at least six weeks and the progress is painfully slow. I have about 80 pages left but try as I might I can’t read more than about 5 pages at a stretch. My husband simply can’t understand why I don’t give it up but having slogged my way through more than 500 pages I’m not going to give in now. Besides which, finishing it will mean I have made further progress on my personal challenge to read through all the Man Booker prize winners. I’m determined to finish it before year end so I can begin reading some of the stack that’s built up in the last few weeks. Going into a bookshop to buy gifts for the family was fatal – for every two I bought as presents to give away, I seem to have bought one for myself. Perhaps I should wrap them in Christmas paper and pretend they are a surprise present from a friend??

 

 

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