The Comforters by Muriel Spark — this way confusion lies #throwbackthursday
The Comforters, Muriel Spark’s first novel, became a commercial success as soon as it was published in1957, though not to the same level as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
Spark went on to write a further 21 novels, 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 has just written “On the whole she did not think there would be any difficulty with Helena.” when she hears 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 Comforters concerns 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.
Convoluted and Confusing
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.
Apparently 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.”
Like Waugh however, I thought the first part of the book worked better than the later sections.
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.
It was a disappointment because I enjoyed the two other Muriel Spark novels I’ve read (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means). Other bloggers enjoyed The Comforters far more than I did. Take a look at the reactions of HeavenAli and piningforthewest.
This is an updated version of a review first published at Bookertalk.com in 2018. I’ve changed the formatting to improve readability and replaced the image. I’m republishing it in support of #throwbackthursday hosted by Davida @ The Chocolate Lady’s Book Review Blog.
34 thoughts on “The Comforters by Muriel Spark — this way confusion lies #throwbackthursday”
What a shame – I loved The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Girls of Slender Means, but I’ve been less convinced about some of the short stories I’ve read in anthologies. I do hope to get to more of her work, but it sounds like this wasn’t as successful as it could have been.
I haven’t been all that keen to read anything more by her because of this experience
How curious. I’ve read a few Sparks in the last couple of years and found them chock-full of very odd motifs when listed in isolation but which somehow work, usually because of her evident control of material and tone. This sounds more diffuse, but despite your caveats I’d be interested in giving The Comforters my attention. Thanks for this!
It’s more likely to be something you enjoy Chris
I really need to revisit Muriel Spark. I read – and enjoyed – her books a lot as a young woman, and haven’t given her a thought since.
Was The Comforters one that you remember reading Margaret?
Nope. But it was all a long time ago. I started with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and went on from there, I think.
Glad you’ve found a way to do Throwback Thursday that suits you so well! I don’t know this book, but I do know her Jean Brodie (we did the play version when I was in High School). I should try to read more of her books.
Prime of Jean Brodie is her most famous book but the Girls of Slender Means is also very highly rated
I’ve read a couple of her that were a bit ‘odd’ so I can relate.
I don’t think I’ll be in a hurry to read any more by her
hmmmm Not sure what to think of this one. She’s an author I read something from most years wanting to read them all. Driver’s Seat is a novella–try it in November. I think I’ll leave this one till last.
I’ll keep an eye out for any review you post – will be curious to see what someone who knows her total body of work will make of this one
Thanks for the link to me. It’s nine years since I read the book and I don’t remember it that clearly, but my review did sort of make sense to me. The book was definitely drug fuelled, I find her books very hit or miss in general, I don’t rate her as highly as many people do, and I think Spark was quite a difficult person herself. Greene and Waugh were among many who went to her apparently very glamorous parties so were obviously going to be kind with their reviews.
Ah I didn’t know there was a personal connection to Greene and Waugh.
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That sounds, frankly, like one mess of a book! I think I’ll save it for last as I read thru her books. GREAT review though!
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Thanks for the mention. I had to read my thoughts on The Comforters as it isn’t one that has stuck in my memory for long, other than that it is a bit bizarre. Her books are hit and miss and in general I think she is rather over-rated, but I enjoyed going to the Spark exhibition that the National Library of Scotland has on at the moment.
Hit and miss is a good description…..
The part about some sort of ethereal narrator reminds me of the movie Stranger Than Fiction, which I love for it’s nod to and exploration of how stories work–and what would happen if the main character could hear the narrator!
That film title rings a bell but will need to consult the expert in our house…
Well done for persevering as long as you did!
I wish really I had given up on it earlier. So many other books to enjoy
I think you’re right about the Ealing comedy thing, parts of the plot and some characters in The Comforters would be right at home in the middle of such a film. Sorry you weren’t able to fully enjoy this one, but so glad you could join in with #ReadingMuriel2018
I won’t give up on Spark just yet….
Usually I don’t leave it that long but I kept thinking that it would all fall into place at some point
I have enjoyed Muriel Spark, but haven’t yet read this one. It seems to be calling to me. Thanks for sharing.
Well I’m not sure i could recommend it though I am maybe not the best judge.
It’s funny that you say that about an Ealing comedy as I was thinking the same thing as I read your review. I’ve been hit and miss with Spark. Loved some but others … not so much
I think the next one I try by her I need to pick a dead cert….