Category Archives: Muriel Spark

The Bachelors, by Muriel Spark

Muriel Spark is an author that I return to time and time again because I enjoy her dark humour and the incisive, often cruel way that she dissects human behaviour. I wouldn’t say that I have loved every Spark novel I have read (The Finishing School, for example left me a little cold) but I am always fascinated by the characters that she creates, and with equal relish, usually, pulls apart.

The Bachelors has taken me a little while to review for this reason. I didn’t love it, but I was fascinated by the characters and was intrigued to see what would happen to them all.

The setting is London, the subjects,  single men – some cruel, some cunning, all somehow lacking, and in their way slightly pathetic. There is Ronald Bridges, probably the most likeable of the characters in the book. He is an epileptic who has tried and failed to control his seizures, and has simply learned to accept that they happen, ensuring that he is rarely in public when they happen. Matthew Finch, blessed with beautiful black curly hair, has a weakness for girls but ‘a great conscience about sex’, and eats raw onions in a bid to repel any female admirers. Then there is Patrick Seton, a very dubious medium who is being taken to court for fraud and is considering bumping off his pregnant girlfriend, yet still seems to manage to pull the wool over people’s eyes. A rather cutting portrait of the London bachelor, and the women in the novel don’t get off lightly either, depicted as wimps, neurotic or permanently in denial.

I liked the character of Ronald, who was such a stoic. I also thought Patrick was a brilliant villain and wished that he was even more central to the story line or rather that there was more of a focus on him. There were some poignant moments between particular characters and I really felt as if I was the omniscient being, watching people interacting amongst their rather strange and disjointed social circles. At times, however I just found myself frustrated at trying to keep track of all the different people in the book and found myself wondering what was going on!

The Bachelors is a witty novel, but perhaps a little too smug in parts and could have done with a few of the less interesting characters being removed completely in my opinion! If I’m being a little harsh, it’s only because I have come to expect so much of Muriel Spark…

My rating:

6 out of 10

Reality and Dreams by Muriel Spark

A couple of days ago I renewed all my library books and to my horror the system said that I’d run out of chances to renew one of the books – Reality and Dreams by Muriel Spark. I thought about taking it back unread but had a slightly irrational feeling of dread. What happens if I missed out on a brilliant book?! At only 160 pages I thought it best just to get cracking…

Reality and Dreams is classic Spark – a novel of observation. The cast composes Tom Richards, a film director, his wife, two very dissimilar daughters and a host of ambitious actor-types. At the start of the novel, Tom is in bed in hospital recovering from an accident. A series of nurses pass in and out, then his family members including his daughters from different marriages – Cora, Daddy’s favourite who is a beautiful girl with a feckless husband and Marigold, with her “formidable face” and puritanical temperament that her parents just can’t get their heads around. As Tom recovers and goes back to work we come across a pair of actresses. There is the gorgeous Rose who Tom is having a relationship with and Jeanne who is as distasteful and annoying as Rose is winsome. As with other Spark books, there is a sinister undercurrent in the novel as she hints that Tom’s fall may not have been so accidental after all. Who in his social would want to do him harm?

In Reality and Dreams Tom acts as the central force around which the other characters orbit. His opinion creates a response in those who surround him either drawing them to him or pushing them away. High up on his directors crane he feels almost god-like and perhaps he is, after all he is the one calling the shots and creating his dream. Dreams, not surprisingly, are a key theme in the novel. The film that he is directing provisionally entitled ‘The Hamburger Girl’ is inspired by a woman he once met at a campsite and from that fleeting moment has invented a whole personality for her. At other times Tom drifts off into a reverie imagining historical figures in unusual situations:

“You bring back the Brontës and stage a rock concert outside their house in Haworth. What would their reaction be?”

The theme of ‘dreams’ also translates into people’s hopes and ambitions causing people to reveal unpleasant sides to their characters. It is a novel where reality is blended with illusion so that at times you’re not sure what is real and what is not.

“‘What we are doing’, Tom told his crew, ‘is real and not real. We are living in a world where dreams are reality and reality is dreams. In our world everything starts from a dream.”

Of course, Spark is herself creating an invented reality, just as much as her film director protagonist. The funny thing is that despite confusing what is real and what isn’t to, Spark maintains her crisp fluid writing style. I found it a quick read and although it made me ponder, I didn’t feel at all lost.

So did I like it? Well I didn’t like any of the characters – they were all horrible, but I often find that many of her characters are unpleasant. This is something that Claire recently noted when reading Memento Mori which is one of my favourite Spark books. It doesn’t put me off however, in fact I find the way that Spark seeks to expose people’s bad behaviour utterly fascinating. While I wouldn’t say this is my top Spark novel (I do think that this, and Symposium will date a bit in a way that I don’t think The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie or The Girls of Slender Means will), I did find it very absorbing, and I was genuinely surprised by the ending which had a nasty little twist so I’m glad I read it before taking it back to the library!

Are you a Spark fan? Do you ever have renewal dilemmas at the library?!

Symposium by Muriel Spark

Symposium by Muriel Spark was one of my Lovely Loans that I picked up more than a month ago so I thought I’d better get it read! At just under 200 pages it also represented a bit of a change from the wonderful but slightly chunky books that fI’ve read lately (The Moonstone & The Shuttle).

Symposium starts and ends at a dinner party at a house in Islington. The wealthy hosts serve salmon mousse and have a manservant to pour the wine. Topics of conversation include a robbery, a honeymoon in Venice and marriage. Margaret Murchie and William Damien recently wed (they met in the fruit section of Marks and Spencers, don’t you know…) become the topic of much speculation. They seem adoring of each other but their host doesn’t give their marriage a year. Margaret seems to attract unfortunate incidents, and Hilda Damien, her mother-in-law, just can’t get over an uncomfortable feeling about her. Is it motherly instinct or simply unfounded suspicion?

Symposium is classic Spark. While uses one seemingly light-hearted event as a starting point, it encompasses a wealth of odd situations including violence in Hampstead, nastiness in a nunnery and a criminal conspiracy. She starts with small-talk and peels it away to reveal her characters deepest darkest thoughts. As with many Spark novels there is a strong theme of pre-destination, and references to Catholicism – you get the feeling that someone is doomed, somehow! She also uses her favourite technique of telling you what nasty things are going to happen and then leaving you for several chapters to find out why and how.

I really enjoyed Symposium. There are lots of characters (even in just a few pages) so it took me a while to remember all the names to begin with, but I loved the way that the plot got very thick, very quickly. After reading The Finishing School which I enjoyed but didn’t love, I was a bit worried that I was going off the boil a bit with Muriel Spark which I would have been very sad about. However, Symposium is up there with favourites for me like The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Girls of Slender Means and Momento Mori – a perfect little morsel of the macabre set against the backdrop of everyday life.

Have you read Symposium? What Spark novels have you read (if any)?

The Finishing School – Muriel Spark

The other week I had a bit of a library splurge and came back with a stack of lovely loans, including no less than three Muriel Spark books.

Being a Spark devotee and feeling a bit overwhelmed with the stack of unread books I have on my shelves I was looking forward to tucking into this little novella.

The Finishing School is a sort of observational piece of writing about College Sunrise, a finishing school for both sexes. The key characters are Chris – one of the students who is writing a novel, and Rowland Mahler, who running the school with his long-suffering wife Nina. Rowland is attempting to finish his own novel and is more than a little envious of Chris’s ability to write effortlessly at the tender age of seventeen. The school itself has only a handful of well to do pupils and changes location each year, possibly to dodge taxes!

The Finishing School is typical of Spark in the sense of it being an amusing observation of human behaviour. Almost from the outset we see Roland, green with envy over Chris’s writing, and as the novel develops his jealousy takes hold to the point where he is filled with feelings of fascination and bordering on murderous:

“Rowland had an urge to tip a bucket of green paint over Chris’s red hair. Green paint, and it all running over his face, and obliterating his book. Or perhaps to wreck the computer with the whole work in it. Switch it off, wreck, terminate it.”

The situation isn’t helped by the fact that Chris is young and good-looking and seemingly carefree as well as entirely aware of Rowland’s fixation. Rowland’s wife stands by almost dispassionately as she watches her husband become ever more obsessed and begins to wonder about her relationship and whether Rowland’s attentions to Chris are purely concerned with his writing ability.

Set against the backdrop of the finishing school and its la-de-da inhabitants who have names like Opal, Celestine and Princess Tilly, the relationship makes for interesting though cringe-making reading. I have to say even though I found Rowland’s obsessive thoughts about Chris funny, I didn’t find myself eagerly picking the book up, perhaps because I was less concerned with the other characters who I couldn’t relate to and weren’t perhaps as humorous as they could have been. Perhaps it just wasn’t a  long enough story to really draw them out. That said, Spark as usual exposes the shallow, the stupid and downright awful characters with a keen eye and superb descriptions. I did genuinely feel sorry for Nina, Rowland’s wife who seemed to be powerless to do anything.

Overall I found this an enjoyable and funny read but I wouldn’t point readers new to Spark to it. The Girls of Slender Means (a recent review from Savidge Reads can be found here.)is a much better example of the wonderful talent she had for exposing the best and the very worst of human nature in an amusing way.

I’m hoping for a very special Muriel Spark present under the tree this year in the form of this lovely biography, (thanks Mum) so I’ll be able to find out a little more about one of my favourite writers.

Have you read any Spark? What’s your favourite?