Tag 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

10 Literary Wonder Women

Last week I put up this post, asking about readers’ favourite female protagonists in literature. I wanted to compile a list, but decided that I could only give my stamp of approval to characters from books I have already read!

So here are my ten literary wonder women…

Jean Paget – Feminine, but tough in the face of adversity and a visionary philanthropist. From Neville Shute’s A Town Like Alice.

Marion Halcombe – Un-pretty but intelligent and resourceful, and a fabulous heroine in The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins.

Jo March – A tomboy with a passion for writing who is always getting herself into trouble in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women

George Kirrin – Another adventurous and courageous tomboy from Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five children’s books.

Betty Vanderpoel – Rescues her downtrodden sister with panache in The Shuttle, by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Jean Brodie – Charismatic and (dubiously) opinionated teacher in Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Hermione Granger – Wonderfully sparky, girl-geek from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series

Matilda Wormwood – A brave little girl with a love of books who stands up to her bullying head-teacher in Roald Dahl’s Matilda.

Maya – Overcomes racism and personal trauma in coming of age novel I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Antigone, Classical heroine who stands up for what she believes in despite facing punishment by death in Sophocles’ Antigone (Oedipus Tragedies)

There are quite a few books I now want to read after all your suggestions including Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (for Becky Sharp), Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (for Miss Taggart) and Pride and Predjudice by Jane Austen (for Elizabeth Bennet) as I’ve only seen the TV series, whoops!

What do you think of my top ten?

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?

Lovely Loans

I popped into the library yesterday to return books and get The Shuttle by Frances Hodgeson Burnett, and accidentally came out with a whole stack of books. Muriel Spark overkill do you think?

Booking Through Thursday – It’s All About ME!

Booking Through Thursday

This weeks BTT Question is:

Which do you prefer? Biographies written about someone? Or Autobiographies written by the actual person (and/or ghost-writer)?

To be honest, I’m not a big fan of factual writing so I don’t read many autobiographies. I think it would depend very much on

a) If the personality was still alive – yes I would prefer to read their Autobiography

b) If I thought they were a bad writer / would give an un-informative version of events – no I would prefer to read a Biography.

What I’d really prefer would be a semi-fictional account by a brilliant writer – for example I very much enjoyed Peter Cary’s True History of the Kelly Gang because of the quality of writing and storytelling. The one biography that has piqued my interest lately is thisMuriel Spark Biography - Martin Stannard Muriel Spark Biographyby Martin Stannard but it’s in hardcover so I may have to wait until it be comes a bargain or comes out in paperback!

Do you read (auto)biographies? If you do, what do you enjoy about them. Do you think I should try reading more or should I stick to fiction?

A Perk of the Job

Warning! Second-hand book-shop in close proximity to new office alert!

Popped in to my new offices in Wimbledon today so that they could check my passport and make sure that I am not illegal and lo and behold, there is a really great bookshop just a short distance away called Copperfield’s.

Actually I did spot it when interviewed (not that it influenced me in any way at all!) but resisted the urge to go in after telling myself I have too many books on my ‘to read’ pile already!

But today I wasn’t so steadfast, and was drawn like a moth to a flame to their stack of Penguin Classics craftily placed by the entrance.

Copperfield’s has all the hallmarks of an excellent second-hand bookshop – happily jumbled looking books stacked on a table outside, good prices and most of all that lovely lived-in feel and bookish smell which makes you feel you can browse for ages. Plus, just look at the signage, it just says ‘come into our little treasure-trove!’.

I was fairly restrained and purchased two lovely Penguin Classics –

Savidge Reads got me into Susan Hill’s creepy stories and blurb on the back of The Bird of Night, by Susan Hill (1976) made me think it might be an interesting little number for £1.

“Francis Croft, the greatest poet of his age, was mad. His world was a nightmare of internal furies and haunting poetic vision. Harvey Lawson watched and protected him until his final suicide. From his solitary old age Harvey writes this brief account of their twenty years together [secret gaylords perhaps?!] and then burns all the papers to shut out an inquisitive world.”

Then I spotted The Bachelors, by one of my favourite authors Muriel Spark (1960). Not one I’ve heard of but had a fabulous cover and I love everything she writes. Plus it has a great plug on the back from Evelyn Waugh who writes;

“I am dazzled by The Bachelors. It is the cleverest and most elegant of all Mrs Spark’s clever and elegant books.”

Well, that convinced me to hand over my precious £1.50 and snaffle it into my handbag.

I always have the excuse that I need the reading material for my commute, plus I have discovered that there is a Lush in Wimbledon too. A book and a luxurious bath. What could be a better combination?