20 SEPTEMBER 1963, Page 22


Heavens Below

BY SIMON RAVEN- OF all contemporary novelists, Muriel Spark evinces the least confidence in morality. She encourages us neither to hope for good nor, to deplore evil; indeed most of the time she is at few pains to distinguish between the two. True, some of her characters lead virtuous lives, are of modest and kindly disposition, are sincerely attached to the Christian faith; but whatever their intrinsic goodness, they do not emerge, on the evidence of their speech and actions, as being notably more commendable than those who traffic in sexual perversions or black magic. Mrs. Spark does not take sides, she deals neither in praise nor in blame; she merely records what occurs; and in so far as she lets us into motives, it is not to assess their worth but to show us how utterly irrational and undependable is the connection between motive and performance.

From the first page of her first novel The Comforters, in 1957, to the last page of the newly published The Girls of Slender Means* Mrs. Spark writes in a style which exactly corresponds to the dictionary definition of 'classical': it is 'simple, harmonious, propor- tioned, restrained.' Make no mistake: this is formal prose, severe and consciously worked, artificial in the highest meaning of the word. The dialogue too is artificial, not in the sense that what is spoken appears unreal (Mrs. Spark has a wicked ear for the natural rhythms and idioms of speech), but in the sense that all con- versations are arranged, like those in Greek tragedy, to heighten the element of debate— debate often proceeding from the most ludicrous premises, often dependent on near-lunatic modes of thought, but nevertheless debate. If I now add that the overall construction of the novels combines the extreme lucidity of Mrs. Spark's prose with the elegant contrivance of her con- versations, it will be seen that we are here faced With (whatever else) the deliberate and highly developed practice of art.

At the beginning of all her books she presents • us, true to form, with a situation which is intelligible, plausible, swiftly and sparely set out. In The Comforters the hero is staying in the country with his impoverished grandmother and writing long letters to his ex- Inistress, a convert to Catholicism and to chastity, who being in need of rest and medita- tion has gone into retreat, from which her lover, himself a lapsed Catholic, is'hoping to lure her back. In The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960) we learn that a young bridegroom has said 'No' at the altar; this is apparently due to the influence of his rascally Scottish friend, Dougal Douglas, who has now left the district. Mrs. Spark invites us to go back in time, to observe the first appearance of Dougal in Peckham and his sub- sequent activities. In all her novels the initial situation, as in these two examples, is unconfused * THE GIRLS OF SLENDER MEANS. By Muriel Spark. (Macmillan, 17s. 6d.)

and unobscured: a definite conflict is announced, or a definite subject for investigation proposed, and we get ready, with pleasure and interest, to take it from there.

It is at this point that the form undergoes a surprising change. Speaking in tones of the coolest sanity, Mrs. Spark calmly introduces elements of the sinister, the macabre and even the supernatural. (In her more recent novels, per- sonal eccentricity or deviation has tended to re- place supernatural agencies, but the eccentricity is so extreme that the shock it imparts is com- parable.) Thus in The Comforters we learn that the heroine is being pestered by 'voices,' who seem to be either dictating a novel to her or seeking to involve tier in one of their own devising, and also that the hero's kindly grand- mother is mixed up in a conspiracy which smacks of witchcraft. In The Ballad of Peckham Rye Dougal Douglas takes on satanic attributes. Or again, in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) a dedicated and enlightened schoolmistress is revealed, not only as a fascist at heart, but as a trafficker in bodies and souls, who is plotting to manoeuvre one of her pupils into the bed of a man whom she herself desires.

Having indicated the kind of enormity which we are up against, Mrs. Spark then proceeds, in crisp but gradual stages, to investigate not so much its sources or its authenticity as the practical effect which it produces. In Memento Mori (1959), where a series of elderly people are reminded by anonymous telephone calls of their approaching demise, we are concerned less with the nature or identity of death's harbinger than with the consternation of those on the receiving end. In Robinson (1958) it is not the mystery of the island which matters, so much as its impact on those who encounter it. In terms of the novelist's technique, Mrs. Spark's method is to take some plausible if more than usually interesting people, to indicate to them (and to us) a plausible starting-point of conflict or investigation, and then, having got things going in an entirely normal way, to produce some unaccountable monstrosity which acts as a catalyst on all involved and introduces them to a new logic over and above the conventional logic of an originally conventional situation. In pursuance of her method, Mrs. Spark will then apply this new, slanted logic with all the precision and economy upon which we have already remarked; and she will finally arrive at a solution or a conclusion comprehensible only in the terms which this second logic dictates. As a good example, Miss Brodie, justly reported and removed from office, is equally seen to have been hideously betrayed. But the complete ex- ample of the method which I have outlined is to be found in The Girls of Slender Means.

First, the stylish exposition of the plausible situation. We are introduced to the inmates of The May of Teck Club, a superior hostel for young ladies, and informed of them as they were in 1945, at the end of war in Europe. Among others there is loveless Joanna, a clergyman's daughter, who teaches elocution; fat Jane, a publisher's assistant who trades, as a side-line, in the signatures of famous authors; and Selina the beauty, who sleeps around. Second, the artfully arranged conversations. The earliest of these is conducted by telephone and is occurring fifteen years later, in 1960: Jane, now a prominent columnist, is ringing up a friend to announce the death in Haiti of a missionary called Nicholas Farringdon, whom all the girls in The May of Teck had known back in 1945 as an amorous anarchist-poet. Here, then, we have the customary element of the bizarre, less obtrusive than in some of the earlier books but still disturbing enough: a gay young poet and fornicator has become a monk and suffered a hideous death for a faith which was once nothing more to him than an occasional target for ridicule.

We now revert to 1945, when the martyr was still singing and loving. For in this case Mrs. Spark's atrocious catalyst is to operate in retro- spect; and the actions of the girls will be sub- jected to her 'second logic,' not by the girls themselves, but by the reader, who alone knows of the horror to come. Knowing of it, the reader sees that every thought, every intention, every speech, every act is hopelessly distorted, has almost any value rather than the one which would have been assigned to it at the time it occurred. Selina's casual concubinage with Nicholas now has a heroic aspect; she becomes, as it were, a figure from the debauched youth of St. Augustine. A book of Nicholas's juvenilia becomes a testament; while the no more than usually greedy and deceitful publisher who rejected it may be seen as Thomas or even as Pilate. Jane, who tried rather inefficiently to help Nicholas with his work, is now made Heloise. The treacherous go-between who finally acquired the MS for motives of possible profit now achieves the status of evangelist. The most trivial behaviour takes on significance; the silliest actions assume wisdom, the most selfless are seen as futile or even, if the word has any meaning in this context, as positively evil.

To what conclusion, then, does this weird logic of Mrs. Spark's lead? There is an absurdly caused fire at the hostel which effects the agonised death of Joanna and thence the agonised conversion of Nicholas who happens to be present. If there had been no fire, there would have been no martyrdom; and if there had been no martyrdom, the events and the girls in this novel would have been meaningless, nugatory. As it is, in much the same way as the betrayal of Miss Brodie was an act of duty, so here a complex of shabby, ridiculous deeds is resolved into the high celebration of piety: an itch in the groin has brought Nicholas to sanctity.

So what Mrs. Spark is telling us, I believe, is that there can be no strictly moral or immoral actions because there can be no strict logic of morality. There is always something which intrudes, some universal power of disruption, which Mrs. Spark symbolises variously by voices, miracles, revelations or fortuitous violence, and which she sees as imposing a second, a perverted, logic. This power is morally neutral : it is what makes monstrous crimes of our highest aspirations, prayers of blasphemies, whores of the immaculate and saints of the un- chaste. It is the power, whatever it may be and whencesoever it may come, which has made, down the millennia, a laughing stock of the human race.