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hothouseeast

The Hothouse by the East River is a strange little novel, at once oddly unsettling and other worldly. Written in the present tense – a style Muriel Spark had already employed to great effect in The Driver’s Seat, lending her story an immediacy that works well here.

As with that earlier novel The Girls of Slender Means, here Spark concerns herself with the fall out from the Second World War and has used her own experiences to do so. However, The Hothouse from the East River is entirely different with a very sixties/seventies feel to it – the war is viewed in retrospect, from the distance of 1970s New York society. This society immediately feels slightly off kilter, this is deliberate of course, and in time will make absolute sense.

In their New York apartment, overlooking the East River, live Elsa and Paul Hazlett, it is a long way from where they started. Paul; originally from Montenegro met Elsa during the Second World War when they were both working for British intelligence at the Compound deep in the English countryside. These sections recreating life at the compound in 1944 are the most real parts of the story (again this is deliberate and will make sense to the reader who realises what is actually going on.) Muriel Spark worked in a similar environment during the war, and in writing these sections of this novel was drawing heavily on her own experience.

Here they worked alongside former German POWs – including Helmut Kiel. Now Elsa insists that she has seen Helmut Kiel working at a shoe store on Madison Avenue, looking just as he always did. Paul points out that Kiel died in prison back in Germany and anyway he would have aged, as they both have, yet Elsa insists it is the same man.

Paul has noticed there is something odd about his wife – her shadow falls the wrong way, which once he has noticed it, he really can’t stop seeing.

“He sees her shadow cast on the curtain, not on the floor where it should be according to the position of the setting sun from the window bay behind her, crosstown to the West Side. He sees her shadow, as he has seen it many times before, cast once more unnaturally. Although he has expected it, he turns away his head at the sight.”

What is it, that Elsa stares at all the time from their window over the East River? The household is peculiar too, Garven, Elsa’s analyst has moved in, playing the part of the couple’s butler so he can better observe his client. Absurdity looms large throughout this short novel; an overheated apartment with a heating system which seems unable to be regulated, a maid who threatens to jump from the window, and Paul wrestling the shoes from his wife’s feet as he believes the soles have a secret code written on them. Elsa’s best friend Princess Xavier, visits often, breeds silkworms in her bosom. All the time, Paul and Elsa appear to exist in a society of their own making.

“But Princess Xavier is not about to be perplexed on any point whatsoever. She is now interested in something else, far away in her thoughts, probably Long Island, where her farm of sheep and silkworms will be shivering for want of her presence and, of course, the cold. She opens one of the folds revealing a pink bulge of bosom. She puts her hand within the crease; her eggs are safe. She is in the habit of keeping the eggs of her silkworms warm between and under her folds of breasts; she also takes new-born lambs to her huge ancestral bed, laying them at her feet early in the cold spring-time, and she does many such things. She now folds herself back into her coverings and starts the process of rising from the sofa.”

Nearby lives Pierre; Paul and Elsa’s son, he is getting ready to produce a production of Peter Pan, with all the roles taken by people over sixty – Pierre considers this twist will be its selling point. Of course, one can’t help but be reminded of that scene where Wendy starts to sew Peter Pan’s shadow back on – in that famous story of the boy who doesn’t grow up. Elsa’s shadow causes much disquiet among members of her family.

The most interesting aspect of the story is the one aspect I really can’t discuss – but it is what makes this novel so memorable. It is the twist which lies right at the heart of this novel, and which I feel I should have figured out much earlier than I did.

In his excellent introduction (which opens with a warning to new readers to read it after the novel – I heartily approve this practice) to this Polygon edition, Ian Rankin tells us; that Spark had …

“…journeyed a long way from her childhood Edinburgh and wartime England, but she had more travelling still to do.”

The Hothouse by the East River is a surreal little novel which leaves the reader with several questions – I can imagine it making a good book group read – it will certainly divide readers. I found it compelling and bizarre, but still enjoyable for all that.

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the ballad of peckham rye

I am rather behind in my reviews at the moment hence this one popping up now at a time I don’t usually post reviews.

The Ballad of Peckham Rye was my last read of phase two of #ReadingMuriel2018. I didn’t connect with this one quite as much as some of the others, and I found the last part of it rather confusing. Still there is a lot that is interesting about this slight novel and in the central character of Dougal Douglas Spark has created a memorable – if not entirely likeable – character.

Spark creates the feeling of the ballad of the title in the opening chapter – in which we are introduced to Dixie and her fiancé Humphrey Place. This first chapter tells the story of Dixie’s and Humphrey’s wedding – a wedding that never happens. At the critical moment – Humphrey says ‘I won’t’ bringing everything crashing down around, Dixie, her mother Mavis, and Humphrey’s best man Trevor. Everyone it seems is convinced that it would never have happened had it not been for Dougal Douglas. Here Spark’s use of language is particularly clever – ending this first strong chapter with a couple of prose lines which have a real musical quality to them, reminding us again of the title – that this story is the ballad of Peckham Rye.

“It is sometimes told that the bride died of grief and the groom shot himself on the Rye. It is generally agreed that he answered ‘no’ at this wedding, that he went away alone on his wedding day and turned up again later.”

From here Spark tells the story of Dougal Douglas, who arrived in Peckham Rye and rather set the cat among the pigeons. The Ballad of Peckham Rye is a comedy and its absurdities are well observed, Spark’s comedy isn’t always comfortable however. The Peckham Rye of Spark’s novel like her London boroughs in The Bachelors have a very sixties feel to it. The world of employment is changing – and Dougal Douglas takes advantage of that.

Dougal Douglas has come to Peckham Rye from Scotland – he is devilish and beguiling – and soon insinuates himself into the lives of a group of Peckham Rye residents.

“If you look inexperienced or young and go shopping for food in the by-streets of Peckham it as different from shopping in the main streets of Peckham as it is from shopping in Kensington or the West End. In the little shops in the Peckham by-streets, the other customers take a deep interest in what you are buying. They concern themselves lest you are cheated. Sometimes they ask you questions of a civil nature, such as: Where do you work? Is it a good position? Where are stopping? What rent do they take off you? And according to your answer they may comment that the money you get is good or the rent you have to pay is wicked, as the case may be.”

He is interviewed by Mr Druce; the boss of a textile manufacturer, Dougal is employed to bring the arts into the world of industry. He wastes no time in befriending Merle Coverdale, who is conducting an affair with married Mr Druce, and young Humphrey Place; an engineer. Dougal Douglas with his deformed shoulder – is someone soon noticed, and remarked upon, rather rudely, by the girls in the canteen. Yet, Dougal seems to enjoy the attention. He wastes no time in befriending Merle Coverdale, who is conducting an affair with married Mr Druce, and young Humphrey Place; an engineer.

“ ‘ What d’ you mean by different?’ Mavis said.
‘I don’t know. He’s just different. Says funny things. You have to laugh,’ Dixie said.
‘He’s just an ordinary chap,’ Humphrey said. ‘Nice chap. Ordinary.’
Humphrey did not mean it. Humphrey knew that Douglas was different. Humphrey has been talking a good deal about Douglas during the past fortnight and how they sat up talking late at Miss Frierne’s”

Dougal finds himself lodgings in the house of Miss Belle Frierne, where Humphrey is also living. From here Dougal begins his campaign of disruption, among his colleagues and neighbours. He is a sinister presence – appearing almost to shape shift – into how he most wishes to appear to others. While working for Mr Druce’s company he also gets himself employed by his great rivals, on the other side of the Rye – using the name Douglas Dougal. Dougal spends his time doing ‘human research’ which obliges him to absent himself from both his employers much of the time. Additionally, Dougal is ghost-writer to Maria Cheeseman a former actress and singer.

Dougal manipulates and deceives until finally he is driven out of Peckham Rye, though not before he has caused untold carnage. Though there is comedy here, it is pretty dark comedy. The novel shows Muriel Spark to be a constantly entertaining novelist, painting memorable and quirky portraits of people and places.

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Phase 2 of #ReadingMuriel2018 was all about the 1960s novels written by Muriel Spark. We had six books to choose from this time – and as I had already read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie several years ago, so, I opted for The Girls of Slender Means, The Bachelors and The Ballad of Peckham Rye.

The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960) was my final read of phase 2 – and the one I liked least of the three, I have still to write up my review. Lisa at Bluestalking Journal reviewed it towards the beginning of March. She thought it her favourite Spark novel to date, calling it a wickedly delightful novel, and very funny in a dark way. In her review of this novel Monica focuses a lot on the character of Dougal Douglas – a brilliantly drawn character and in my opinion the best thing about the book. Chrystyna reviewed Peckham Rye on Goodreads rating 4 stars and describing how Dougal Douglas sets the people of Peckham against one another. Mary also rated it 4 stars saying it was a social satire, with wonderful character sketches and masterful use of adjectives. Michael from LT is reading all of Spark this year, and he found the conclusion of this novel confusing (I agree Michael). Madamebibliophile has written a wonderful post on three Spark novels including The Ballad of Peckham Rye which she describes as a funny, odd novella.

A Twitter conversation revealed that several readers found The Bachelors (1960) rather a slow burn, That was certainly my experience of it, though once I had got into it, I began to really enjoy it, and ended up enjoying it more than Peckham Rye. Jennifer started reading The Bachelors and found herself having to set it aside for the time being, but I believe intends to go back to it one day. Grant of 1stReading’s Blog also found the start of this novel a bit off putting, calling it perhaps Spark’s most naturalistic novel and seeing it as rather limited compared to Spark’s other novels. Chrystyna also read The Bachelors, but found it tough going too. Michael rated this one with 4 stars seeing it a a satire of human hypocrisy.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) Janet of From First Page to Last reviewed The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – and had me wishing I had had time to re-read it. Janet calls it a novel that is read quickly but which stays with the reader for much longer. Fictionfan also enjoyed The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie calling the eponymous character a wonderfully realised unconventional woman. Christine found re-reading the novel for the umpteenth time an absolute delight. Michael says this one is probably Sparks greatest novel, though his own preference lies with Memento Mori.

The Girls of Slender Means (1963) was the first of my 1960s Spark reads, I had persuaded my very small book group to read it too. I absolutely loved this novel – hugely memorable with a setting that reminded me of A Far Cry from Kensington that I read and loved so much last year. Caroline from Bookword enjoyed reading The Girls of Slender Means every bit as much as I did. She depicts the atmosphere of the book perfectly. Michael found that knowing the ending of this did not spoil his re-read of this novel and he loved it every bit as much as he did the first time. Jacqui shared her review of The Girls of Slender Means from last year. In her review, Jacqui talks about the social hierarchy at the May of Teck club. FictionFan listened to the audio book read by Juliet Stevenson, but was left a little underwhelmed.

Michael also read The Mandlebaum Gate (1965) , – I think it is Spark’s longest book – which he describes as reminding him of Graham Greene and saying it won’t be his favourite.

Michael from LT read The Public Image (1968) – which I must say I think sounds great and I am sure I will read it one day although probably not this year now. Michael describes it as being told in a flat, vapid narration that matches the theme. A husband’s revenge – with a superb ending. Madamebibliophile describes The Public Image as a wonderfully pithy satire on fame, celebrity and how women are forced into certain roles. Kirsty from literary sisters also reviewed The Public Image.

So, thank you very much to everyone who has joined in again with #readingMuriel2018 and it isn’t over yet. Phase 3 is just about to begin. This time it is all about the 1970s and we have another six books to choose from.

The Driver’s Seat (1970)
Not To Disturb (1971)
The Hothouse by the East River (1973)
The Abbess of Crewe (1974)
The Takeover (1976)
Territorial Rights (1979)

I would of course love to hear what you are planning to read for phase 3 if you are joining in.

Of course if you have posted something somewhere and I have missed you, I am very sorry. It is quite hard keeping track of everyone, please let me know and I will edit you in.

For the moment I have chosen to read two titles during phase 3 – there’s always time for me to add to these. I have chosen The Hothouse by the East River – mainly for the title – and The Takeover. I read The Driver’s Seat – last year, a hugely memorable dark little novella I loved it, but I can imagine it dividing people. I shall be very interested in seeing what other readers think of it.

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Published three years before my last read for #ReadingMuriel2018 The Bachelors has a very different feel from The Girls of Slender Means. Here is a London of the 1950s, of bedsitting rooms, public bars and spiritualist meetings.

Certainly, it is a novel with London very much at its heart – the novel opens with several London place names – and the whole novel has a very London feel to it.

“In Queen’s Gate, Kensington, in Harrington Road, The Boltons, Holland Park, and in King’s Road, Chelsea, and its backwaters, the bachelors stirred between their sheets, reached for their wound watches, and with waking intelligences noted the time; then, remembering it was Saturday morning turned over on their pillows. But soon, since it was Saturday, most would be out on the streets shopping for their bacon and eggs, their week’s supplies of breakfasts and occasional suppers; and these bachelors would set out early, before a quarter past ten, in order to avoid being jostled by the women, the legitimate shoppers.”

Despite the promising opening, The Bachelors is something of a slow burn – and lacks the compelling nature of some other Muriel Spark novels. I was worried I wasn’t going to get on with the novel at all – then suddenly around seventy pages in I realised I was gripped and I ended up finishing rather quickly. Thinking about the novel now in retrospect I actually really like it – so it is a shame that the beginning is a bit of a let-down – a couple of conversations on Twitter suggest I’m not the only reader to feel like this. Spark creates such an authentic community of London bachelors that – considering she uses relatively little description, and quite a lot of dialogue – there is still a lot that is very visual in this novel.

The Bachelors of the title include: a handwriting expert, a lawyer, a priest, a policeman and a spiritual medium. Patrick Seton; the medium is the malevolent presence throughout the novel – he is a truly brilliant Spark villain. Patrick is due to appear in court – charged with defrauding a widow; Freda Flower of her savings. Things however, are not straight forward, as the widow concerned – part of the spiritualist circle – keeps changing her evidence. Like all groups, this spiritualist circle is split into dividing factions – those who think Patrick Seton is innocent and those who see him as a fraud and a criminal. However, even those who believe Patrick defrauded Mrs Flower of her savings – tend to think he is a good medium. Patrick is very confident of being acquitted – and he has a few loyal acolytes who are vocal in their support of him.

However, the reader quickly begins to see Patrick as a really nasty character and potentially a dangerous one. Patrick has a girlfriend – Alice – who is in the early stages of pregnancy – something Patrick is clearly irritated by – thinking of it as ‘her disgusting baby’. Alice wants Patrick to marry her – Patrick tells her, his divorce will be granted soon. Other characters in the novel are surprised to hear that Patrick is married as they had understood him to be single. Alice is an insulin dependent diabetic – and it is quickly apparent that Patrick has a dreadful plan up his sleeve. Not averse to a bit of blackmail – Patrick manages to draw his doctor into the plans for when the ‘unfortunate occurrence’ should be over and he safely acquitted. Patrick is confident he can make everything go his way.

Ronald Bridges is a graphologist; due to give evidence on a note supposedly written by Mrs Flower – though said to have been forged by Patrick Seton – in the up coming trial. Ronald suffers from epilepsy, he is very conscious of his condition, which he seems to feel has blighted his life, and practices using his memory whenever he can. He is a slightly sad discontented man, who wants desperately to be taken seriously. It is Ronald ultimately who is the novel’s rather unlikely hero.

“Ronald was filled with a great melancholy boredom from which he suffered periodically. It was not merely this affair which seemed to suffocate him, but the whole of life – people, small-time criminals, outrage housekeepers, and all his acquaintance from the beginning of time.”

Several of the novel’s other bachelors are concerned with Patrick’s case and the spiritualist group he is part of. Detective Inspector Fergusson is the policeman responsible for Patrick’s appearance in court, while Martin Bowles is the prosecuting barrister. Matthew another of Ronald’s friends has designs on Alice, wanting to get her away from Patrick, watches from the public gallery as the trial gets underway. Alice however is devoted to Patrick despite her friend Elsie’s interference to try and prove his guilt.

While this novel won’t be my favourite Muriel Spark novel, I am glad I have read it, I very much enjoyed hating Patrick Seton – and waiting to see what happened to him made the second half of the book much more compelling.

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the girls of slender means

The Girls of Slender Means is a novel of taut perfection – a wonderful precursor to A Far Cry from Kensington. Told in flash back from the present (1963) looking back at the summer of 1945, and those months between VE day and VJ day. The London streets are scarred by bomb damage and rationing bites those who have put up with it so long already.

“The May of Teck Club exists for the pecuniary convenience of 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.”

The May of Teck Club has had its windows shattered three times since 1940. It is a hostel for young ladies under thirty. Spark herself lived in a very similar establishment, and she recreates the community perfectly. That atmosphere of everyone being in it together – endless chatter, borrowing and swapping belongings, young men visiting, careers just beginning. The upper floors look down over Kensington gardens, the Albert Memorial just around the corner, it’s a rather nice area of London to be residing in, even in 1945.

“Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions. The streets of cities were lined with buildings in bad repair or in no repair at all, bomb-sites piled with stony rubble, houses like giant teeth in which decay had been drilled out, leaving only the cavity. Some bomb-ripped buildings looked like the ruins of ancient castles until, at a closer view, the wallpapers of various quite normal rooms would be visible, room above room, exposed, as on a stage, with one wall missing; sometimes a lavatory chain would dangle over nothing from a fourth- or fifth-floor ceiling; most of all the staircases survived, like a new art-form, leading up and up to an unspecified destination that made unusual demands on the mind’s eye. All the nice people were poor; at least that was a general axiom, the best of the rich being poor in spirit”

Despite being over fifty, three middle aged spinsters have been allowed to stay at the club since before the First World War, and though one of them insists that one of the bombs that dropped into the garden of the May of Teck Club is still there, no one listens. These three older women hold something of a privileged position at the Club and are generally tolerated by the younger women.

The younger women are an interesting mix, there is Jane Wright, an overweight young woman who requires extra food for her brain work. Some of this work is writing letters to famous writers, on behalf of  Rudi Bittesch – who Jane thoroughly dislikes. During the day Jane works in publishing. Joanna Childe gives elocution lessons from her room, her beautiful voice ringing out through the house. ‘Mad’ Pauline Fox frequently goes out to dinner with her imaginary companion; well-known actor Jack Buchanan. Beautiful, Selina Redwood, who daily recites an incantation to maintain her well-practised poise. Dorothy Markham is the impoverished niece of Lady Julia Markham, who is a member of the club’s management committee. Then there is the worldly Anne, who owns the coveted taffeta Schiaparelli dress. The dress is shared between the girls slender enough to wear it, swapped for little pieces of soap or coupons.

In the back ground of all this there is a sense of darker goings on, largely ignored by those girls of slender means, but nevertheless there. The reality of war is everywhere, in the landscape all around and the coupons they trade for the right to wear the Schiaparelli dress. Whispers of another great bomb being prepared, remind us that the world was on the brink of frightening great change.

It is important to be very slim at the May of Teck Club, not only so girls can fit into the Schiaparelli dress, but because girls who are slender enough are able to squeeze through the lavatory window to the flat roof. Here girls can sunbathe unseen or meet lovers who climb over from the building next door.

Selina is quite the expert in getting through that window, while Jane of course can only stand and watch. This ability, or not to get through the tiny aperture of the window to the roof beyond becomes very important as the novel progresses.
Into this all female world that runs smoothly enough, comes Nicholas Farringdon an aspiring writer to unwittingly unsettle the status quo.

“We come now to Nicholas Farringdon in his thirty-third year. He was said to be an anarchist. No one at the May of Teck Club took this seriously as he looked quite normal; that is to say, he looked slightly dissipated, like the disappointing son of a good English family that he was.”

As the novel opens in the present time of 1963, former residents of the May of Teck Club pass along the news of Nicholas’s death in Haiti where he had worked as a missionary. In those former days he had made great friends of several of the young women from the May of Teck Club, and becomes a regular visitor. He decides he would like to do nice things for Jane (though not sleep with her) he takes her to parties and poetry readings, introducing her to other writers, but it is Selina who really turns his head. Many hot summer nights are spent with Selina out on the roof of the May of Teck Club.

Nothing lasts forever, and the days of the May of Teck Club are sadly numbered. In typical Spark fashion the conclusion of the novel is shockingly dramatic. The Girls of Slender Means is a slight novel, in which not a word is wasted – Spark re-creates the atmosphere of a hostel for young ladies, in 1945 with absolute perfection. Who wouldn’t want to be one of the nice poor people in 1945 who live at the May of Teck Club across the road from Kensington Gardens and have a share in a taffeta Schiaparelli dress.

I persuaded my very small book group to join in #ReadingMuriel2018 and pick this for our March read. We meet on Wednesday to discuss it.

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The first phase of #ReadingMuriel2018 is over – all bar the shouting – and what has been heartening for me is just how many people have joined in and showed their enthusiasm. Before January I had only read three Muriel Spark novels – so I am enjoying learning more about Muriel Spark and her work as I go along. This post is really just to try and draw everyone together – give a brief snapshot of some thoughts and reactions – and links to other reviews. Of course, many people are reading Muriel Spark at the moment in celebration of her centenary – so it is a little difficult for me sometimes to know who exactly has joined in my little read-a-long – and who are just reading a Muriel Spark novel.

Apologies to anyone who I don’t acknowledge, I am trying my best not to miss anyone out – please nudge me if I have. Use of the hashtag on Twitter does help me find you.

Anyway Phase 1 was all about Muriel Spark’s 1950s novels; The Comforters, Robinson and Memento Mori. I hadn’t originally planned to read all three, but I did, and thoroughly enjoyed them all. However, I have already posted my reviews of them, so I’m handing over to the rest of you.

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Grant shared his review of The Comforters from 2010, which he called “a delicately-iced, bite-sized, bitter-sweet tart.” Vikki said: “I love how Sparkian devices/themes are set out from the off, like her famous flash forwards.” Jennifer said:”she wrote about everyday things that fascinated her but from such a unique angle its as if she’s revealing something new to us each time we enter Spark World.” Yvonne also read The Comforters, finding it superb and it was a re-read for Gill who called it “an extraordinary debut.” Lisa from Bluestalking Journal reviewed The Comforters her review highlighting the eccentric nature of the characters. Chrystyna was able to find a copy of The Comforters in her local library. Mike from the Librarything Virago group – is on a Spark reading marathon, and said of The Comforters that “this greater complexity is a bit of a weakness, but nevertheless and especially for a first novel The Comforters is a definite 4****.” Christine from the BookTrunk and says that “Spark’s witty, elegant prose is second to none.” Karen from Bookertalk had less success with The Comforters, although she enjoyed the light comedy of the opening, and is hoping to do better with one of her later works. Monica has been reading all three of Spark’s early novels, and found The Comforters might be deserving of a re-read. Christine of Bride of the book god, has also read all three novels, and her post brings together her thoughts on all three novels by one of her favourite writers.
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Robinson, Muriel Spark’s second novel also proved a hit with those who read it. I was enthralled by it, as was Chrystyna who was able to see patterns between it and The Comforters. Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings reviewed Robinson calling it “a work that really is immensely readable and yet very thought-provoking as well.” Jennifer said she loved January for throwing that bowl of soup over Tom – I can’t help but agree. Like many of us Yvonne also moved from reading The Comforters to Robinson. Leaves and Pages reviewed Robinson too calling it clever and strangely engaging. Vikki called Robinson an intriguing novel saying: “The air of mystery surrounding Robinson is so deftly done.” Mike, however called Robinson not that great a novel but worth reading.Lizzy of Lizzy’s Literary Life reviewed Robinson saying “Spark’s Robinson isn’t good, it is excellent. Although not perfect. There are too many conflicts regarding Catholic doctrine for me.” Mary called Robinson “quirky, sharp, clever writing.” This was Monica’s favourite of the three early novels.
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Memento Mori is a Spark novel that many people consider to be among her best. Lady Fanciful reviewed Memento Mori calling it “a blackly comedic, sometimes savage, sometimes tender journey towards death, following a group of aged upper middle class intellectuals, their servants and companions, towards their final breaths.” I know Cathy from WhatCathyReadNext blog was planning on reading Memento Mori – I’ll edit in a review when I see it pop up. Caroline from book word reviewed Memento Mori calling it “short, bizarre, almost macabre,” going on to say that: “Every character is at the mercy of the physical manifestations of ageing.” For Mike Memento Mori was a definite 5 star read, which he says he loves even more every time he reads it. Annabel reviewed Memento Mori remarking that “Spark’s style which even in her earlier work takes no prisoners and wastes few words – requiring a little concentration to keep up with her!” When Yvonne began reading Memento Mori she was taken aback by the irony,and hindsight. Monica found the ending of this novel a bit of a let down but loved the characters.

Wow, well I hadn’t realised just how many people were joining in until I started looking through all the #ReadingMuriel2018 traffic. It’s been fabulous seeing so much enthusiasm for the project.

March/April is all about the 1960s novels. You can find the full schedule on my #ReadingMuriel2018 page. I have manged to get three novels for the next phase – whether I find time to read that many again remains to be seen. There is a much longer list to choose from for Phase 2 and no one is expected to read them all – although if you are undertaking a marathon reading of Spark well done, and good luck. I think three in two months will be the most I can manage, though one book every two months is plenty too. No obligation to join in again though if you are planning on joining me, let me know what you’re hoping to read.

Incidentally did anyone watch the Muriel Spark documentary currently on BBC I-player? – I think it must be finishing any day now – so if you haven’t seen it, and if it is still available – I highly recommend it.

Thank you to everyone who have helped to make this first phase such a success. Here’s to the next phase.

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momento mori

My third read for phase 1 of #ReadingMuriel2018 – I don’t suppose I can keep this pace up all year, but I am enjoying my Spark reading at the moment.

Momento Mori is a brilliantly dark, humorous novel which focuses on ageing and the inevitability of death. Muriel Spark was only forty when she published this novel – making us wonder why it was, she had such a preoccupation with death, and extreme old age. I have seen the novel described as one that explores the fear of ageing and death – I don’t think it is that – a fascination perhaps a curiosity – but I don’t feel there is fear in this novel. Despite its subject – there is nothing depressing about this novel – it is a funny, compelling read.

It all begins with something of a mystery. A group of elderly, upper class people receive anonymous phone calls. The caller says – ‘remember you must die’ – unsettling – especially when one has reached a certain age. A detective has already been called in to investigate. The first person to receive calls is Dame Lettie Colston a retired committee member, who had done extensive work in prison reform. The caller seems able to know exactly where Dame Lettie is – tracking her down to her brother Godfrey’s house – and in time turns their attention to him.

Other members of Lettie’s social circle include Godfrey’s wife Charmian, a successful novelist – whose memory is starting to go – and her former maid Jean Taylor now in a public nursing home. Lettie (nothing like as charitably minded as she likes to think herself) visits Jean telling about the caller and reminding Jean of the past, a time when she shared a lover with Charmian. Retired sociologist Alec Warner, spends most of his time meticulously recording every detail of his friends’ lives on index cards, making detailed notes on everything that happens.

Godfrey isn’t the only other person to receive calls, in the course of the novel, almost everyone receives the calls – only the voice appears different to each of them. Some people hearing an old voice, others a young voice – some hear a well-spoken, educated voice others an uneducated voice. Who could be making these calls? Could it even be death itself as Jean suggests?

Charmian for me is one of the most sympathetic characters, vulnerable and forgetful she is one of the only characters who accepts the warning dished out by the caller. Happily, immune to all the odd goings on, lost in her own world – she is not even entirely sure what year it is.

“‘Are there lots of obituaries today?’ said Charmian.
‘Oh, don’t be gruesome,’ said Lettie.
‘Would you like me to read you the obituaries, dear?’ Godfrey said, turning the pages to find the place in defiance of his sister.
‘Well, I should like the war news,’ Charmian said.
‘The war has been over since nineteen forty-five,’ Dame Lettie said. ‘If indeed it is the last war you are referring to. Perhaps, however, you mean the First World War? The Crimean perhaps…?’
‘Lettie, please,’ said Godfrey. He noticed that Lettie’s hand was unsteady as she raised her cup, and the twitch on her large left cheek was pronounced. He thought in how much better form he himself was than his sister, though she was the younger, only seventy-nine.”

When Henry Mortimer retired police inspector, who has been consulted about the nuisance caller, finally receives his own phone call – the voice is that of a woman. A character we meet later in the novel – the manipulative Mrs Pettigrew receives a call too – but she refuses to acknowledge it even to herself.

“Mrs. Pettigrew, though she had in fact, one quiet afternoon, received the anonymous telephone call, had chosen to forget it. She possessed a strong faculty for simply refusing to admit an unpleasant situation, and to go quite blank where it was concerned.”

In this novel Muriel Spark uses a third person, omniscient narrator, though the viewpoint changes continually, allowing us to see into the minds of all her characters.

Another plot strand involves the estate of a mutual friend of all the above; Lisa Brooke. Her death early in the novel results in disputes over her will. Secrets are revealed including a secret husband and an old affair. Lisa Brooke’s former housekeeper, Mrs Pettigrew is named in the will, but her claim is usurped by the secret husband and so Mrs Pettigrew looks around for new employment. Her avaricious gaze falls on Godfrey. Mrs Pettigrew is a manipulative, grasping woman, once she gets herself comfortably settled in Godfrey’s house – she sets about trying to get rid of Charmian and begins blackmailing Godfrey over his past indiscretions. Mabel Pettigrew is a nasty bullying figure; the kind of character Spark writes so well.

In time the wonderful Charmian begins to rally herself – and as she starts to improve, as her mind begins to sharpen, Godfrey under the tender ministrations of the awful Mrs Pettigrew, starts to deteriorate.

“She looked at Godfrey who was wolfing his rice pudding without, she was sure, noticing what he was eating, and she wondered what was on his mind. She wondered what new torment Mrs Pettigrew was practising upon him. She wondered how much of his past life Mrs Pettigrew had discovered, and why he felt it necessary to hush it up at all such costs. She wondered where her own duty to Godfrey lay – where does one’s duty as a wife reach its limits? She longed to be away in the nursing home in Surrey, and was surprised at this longing of hers, since all her life she had suffered from apprehensions of being in the power of strangers, and Godfrey had always seemed better than the devil she did not know.”

I can see why this novel is so well thought of by people who know Spark’s work better than I do yet. The dialogue alone is first class – as is the portrait of the council run nursing home, where the nurses call all the old ladies ‘grannies.’ Muriel Spark makes her characters face up to their past misdemeanours, as they all move toward their final destinies.

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