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Choosing my first book of the year wasn’t too difficult. I was so keen to get started on my #ReadingMuriel2018 project that I began reading The Comforters over breakfast on January 1st.

The Comforters was Muriel Spark’s first novel published when she was nearly forty, she had only begun writing seriously after the Second World War. Spark, had previously suffered from hallucinations, and she brings this experience and her recent conversion to Catholicism to her extraordinary debut. It is a debut that is remarkably assured, in this her first novel, Spark really has set out her stall, showing her readers that they are in the hands of a different kind of writer. While the book was still in proof it was read by Evelyn Waugh, who praised it, the novel’s success meant that Muriel Spark could then afford to write full time.

The central character in the novel is Caroline Rose, although it is with her boyfriend Laurence Manders that the novel opens. Laurence is staying with his part gypsy grandmother Louisa Jepp.

“On the first day of his holiday Laurence Manders woke to hear his grandmother’s voice below.
‘I’ll have a large wholemeal. I’ve got my grandson stopping for a week, who’s on the BBC. That’s my daughter’s boy, Lady Manders. He won’t eat white bread, one of his fads.’
Laurence shouted from the window, ‘Grandmother, I adore white bread and I have no fads.’
She puckered and beamed up at him.
‘Shouting from the window,’ she said to the baker.”

It is a wonderfully light comedic opening, and just the first of the ways in which Spark leads up the garden path. The Comforters is not strictly a comedy, though are plenty of flashes of humour in it. There are two plots in the novel – both involve the same characters, though there isn’t any other obvious overlap between the subplots. One of the stories is pretty much straightforward, though there is a delicious improbability in it; there is something going on with Louisa. While the second story, focusing largely on Caroline, is what I have seen others refer to as being typically Sparkian. As this is just the fourth Spark novel I have read, I’m not sure if I could fully appreciate these traits, yet I was able to recognise that oddness that I have found in those other novels. Muriel Spark takes the every day and twists it, so we are not altogether certain what is going on. However, the writing is glorious, and the storytelling such that the reader is compelled to read on.

While Laurence is staying in Louisa’s house, he discovers diamonds hidden in a loaf of bread. Louisa also seems to have a peculiar group of friends, who Laurence finds her closeted with one evening. Mr Webster; the baker and the Hogarths, a father and his disabled son. Laurence believes that grandma has a gang.

In a sense it is Caroline who joins the two narratives together because she is Laurence’s girlfriend. Laurence writes to Caroline at the Catholic retreat she has gone to but before the letter can reach her she has left. At the retreat Caroline had met Mrs Hogg, who she takes an immediate and deep dislike to. Mrs Hogg, formally a servant of the Manders family, is a disruptive, interfering personality, who Lady Manders always feels she should help find employment. Mrs Hogg is the most dominant personality in the novel – she is obsessively religious, and capable of great mischief.

The tone of the novel changes as we find Caroline back in her London flat alone. She is writing a book about form in the modern novel – and as she finds herself struggling with a chapter about realism, Caroline becomes aware of voices, and the sound of a typewriter. The voices and the typewriter are connected, the typewriter tapping out the words spoken, and in time Caroline becomes aware that the voice is echoing her own thoughts and actions. She attempts to flee the typewriting voices by going to the flat of a friend the Baron who owns a second-hand bookshop on Charing Cross Road. Caroline comes to see herself as a character in a novel, and there is a palpable atmosphere of unease in the scenes where Caroline is alone with the sound of the typewriting voices.

“Through the darkness, from beside the fireplace, Caroline heard a sound. Tap. The typewriter. She sat up as the voices followed:
The Baron had seemed extraordinarily interested in Laurence’s grandmother, He was the person one would expect to have remembered – and by name – an undistinguished old lady to whom he had been introduced casually three years ago. Mrs Jepp was not immediately impressive to strangers.
Caroline yelled, ‘Willi! Oh, my God, the voices…Willi!’”

Laurence moves in with Caroline, keen to help her he suggests trying to record the voices on a dictaphone. Things don’t go quite to plan and later Caroline finds herself attempting to reconcile herself to the voices she hears, as Laurence tries to figure out what grandma is up to, is she really involved with diamond smuggling?

I don’t want to say too much more about this novel – which I am finding quite hard to write about anyway – as other people are or will be reading it during this first phase of #ReadingMuriel2018.

The Comforters was a great way to start the New Year, and although I only need to read one Muriel Spark novel every two months – I am pretty sure to be reading more than that. These Polygon editions (I bought four before Christmas) are gorgeous, and I have had to stop myself buying the lot.

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Collage 2017-12-11 21_15_49

I’m back with another year long reading event – and as ever I would love some company. Can I tempt you?

Earlier this year I read The Driver’s Seat and A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark, I loved them. My only other experience with Muriel Spark was years ago when I read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which I liked but didn’t love – and perhaps put me off reading more. I was clearly wrong to have been put off and now I think is the time to get to grips with this fascinating writer. 2018 is Muriel Spark’s centenary and there is already a lot of celebrations planned.

murielsparkThose of you on Twitter can follow @MurielSpark100 for news of events –(#MurielSpark100) there is for instance an exhibition at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh. Virago books are bringing out a few new editions of Muriel Spark novels (though I haven’t been able to discover which ones) and Polygon books are in the process of releasing 22 books in recognition of Sparks 100th birthday – the first four are already out and available through their website or from the usual large online retailer.

Anyway, I’m jumping on the bandwagon with a little reading event. Of course, not everyone will want to sign up to a yearlong event – that’s my own peculiar piece of madness. A year long event of course allows people to dip in and out as they are able – though if anyone can keep me company for the whole period I would be delighted. If you did want to keep pace with me throughout the year – the minimum you would need to read is six books – in fact during phase four (see below) you could just read a couple of poems or one short story.

After my experience with #Woolfalong I’m dividing the year up into six two-month phases. People can choose which books to read in each category.

Phase 1 (January/February) Early novels – 1950s

• The Comforters (1957)
• Robinson (1958)
• Memento Mori (1959)

Phase 2. (March/April) 1960s

• The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960)
• The Bachelors (1960)
• The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)
• The Girls of Slender Means (1963)
• The Mandelbaum Gate (1965)
• The Public Image (1968)

Phase 3 (May/June) 1970s

• 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)

Phase 4 (July/August) short stories/ poetry/essays

Various collections available including:
Complete poems
Complete short stories
The Golden fleece – essays
Going up to Sotherby’s and other poems

Phase 5 (September/October) 1980s/1990s

• Loitering with Intent (1981) – shortlisted for Booker Prize
• The Only Problem (1984)
• A Far Cry From Kensington (1988)
. Symposium (1990)
. Reality and dreams (1996)

Phase 6 (November/December) later novels/autobiography/biography

Final two novels
• Aiding and Abetting (2000)
• The Finishing School (2004)

or
Curriculum Vitae – autobiography
Appointment in Arezzo: a friendship with Muriel Spark – Alan Taylor
Muriel Spark the biography by Martin Stannard

I really hope a few of you will join me in this – I love an internet read-a-long. I will be putting a copy of the above schedule on a separate page on my blog so that I and anyone else can refer to it when needed.

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I feel I need a hashtag – but with so many Muriel Spark centenary celebrations around it could get confusing – there are already several others doing the rounds. So, I have settled on #readingMuriel2018 hoping it will be easy for people to remember and not get mixed up with the others. I don’t want to step on any toes.

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AfarcryfromKen

I recently reacquainted myself with Muriel Spark, aware that I hadn’t really given her much of a chance only reading The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie some years ago. Last month I read and rather loved The Driver’s Seat, I already had several other Muriel Spark books tbr – but succumbed to buying this pretty VMC designer edition of A Far Cry from Kensington a book I had wanted to read for some time.

The novel is narrated by Mrs Hawkins (Agnes – sometimes, though rarely called Nancy). Thirty years in the future from the main events in the novel – Mrs Hawkins, lying sleepless in another part of London, recalls the time she was a publisher’s assistant in the mid-1950s. Rationing is still in place, and Mrs Hawkins a young war widow goes to live in a rooming house in Kensington. Here live an odd set of characters, they move in and out of each other’s lives and each other’s rooms, it is largely a happy, harmonious household, presided over by kindly Irish landlady Milly. There are the Carlin’s a quiet, middle-aged couple, a young district nurse, Kate, young secretary Isobel; fresh from the countryside who every day checks in by phone with her daddy – medical student William and the most memorable, colourful character Wanda – a Polish seamstress. Milly and Mrs Hawkins crouch together on the half landing watching through the communal window into the house next door as the Cypriot couple who live there conduct a late-night row. It is a very companionable existence, but by all these people she is always called Mrs Hawkins, her large, matronly appearance giving her an air of capability.

At this period, Mrs Hawkins had begun to make her way in the publishing world. Working in offices in a Queen Anne house for Ullswater and York Press, in days when jobs in publishing are highly sought after. The firm are already in some financial trouble and their final days aren’t too far off. It is through her work here that Mrs Hawkins first comes into contact with Hector Bartlett a writer who Mrs Hawkins scathingly labels a ‘pisseur de copie’ meaning that he urinates dreadful prose. It is a phrase she returns to time and again – one which doesn’t always go down very well with others. It is as if she can’t help herself – for the repetition is rather overdone and starts to pall, and as Hector is involved with successful novelist Emma Loy who is very influential in the publishing world, Mrs Hawkins’ days are numbered at Ullswater and York. Mrs Hawkins is really very unpleasant to Hector – but quite frankly he deserves it – I liked Mrs Hawkins, though, from other reviews I have seen, perhaps not all readers do.

“I enjoy a puritanical and moralistic nature; it is my happy element to judge between right and wrong, regardless of what I might actually do. At the same time, the wreaking of vengeance and imposing of justice on others and myself are not at all in my line. It is enough for me to discriminate mentally and leave the rest to God.”

The satirical portrait of the London publishing scene is brilliant, jobs in the industry seen practically as the holy grail of a professional life. Though it is Milly’s rooming house and the peculiar mystery surrounding the anonymous letter sent to Wanda that makes this novel so good. Wanda reacts to the letter with hysterical wailings, and her terror at the implied threat from ‘the organisation’ who accuse her of tax evasion.

“I took Wanda up a cup of tea at about five o’clock. She was awake and crying. She had got right into bed and unloosed her hair. It was the first time I had seen her with this quantity of natural corn-coloured hair about her face and shoulders. She made a very impressive sight. It occurred to me she might well have a lover, or at least an admirer, someone who courted her and who had a rival, a rejected vindictive somebody, or a jealous woman whose man Wanda had attracted. Perhaps we don’t observe each other well enough, I thought. Seeing a sex-potential, I could see the range of suspects was vastly increased. But I didn’t like to say, right away, ‘Wanda do you know of any man, woman, who could be sentimentally roused for you? – I didn’t say this because at that moment she would certainly have exploded with indignation. The image she showed to the world was that of a church-going seamstress and dedicated widow.”

The whole house become involved in Wanda’s distress, inevitably the residents looking to one another in the search for a culprit. Who could be responsible for such cruelty? The story of Wanda takes a rather darker turn than I had expected, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised – I’m beginning to see, Muriel Spark doesn’t do conventional narratives. There is another peculiar sub-plot involving ‘the box’ a mysterious instrument, said to have incredible healing properties produced through radionics, did people in the 1950s believe in a such things? – I don’t know.

I enjoyed A Far Cry from Kensington as much as The Driver’s Seat, they are quite different novels. Compelling with vibrant characters and a wonderfully quirky narrator – it is actually really entertaining.

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the driver's seat

I’m sure you will all be delighted to hear that this review is likely to be quite short (famous last words). The Driver’s Seat is definitely a book about which it would be quite possible to say too much.

Muriel Spark is an author I have been meaning to properly get to grips with for a long time, having only read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – which I liked but didn’t love. Although I already had two or three other Muriel Spark novels tbr – this was recommended to me recently by a bookseller on Twitter. I knew nothing about the book, but the cover practically sold it to me. I’m glad I knew nothing about the novel before I started (the blurb to this edition intrigues without giving too much away).

The Driver’s Seat is immediately unsettling, we meet Lise who appears to have been driven to distraction – working in the same office for sixteen years. Lise is leaving everything behind – jetting off to an unnamed European city.

“Her lips are slightly parted: she, whose lips are usually pressed together with the daily disapprovals of the accountants’ office where she has worked continually, except for the months of illness, since she was 18, that is to say, for 16 years and some months. Her lips, when she does not speak or eat, are normally pressed together like the ruled line of a balance sheet, marked straight with her old-fashioned lipstick, a final and judging mouth, a precision instrument.”

As the novel opens Lise is acting a little erratically – the reader still doesn’t know Lise – we don’t know what she is doing – and yet sense that something isn’t right. She’s shopping for holiday clothes. In the first shop, Lise tries on a brightly coloured dress she likes the look of, the assistant excitedly tells her how it is made of new stain-resisting material. Lise is outraged – that she should need stain proof garments! – her anger is out of all proportion – and our sense of things being a little bit out of kilter is increased.

Lise goes to another shop – no stain-resisting materials here to upset her. She selects a brightly coloured dress – overlooked by most shoppers – a yellow top, with the skirt a pattern of blue, mauve and orange vs. She selects a coat to wear over the top – narrow, red and white stripes – a combination the salesgirl delicately suggests couldn’t be worn together – Lise laughs off such advice. (Here we see how utterly perfect the cover of this Penguin Modern classics edition is). Everyone is wearing mini-skirts – Lise seems happy to wear her skirt well below the knee – and so, thus unfashionably and garishly attired she is transformed – and it would appear quite deliberately unforgettable.

Lise leaves everything behind – intending to leave her car keys in an envelope for someone to pick up she is distracted at the last minute and goes off with them still in her hand. Lise seems to be embracing the new excitements and freedoms of the 1960s.

“‘Sex is all right’ he says
‘It’s all right at the time, and it’s all right before’ says Lise, ‘but the problem is afterwards. That is, if you’re not an animal. Most of the time, afterwards is pretty sad.’”

She boards her plane, seating herself between two men, one of the men instantly feels uneasy about her. The other one seems very happy to meet her, instantly engaging Lise in conversation – Bill – is a proponent of the macrobiotic diet, and wants to meet up the following day. We can’t be completely sure if there’s something odd about Bill – other than his diet. Once they have landed – in what we assume is a Mediterranean city – Lise sets about bringing to fruition her plan – whatever that may be. She talks brightly and loudly to everyone she meets, seems to be searching for a boyfriend, accompanies an elderly woman to a department store – more shopping. The reader never gets especially close to any of these characters – we don’t need to – their presence merely helps to show Lise for the self-destructive nightmare that she is. Lise also remains something of an enigma, we never know her inner thoughts, fears or motivations – of course this is deliberate. We really get to know Lise through her extravagances her increasingly strange behaviour – and as we struggle to understand her – our mind goes back to the woman who shopped for deliberately garish clothing, jibbed at stain-resistant fabrics and left everything behind her.

I am loath to say anything else about the plot, I really wouldn’t want to spoil it for anyone. In a sense a review can’t possibly do justice to this extraordinarily, dark novella. Muriel Spark messes with our heads brilliantly, subverts our expectations – and leaves us with a story that is both uncomfortable and unforgettable.

Reading The Driver’s Seat has definitely whetted my appetite for more Muriel Spark – I know I have three others buried somewhere on my tbr bookcase – I would love to tell you which ones. However they are hidden by stacks of other books and I can’t remember which they are – but I shall have dig them out sometime soon.

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I read this for the Muriel Spark reading week which I was alerted to by stuck-in-a-book’s blog.
Stuck in a book
I hadn’t read any Muriel Spark before and didn’t really know what to expect, although I did see the film many years ago.

‘Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life

Miss Jean Brodie is a teacher at the Marcia Blaine School, it is a conventional school, but she is far from a conventional teacher. Miss Brodie develops her set of girls – the girls she intends to develop and influence so they become the crème de la crème. This relationship sets the six girls apart from their peers, and puts them at odds with the other teachers. The girls become her confident, through them she lives vicariously – while the girls weave their own stories around Miss Brodie. They even become involved in her odd relationship with the art master.

The narrative is told across several time frames – as the girls grow from 10 years old to 15 and then 18 years old, with the adult girls looking back at their time with Miss Jean Brodie. Their reflections centre on their memories of what Miss Brodie saw as her betrayal by one of her girls.

“We shall discuss tomorrow night the persons who oppose me’ said Miss Brodie. ‘But rest assured they shall not succeed. ”No,’ said everyone. ‘No, Of course they won’t. ”Not while I am in my prime. It is important to recognize the years of one’s prime, always remember that,..’

The novel is short – and yet manages to pack quite a punch. The relationship between Jean Brodie and her girls is quite sinister Miss Brodie’s influence is all encompassing – although she certainly doesn’t wield all the power. Sandy particularly comes across as the rebel of the bunch – and was the most likeable of any of them.

I did enjoy this little novel, but I have found it hard to review it and I don’t think I enjoyed it as much as I expected to. If I am honest I didn’t entirely like the writing style of this novel – although I do think it is well written, very witty as well as a little dark. I can’t work out exactly what it is about the style of the writing that didn’t gel with me – but something jarred. However overall I am glad I have read it– but I’m not sure I will be rushing out to get more Muriel Spark to read just yet.

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