Posts Tagged ‘muriel spark’


(Posting this a day or two early as I had to make way for my Elizabeth von Arnim day post tomorrow.)

Phase 4 of #readingMuriel2018 is drawing to a close, and this phase has been about the short stories, poetry and essays of Muriel Spark. Not surprisingly, I think there has been a little bit of a dropping off now we have reached this point of the year. I know not everyone likes poetry, short stories and essays, and have concentrated on reading some more of the novels from previous phases of #Reading Muriel2018. So, I don’t have any other blogs to link to, because I think all the readers who have joined in this time have been non-bloggers from Facebook/Twitter/Librarything – and I do have some of their thoughts to share with you. Though if I have missed your review/blog post – please let me know.

I had originally planned to read just a few of Spark’s short stories and a few essays. However, that big book of complete stories was just so readable that I really couldn’t help but keep reading it – and over the course of the two months read the whole thing. With everything else I have had to read over the summer, I haven’t managed to get around to any essays or poetry.

The stories were great however, as with any large collection there were some I liked better than others, a few are pretty bizarre – many are just wonderful. My favourites were The Go Away Bird, Snobs, The Girl I left Behind Me and Come Along Marjorie. I ended up writing two reviews for this collection.

IMG_20180722_170142Mary also read The Complete Stories, tweeting that they were “original, crackling sharp wit. Preferred the older stories. Some-very odd.” Jennifer had the Complete stories to keep her company too. Sian read The Go Away Bird and other stories – a lovely old orange penguin edition. For Sian, The Go Away Bird was the stand out story too, calling it beautiful and shocking. I know Chrys is planning to start the stories soon, she has a lot to look forward to I think.

Chrys did read the collected poems, and I was looking forward to her thoughts on them as I have never read any of Spark’s poetry. Chrys decided she liked the older poetry best. These were two of her favourite lines.

“The cat subsiding down a basement
Leaves a catlessness behind it.”
(from Elementary 1951)

Michael from the Virago group – who is reading all of Muriel Sparks books this year – read The Golden Fleece essays – which is the book I have. He gave them 3.5 stars saying some pieces are outstanding while others are humdrum. He also advised that it would probably be best to not read them before having read Muriel Spark’s autobiography, Curriculum Vitae. Useful to know, I have Curriculum Vitae lined up for phase 6 (Nov/Dec).

So, Phase 5 starts any day now – and I have a mighty three Spark novels lined up. This time we are back to novels – the novels of the 1980s and 90s.

Loitering with Intent (1981) – shortlisted for Booker Prize
The Only Problem (l984)
Far Cry From Kensington (1988)
Symposium (1990)
Reality and dreams (1996)

If you’re looking for a recommendation – I read A Far Cry from Kensington last year – and it will almost certainly remain one of my favourite Spark novels.

I have got Loitering with Intent, The only Problem and Symposium in the lovely Polygon editions. Somehow, without planning it all these three all fit into unticked off years in my centenary of books. For those following my ACOB progress I am acutely aware that I have used quite a number of Spark novels in my ACOB – but it was inevitable in a year when I am reading a lot by Muriel Spark.


So, then – are you planning in reading along with me? If so what will you be reading?

cofA shout out to Chrys – who has been reading along with us all year – who today sent me a lovely little volume, The Muriel Spark society lecture by Ali Smith in a sweet little volume. I intend to read it on the bus on the way to the theatre tonight, thank you Chrys very much.

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The complete stories murel spark

When I am not reading books for #WITmonth or Virago books for All Virago All August I have carried on reading short stories from The Complete Short stories – and though I am still not finished I hope to be by the end of the month. It is difficult to review a six-hundred-page collection in one, it only ever possible to highlight a few pieces that stand out.

Last month I reviewed the first five stories in the collection – linked as they were with an African setting – they seemed to stand apart. Having read more of Spark’s stories now, those stories still do stand apart. I am still thoroughly enjoying Spark’s shorter fiction though some of the stories fade quite quickly from my mind afterwards.

In these stories we have Spark’s familiar wit, and with her wonderful eye for the absurd, she lifts the veil on the seemingly respectable, exposing what lies beneath.

The Snobs is a story set in Dijon where an ordinary English couple have unexpectedly inherited a château. When former bus driver’s wife Anne meets the Ringer-Smiths outside a gift shop, they are looking lost, struggling with their map – and she invites them to the château for tea. In the Ringer-Smiths, Anne soon detects that dreaded species, the château grabber.

“I could see, already in Anne’s mind, the thought: “I have to get rid of these people or they’ll stay for dinner and then all night. They are château-grabbers.” Anne had often lamented to me about the château-grabbers of her later life. People who didn’t want to know her when she was obscure and a bus driver’s wife now wanted to know her intimately.
(The Snobs)

In her depiction of the dreadful Ringer-Smiths and the poor harried inhabitants of the château trying to get rid of them, Spark is at her humorous best.

In The Dragon – we find ourselves in Italy. A seamstress is hosting a little party – and she is very much afraid The Dragon may spoil it.

“We were in a shady part of the garden. It was six o’clock on a hot evening in the north of Italy. It was my garden, my party. The Dragon came oozing through the foliage. She was holding her drink, a Pimm’s No. 1, and was followed by a tall, strikingly handsome truck-driver whom she had brought along to the party on the spur of the moment. To her dismay, discernible only to myself, he was a genial, easy-mannered young man, rather amused to be taking half-an-hour off the job with his truck parked outside the gate. I knew very well that when she had picked him up at the bar across the street she had hoped he would be an embarrassment, a nuisance.”
(The Dragon)

The Dragon – we discover is an employee – who has not quite turned out to be the paragon of trouble saving efficiency she was employed to be. Here we meet one of those terrible, managing people who take over – making the lives around them quite unendurable.

Themes we see in several of Spark’s novels are present in these stories too. Death, and things unexplained rear their head in stories like the marvellously chilling The Girl I Left Behind Me – which I can’t say too much about – but it has a splendidly Sparkian ending. In Harper and Wilton, two characters from an unfinished story written by the narrator – appear – they are Edwardian suffragettes – they demand that the writer give them substance – or else they will haunt her. Writers appear several times in these stories, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of The Comforters. In The Pearly Shadow – a doctor is consulted by a shadowy character, who has been tormenting another of the doctor’s patients, it is, quite frankly, bizarre.

Many of Spark’s story openings are great – I glance at the first page, having been about to put the book down, and think oh no I’ll just read this one too. In Daisy Overend – Spark combines this ability to grab her readers instantly -with her ability to portray a character in quite a unique way.

“It is hardly ever that I think of her, but sometimes, if I happen to pass Clarges Street or Albemarle Street on a sunny afternoon, she comes to mind. Or if, in a little crowd waiting to cross the road, I hear behind me two women meet, and the one exclaim: “Darling!” (or “Bobbie!” or “Goo!”) and the other answer: “Goo!” (or “Billie!” or “Bobbie!” or “Darling!”) – if I hear these words, spoken in a certain trill which betokens the period 1920–29, I know that I have by chance entered the world of Daisy Overend, Bruton Street, WI.”
(Daisy Overend)


Another of my favourite stories; Come Along, Marjorie – introduces us to another memorable character; the silent, Marjorie Pettigrew. –Along with the narrator she is one of the ‘pilgrims’ at a Catholic retreat, where most of the inhabitants were ‘nervous cases’. The narrator is the wonderfully cynical Gloria. Blending Spark’s ever-present wit and eye for the peculiar, with those serious themes she seems always to return to – religion and mental health, she explores how people react to those they deem odd or different.

“‘Neurotics never go mad,’ my friends had always told me. Now I realized the distinction between neurosis and madness, and in my agitation I half-envied the woman beyond my bedroom wall, the sheer cool sanity of her behaviour within the limits of her impracticable mania. Only the very mad, I thought, can come out with the information ‘The Lord is Risen’, in the same factual way as one might say, ‘You are wanted on the telephone,’ regardless of the time and place.”
(Come Along, Marjorie)

So, I hope I have managed to give a little flavour of this collection – which I still have to finish! If you have yet to read Muriel Spark’s stories, then I heartily recommend them. Please forgive the number of quotes, I could have easily included far more than I have.

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In one way, I probably made a mistake with my purchase for phase 4 of #ReadingMuriel2018, I bought the entire Collected Stories. It runs to almost 600 pages, and with the amount I have scheduled to read during August I doubt I will get the whole volume read. I do really wish I had the time, because judging from the first few stories that I have read, Muriel Spark was a wonderful short story writer. What I should have gone in search of, was an old copy of The Go-Away Bird and other stories (1958) sadly, no longer in print in a separate volume. Never mind, I am overjoyed to discover Muriel Spark was such a good short story writer, if the rest of this large volume continues in the same vein as the first few, I might go as far as to say I prefer her short fiction to her novels.

It is unclear how (if at all) this volume is organised – nothing in the contents suggests the stories are arranged chronologically or thematically. However, the first five stories in the collection – and the ones I’m writing about here, all have an African setting, and were (an internet search revealed) written in the 1950s or 60s. The sixth story in the collection, was clearly set (and so I assume written) in the 1990s.

These first five stories – three of which are from The Go Away Bird and other stories – reflect the years Muriel Spark spent living with her husband and young son in what was then called Southern Rhodesia. These five stories take place in a region, generally referred to as the Colony. A place where Afrikaans is spoken alongside English, a racially divided society, where men out-number women and where violence is common.

The Go-Away Bird – a story a little over 60 pages long (I do like a long short story) – is a splendid opening to this collection.

“All over the Colony it was possible to hear the subtle voice of the grey-crested lourie, commonly known as the go-away bird by its call, ‘go’way, go’way’. It was possible to hear the bird, but very few did for it was part of the background to everything, a choir of birds and beasts, the crackle of vegetation in the great prevalent sunlight, and the soft rhythmic pad of natives, as they went barefoot and in single-file, from kraal to kraal.”
(The Go-Away Bird)


Daphne du Toit grows up on her uncle’s farm – she goes away to school, but the holidays are spent socialising with the neighbours from farms many miles away. Her uncle is called Chakata by the natives he loves, it is a name that has stuck, and he hasn’t been called James for decades. As a child Daphne doesn’t have many play mates but she loves to listen out for the go-away bird – and as she grows up she befriends the often-drunk Donald Cloete. It is Donald who gives Daphne the first clue as to the mystery surrounding Old Tuys, who has worked for Chakata for years, but the relationship between the two is boarding on murderous and Chakata asks Daphne to begin taking a gun out with her once she has reached a certain age. So why, Daphne wonders, does her uncle keep Old Tuys around?

Daphne has intended going to England, and though the war in Europe interrupts her plans she finally does in 1946, staying with her mother’s family, and launching herself on society. But the echo of the go-away bird remains – and she meets a young man who himself will be going out to the Colony soon. In time Daphne returns with stories of London bomb damage, to find her uncle laid up with rheumatism, Old Tuys having completely lost his faculties.

The shock ending of this story is typically Sparkian – and dark though it is – I loved it.

In The Curtain Blown by the Breeze we meet Mrs Van der Merwea, one of the poor whites, who occupies a remote territory. Her husband is in prison, and while he is away Mrs Van der Merwe begins to slowly change her character. The change is facilitated by a group of English nurses, looking to be entertained. Naturally, they get more than they bargained for, though at least life is no longer predictable.

“At that time many of the men looked like Rupert Brooke, whose portrait still hung in everyone’s imagination. It was that clear-cut ‘typically English’ face which is seldom seen on the actual soil of England but proliferates in the African Colonies.”
(Bang-Bang You’re Dead)

The narrator of Bang-Bang You’re Dead is Sybil, a writer, who shows film reels of her life in Africa to acquaintances in Britain. Sybil watches the film nonchalantly, explaining idly how she never kept in touch with the other people in the films. She answers their questions unemotionally, recalling privately the time when the films were taken. Gradually, Spark reveals the truth behind Sybil’s film reels in true Sparkian tradition. It is a brilliant story, subtle and clever, revealing so much of an ex-pat community in less than forty pages.

The Seraph and the Zambesiis the oddest of these five stories. The narrator finds themselves obliged to stay with poet and journalist Samuel Cramer, as there’s no room at the hotel, being just before Christmas. Cramer owned a petrol pump and garage, four miles south of the Zambesi river. He is planning a Nativity Masque at his garage. On Christmas Eve, during the performance, the Seraph appears.

“This was a living body. The most noticeable thing was its constancy; it seemed not to conform to the law of perspective, but remained the same size when I approached as when I withdrew. And altogether unlike other forms of life, it had a completed look.”
(The Seraph and the Zambesi)

The Pawnbroker’s Wife takes place in a very odd little boarding house on the coast of the Cape of Good Hope above a Pawnbroker’s shop. The eponymous wife – is a teller of tall tales, and her boarders are invited from time to time to sit with her and her three daughters and hear her tales. She won’t allow any contradiction.

the-complete-short-stories-paperback-cover-9781786890016These stories were a real joy, in some respects they feel different to Spark’s novels, and yet they nevertheless contain Spark’s tell-tale wit, superb story-telling and wonderful twists. I shall continue to dip in and out of this collection, and hopefully will drop in at least one more review – time etc permitting. With such a large collection, there is bound to be some variance in quality – but what I have read so far gives me very high hopes for the rest.

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not to disturb

On the very last day of Phase three of #ReadingMuriel2018 I decided to read Not to Disturb on my kindle – I hadn’t realised just how short it is. However, I was too tired to read it all that night, so saved some for the next morning. I’m planning to read a few short stories at the very least for phase four although it won’t be till later this month I don’t think.

“To put it squarely, as I say in my memoir, the eternal triangle has come full circle.”


Muriel Spark is well known for weaving bizarre situations through her fiction, odd characters nursing dark thoughts, overly concerned with death and religion. Not to Disturb has all that, in spades. A novella sized 96 pages, Not to Disturb is dreamlike and illusory, like those passageways one blunders through in dreams, where everything is so familiar yet doesn’t make complete sense. It is compelling though, peopled with some extraordinary characters including a sinister butler and a ‘lunatic’ in the attic.

“At that moment a long wail comes from the top of the house, winding its way down the well of the stairs, followed then by another, winding through all the banisters and seeping into the servants’ hall.”

In a large house near Geneva, Baron and Baroness Klopstock have locked themselves into their library with their young secretary Victor Passerat. An argument ensues between the couple and their handsome young secretary. Their instructions are that they are not to be disturbed. Downstairs, the servants – wait for what they see as the inevitable demise of those three in the library. The servants are directed by Lister, the butler. In the lodge, the porter tells his nervous wife that nothing will happen at all.

“ ‘…You all get your own supper tonight.’
‘What about them?’
‘They won’t be needing supper.’
Lister stands in the doorway, now, watching his young aunt routing among the vegetables for a few carrots which she presses between her fingers disapprovingly.
‘Supper, never again,’ says Lister. ‘For them, supper no more.’”

In the servants’ hall, all is tightly controlled calm, as the staff prepare for a lucrative payoff following the tragedy, by selling their story to the highest bidder. They are, unsurprisingly an odd group; Eleanor is Lister’s aunt, despite being younger than him, Pablo is the handyman, Heloise, is the youngest maid, pregnant, though she doesn’t know who the father is. Monsieur Clovis; the chef, has an assistant called Handrian, but they all take their lead from Lister.

Upstairs, the baron’s brother – and heir – howls with rage, throwing plates at the woman employed to care for him. Outside the house, a car is parked with two people sat inside, they are waiting for their friend, the baron’s secretary. From time to time they come to the door asking for him, but always receive the same reply, that the baron and his secretary are not to be disturbed.

“‘How like,’ says Lister, ‘the death wish is to the life-urge! How urgently does an overwhelming obsession with life lead to suicide! Really, it’s best to be half-awake and half-aware. That is the happiest stage.’”

The servants endure a long night, as a storm starts to rage above their heads. It is a night of a series of extraordinary and rather bizarre events. A visit from both a prince and a Reverend on a motorbike. A wedding is conducted; Heloise is married to the ‘lunatic’ in the attic in a scene that is quite disturbing, and perhaps could only have been written by Spark.

The morning brings exactly what the household staff had expected, and finally it is time for them to step out into the light.

Muriel Spark’s 1971 novel is clearly a satire on other kinds of novels, the Golden Age mystery particularly and those novels of the past which concerned themselves with the servant problem. This is a clever, and darkly humorous novella, shot through with Muriel Spark’s unique creativity.

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The end of June had rather crept up on me, and I will have two round-up posts back to back again – which might be a bit dull – for some – apologies. Today is my #ReadingMuriel2018 phase 3 round up in which I try to capture a flavour of the what’s gone on over the last two months. Tomorrow or Monday will be my round up of June reading. Then back to reviews.


I try not to miss anyone, but not everyone uses the hashtag quite as liberally as I do, so some things do slip past me.

Phase 3 has been all about the 1970s novels of Muriel Spark, there were six novels to choose from. The Driver’s Seat I read last year, and from the five that were left I chose The Hothouse by the East River and The Takeover. I enjoyed both for different reasons, in both novels Spark shows her versatility, bringing her unique storytelling up to date (for the 70s) writing about death, religion, corruption and money.

Of The Driver’s Seat (1970) Mary said “odd, fun, wonderful language. Love her occasional unusual ordering of adjectives.” It certainly struck a powerful note with me when I read it last year, it has an unforgettable quality. Michael from Librarything – who is reading all the novels of Muriel Spark this year I believe gave The Driver’s Seat 5 stars, saying its absurdism reminded him of Shirley Jackson.

Jennifer read Not To Disturb (1971) calling it “a glorious fever dream of a novel which I suspect like ‘The Driver’s Seat’ will only get better on rereading.” This is certainly one I really want to read, and I may sneak it in to this weekend, I have it on my kindle but have run out of time this phase. Monica from Monica’s Bookish Thoughts reviewed this slight novel saying it packed a mighty punch. Michael also enjoyed this “spoofing of servants, the upper classes and mystery novels” giving it a very good 4-star rating. Edited to add: Isabel also read Not to Disturb calling it quite odd, and with six hours of phase 3 left I have just begun reading it myself.

I haven’t seen many people reading The Hothouse by the East River (1973) Like me, Michael from LT thought this a weird novel – I must say I did really like it and it has stayed with me, although I don’t know if I am any clearer on Spark’s intentions in writing it. Edited to add, Grier read and enjoyed this one too.

Annabel from Annabookbel; read and reviewed The Abbess of Crewe (1974) calling it possibly the most fascinating Spark novel that she has read. Caroline from Book Word also reviewed this novel, saying that “Watergate was not so colourful. But Muriel Spark brings out the farcical, as well as the shocking corruption that comes with reckless pursuit of power.” Another reader, Christine gave The Abbess of Crewe 5 stars on Good reads. Blogger The Dowager Bride has also been reading The Abbess of Crewe – which does seem to have been a popular choice as my bookcrossing friend Sam also chose to read it calling the novel a pithy read packed with political intrigue.

So far mine is the only review of The Takeover (1976) that I have seen – if anyone else has read it let me know. I know LT Michael has read it previously.

Again, I haven’t spotted anyone reading Territorial Rights (1979), so if anyone can give me any thoughts on that late 70s novel I would be grateful.


So on to Phase 4 – which is simply any of the poetry, short stories and essays written by Muriel Spark. I already know I won’t read as much for this phase I am afraid. My summer reading is likely to be a mix of ACOB #WITmonth and All Virago All August – juggling, juggling! I do have the collected short stories which look marvellous, I am a big fan of short stories, but I shall probably only read and write about some. I also have The Golden Fleece book of essays, bought on ebay, when it arrived I was slightly dismayed by the small print – I know I won’t get all these read either. The book is divided up into sections; art and literature, religion, philosophy, autobiography and travel etc some of these appeal to me rather less than others. I certainly hope to read a few essays from the autobiographical section.

Thank you as always to those who have joined in and shared their thoughts with me – a year long reading challenge is gruelling! Let me know if I have missed you – keeping track gets harder I find.

I hope some of you join me for Phase 4 – please let me know what you’ll be reading – I certainly don’t expect anyone to get through entire collections unless of course you want to – as they are all quite large. Happy reading.

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Like The Hothouse on the East River – the last Muriel Spark novel I read – in The Takeover we find ourselves far from our more familiar London setting of many earlier Spark novels. The Driver’s Seat, another 1970s Spark novel that I read last year – was also set abroad, I wonder if this was a deliberate departure for Muriel Spark at this time, perhaps she had tired a little of writing about London and wanted to do something different. Wherever she was writing about, her sense of place is so good – her ability to create an atmosphere no doubt due to her knowledge of the places she was writing about, and she knew Italy well having lived in Rome and Tuscany. For in The Takeover we are in Italy, the shores of Lake Nemi, the resting place of the spirit of the Goddess Diana.As you can see above, I was a long way from Italy while I was reading The Takeover, but I was able to spend a bit of time in the sun.

The Takeover is a novel of some subtlety, and one that is hard to pin down – what exactly was Spark saying with this novel? It is a novel about money – among other things – it is rich in absurdity and cynicism, and the characters are all pretty horrible – and yet it is still an enjoyable read.

“How do you know when you’re in love?’ she said.
‘The traffic improves and the cost of living seems to be very low.”

Overlooking Lake Nemi, are three villas, owned by wealthy American Maggie Radcliffe, who has recently married for a third time. One Villa is occupied by Maggie’s son Michael and his young wife Mary. The second villa is rented by a rich Italian, Bernardini, his girlfriend Nancy Cowan, his son’s tutor. His son Pietro, his daughter Letizia, also live here, and the family have spent a lot of their own money on improvements to the villa. The third villa, the one with the best view, is inhabited by Englishman Hubert Mallindaine, and his secretary Pauline Thin. Maggie has loaned Hubert the Villa, he hasn’t paid a penny to her in rent – and is now refusing to leave. It is Hubert and this third villa that is the centre of all the trouble. Hubert is a sneaky, crook, self-serving and completely without conscience.

“Hubert had been uneasy about his position, really, for many years more than he now admitted when he thought or spoke of Maggie. ‘Like any other spoilt moneybags she used me when she needed me and then suddenly told me to go, to clear out of her house and her life. All my projects were based on her promises. We had an understanding…’ So he dramatised it in a nutshell, first to himself, then later, to Pauline Thin.”

However, it seems that Maggie is surrounded by people who want to swindle her or steal from her.

Maggie and her husband – leave Nemi, travelling to various glamorous sounding locations – Maggie leaves Hubert in no doubt though that she expects him to leave her property – even giving him a date by which she expects him to vacate. Hubert has other ideas.


Having grown up with some rather odd ideas from a couple of aunts, Hubert seems to be perfectly convinced that he is directly descended from the Goddess Diana. I got the feeling that this belief – like so much about Hubert is entirely bogus – and merely serves to get him what he wants. He establishes a religious cult, surrounding himself with people looking for free love. Hubert claims he has a divine right to the house because of its location. As well as Pauline, Hubert is visited by several gay, former secretaries – and two Jesuit priests who seems always to go everywhere as a pair.

We see Maggie, living in various other locations, with her husband who appears to be a fairly weak character, he tells Maggie to get rid of Hubert but does nothing himself to help her achieve this. Hubert is quite clearly hanging on in there, the absurdly complicated Italian property laws seems to be on his side. Unknown to Maggie, Hubert is busy having her Louis XVI chairs and Gaugin painting copied – pocketing the money he makes from the sales. Meanwhile Lauro, is a servant of Maggie’s – he previously worked for Hubert – but he too is after what he can get. Both Maggie and her daughter-in-law Mary are drawn into sexual intrigue with Lauro – and everything begins to get very complicated. Maggie suffers the loss of her jewels, and in time the battle to get her villa back begins to cost her a huge amount of money. Money, she must find a way of getting back. All this is set to a back drop of the changing economic climate of the 1970s, – the action taking place between 1973 and 1975.

This is a strange, sophisticated novel with a very 70s feel to it. There are so many layers to it, with themes of fakery, wealth, religion and corruption. It is as ever very readable.

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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.

muriel spark

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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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