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Posts Tagged ‘#ReadingMuriel2018’

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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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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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