The novel must be both very efficient and very wasteful; it thinks like parable but moves like life. Without efficiency – not necessarily concision or compactness, so much as a high degree of chosenness – a story may seem gratuitous; but without a lining of gratuity, a story may seem too necessary, may not seem like a story at all. Muriel Spark, a novelist drawn to the parable, to the ballad, the short form, has negotiated – or wrestled with – this balance of the necessary and the random throughout her career. Her best novels, which also happen to be those that appeal most to her readers – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Girls of Slender Means and A Far Cry from Kensington – moisten the stringency of her vision with what one might call the wetness of life. They are books which, while highly composed, tolerate an apparent abundance of ‘unnecessary’ social and human detail, and whose characters have the unclean inconsistencies and contradictions which we find in life.
Those who feel that some of Spark’s novels are rather too efficient for their own good have long been frowned into silence. Thirty years ago it was permissible to complain about the limitations of a novelist who said, ‘I think it’s bad manners to inflict a lot of emotional involvement on the reader – much nicer to make them laugh and keep it short,’ and who claimed that she was ‘writing minor novels deliberately’. To suggest that Spark is a very talented, often enchanting ‘diversionist’, as one character calls Nicholas Farringdon in The Girls of Slender Means, is nowadays to risk excoriation from the boosters of contemporary fiction, whose literary horizon seems to be the rim of a book-party cocktail glass. A consensus has closed like an eyelid. For years now Muriel Spark has been described as the greatest living British novelist, which is almost certainly true, except that such a truth does not exactly redound to the credit of British fiction.
Spark’s novels, even the loveliest, are performances of containment. Despite their verve, their intelligence, their truthfulness, despite all the obvious qualities which every reader surely enjoys, one often finishes them with an obscure disappointment, a sense that the author has not really tested herself to the fullest, has not risked the deepest sounding. The obscurity of the disappointment comes, perhaps, from a sense that whatever is at stake for her is not quite to be found in the novel one is reading, but is somewhat to the side of it, in a more permanent realm. The novel seems to be only the worldly annexe to this truer realm. It is clear that some kind of moral and often theological battle is taking place; but the terms of the battle, the motives of its participants, and the ultimate importance of the struggle, seem not finally speakable within the novel.
In other words, Spark is a theological writer, for whom a true church (the Catholic Church) and a divine world exist, and are believed in; the novel, on the other hand, does not really exist and is not really believed in. Yet the novel is a necessary secular messenger, a flawed nuncio; one continues to need it. This paradox is felt, both explicitly and implicitly, in her fiction. Certainly, in her novels and in person, Spark has repeatedly made the Modernist or Post-Modern case that the realist novel is coercive, artificial and deceptive, and that the omniscient narrator is too God-like, one who unfairly knows a character’s beginnings and end. Charmian Colston, the aged novelist in Memento Mori, says that ‘the art of fiction is very like the practice of deception.’ Spark’s escape, like that of other writers afflicted by a sense of the novel’s artificiality, has been unavoidably limited. Exiled from the innocence of realism, the writer will either abandon realism altogether (and very few can do this) or use certain elements of it while making clear that such elements are now corrupt. Spark chose the second path. Her books abound with obviously fictive constructions: a smartly intrusive authorial voice who seems to tell the reader what to think (‘Mrs Anthony knew instinctively that Mrs Pettigrew was a kindly woman. Her instinct was wrong’); tight, punctual, highly novelistic plots, in which small groups of people are revealed to be sinisterly and neatly connected to each other, as they rarely are in life; novels full of blackmailers, forgers, murderers, devil-figures and witches (like Dougal Douglas in The Ballad of Peckham Rye and Margaret Damien in The Symposium), who, in their love of plotting, are linked analogically with the plotting novelist; novels which announce their own fictionality, often by making the novel’s hero or heroine a writer, so that he or she casts doubt on the transparency of what we are reading.
The paradox of a novelist who believes in God the storyteller but who does not quite believe in the novel is the point Evelyn Waugh reached, but too late in his life for him to employ Spark’s modern subterfuges, so that The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, which so resembles Spark’s first novel, The Comforters, is an uneasy mixture of the real and the fantastic, while The Comforters, as Waugh acknowledged, is a brilliant blending of the two. Gilbert Pinfold’s hallucinations, his ‘voices’, are not frightening because they are not made real enough to the reader: in The Comforters, Spark described a crescent around this problem by making her heroine, who also hears voices, hallucinate that she is being pursued by a novelist, thus forcing her novel to reflect publicly on the question of fiction and reality, so that it is an admitted dilemma rather than a concealed anxiety. Waugh’s book is about a novelist pursued by voices: Spark’s is about a woman who is pursued by a novelist. Spark ‘owns up’ to the manipulation inherent in storytelling. Her heroine ends the novel determined to throw off the controlling, deterministic power of the novelist.
One might feel that while Waugh’s helpless recourse to realism is awkward in a novel that narrates surreal happenings, Spark’s recourse to a theoretical or self-conscious realism is no solution either. For one thing, it is still a form of realism: we are still asked to believe that characters ‘exist’, that certain things happened to these people, that quotation-marks signify certain lines of speech, and so on. Realism, in this sense, is simply inescapable in the novel-form. For another, it may be no less awkward, finally, than the original recourse to realism: the clean-up of the crime may be itself a crime. Finally, since the novel is bound both to construct its own reality and partake of life’s, it is not clear that any solution to, or even apology for, realism’s artificiality is ever anything but incoherent. Realism is an artificiality and a truth; realism thus provokes the dilemmas it alone can solve – it schools its own truants.
Practically speaking, the reader most sharply encounters this paradox of believing in God the storyteller but not believing in fiction (a paradox, by the way, which is only acute for religious novelists, and which explains why religion is something of a threat to that most secular of forms) in Spark’s curious jolting, brusque manner of storytelling. It is not simply that Spark is a formidably concise writer, or that she believes in getting on with telling the story. It is that there is a constant tension between parable and realism, between a swift, assertive symbolism, in which the reader is simply told to accept that certain improbable but presumably meaningful things happened, and the familiar use of the techniques of plausibility and verisimilitude, of hesitation and make-believe. Spark’s novels always tend towards significant emaciation – there is a thinning of the inessential, which has become more acute as she has aged. Readers instinctively love The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie because what they are simply told to believe is balanced by a good amount of what they are gently asked to believe. By contrast, it is hard to like, or even understand the point of, a later novel like Symposium, because the novel performs like a novel but acts like a parable: it tells us, without the arts of persuasion, that Margaret Damien is, in effect, a witch, who causes death to those people who have the misfortune to get close to her.
Alas, Spark’s new novel, Aiding and Abetting, is significantly emaciated. It is a delightful, highly enjoyable, largely inconsequential farce about the idea of the double, loosely based on The Comedy of Errors. Its premise is a very good one: what happened to Lord Lucan, after the night of 7 November 1974, when he mistakenly killed his children’s nanny, and tried to kill his wife? Twenty-three years later, a man claiming to be Lord Lucan turns up in the office of a Paris psychiatrist, Dr Hildegard Wolf. The problem is that another man, who calls himself Walker, but who also claims to be Lord Lucan, has also recently appeared before Dr Wolf. The two men look alike.
Both men are seeking money rather than counsel. In familiar Spark fashion, they are blackmailers, and they know a secret that Dr Wolf would like to keep quiet: Dr Wolf was Beate Pappenheim, and she was a fake stigmatic. Living in Munich between 1978 and 1986, Beate suffered menstrual haemorrhages, powerful bleedings which she decided to put to use. Posing as one who bled through her hands and side, she attracted a cult, appeared to effect miracles, raised money from believers, and then disappeared with the considerable proceeds of the Pappenheim Catholic Fund. She changed her name, and resurfaced in Paris as Dr Hildegard Wolf.
Dr Wolf, though alarmed by the demands of the two Lucans, is initially more interested in working out if either is telling the truth about his identity. She decides that they must be working in concert, that if one of them is indeed Lord Lucan, then the other was hired by Lucan as a double to go to Britain to collect money every so often from Lucan’s old friends, and so on. The problem is that, at least to begin with, each man claims that he hired the other; and of course, each man claims to be Lord Lucan. Later in the book, Spark tells us that one of the men is indeed the real Lucan, and that he discovered his sidekick, Walker, working as a butler at an old friend’s ranch in Mexico. Lucan’s friend ‘gave’ Walker to Lucan as his servant, and both men had facial surgery, so that they resemble each other. They have been working together for twenty years, and are now running out of money. Hence the double trip to Dr Wolf.
The novel plays with the idea of doubleness. If both men look the same but never appear together, how can Dr Wolf be sure that she is indeed seeing two men? Perhaps Lucan is going around posing half the time as Walker, Lucan’s aider and abetter? That way, as Dr Wolf reflects, if one of the men was spotted and arrested, ‘it would always be the other one who would be the real one’. But if it would always be the other one who would be the real one, then neither can, by definition, be Lord Lucan, and the two men – if there are two men – are both impostors. Or if there is only one man, Walker-Lucan, he might be an impostor, anyway. Either way, this double act is not what it seems, which probably means that the novel we are reading is itself a form of imposture, since we cannot believe anything about Spark’s narration; for instance, we cannot believe that her version of the Walker hiring (the story about the Mexican ranch) is necessarily ‘true’. We cannot believe her when she tells us that one of the men is Lord Lucan. We are not allowed to trust, to believe in, the fiction presented to us.
Just as, say, Dougal Douglas, the devil-figure in The Ballad of Peckham Rye, is ultimately seen to be writing the novel we are reading, so Lucan-Walker is ultimately writing the novel we are reading. Lucan-Walker is ‘plotting’ the novel. That we are supposed to enjoy a highly self-conscious literary performance is made obvious when Spark writes that Dr Wolf thought of Lucan-Walker as ‘“a mere anatomy, a mountebank ... a living-dead man”, as Shakespeare had put it long ago’. Spark does not give us further clues, but if we follow her allusion we reach The Comedy of Errors, in which the Duke describes Dr Pinch in such terms. That play, we might recall, is about two sets of identical twins: in fact, two masters and two servants, sundered in a shipwreck 23 years before the action of the play (the same period of time between the shipwreck of Lucan’s murderous act and his appearance in Dr Wolf’s office), about whom the Duke asks:
One of these men is genius to the other:
And so of these, which is the natural man,
And which the spirit? Who deciphers them?
One obvious difficulty with Spark’s novel is that its theme, while clothed in the glamorously real undecidability of Lucan’s whereabouts, is actually a rather abstract undecidability, about doubleness, its decipherment, and the nature of fiction. Moreover, it is hard to find involving a novel which, on the one hand, asks us, in Post-Modern style, to discredit its own storytelling, and which, on the other, briskly force-feeds us the most fanciful details. (Of course, it might be that this force-feeding is precisely intended to encourage us to discredit it, but that wouldn’t make it any more likable.) The novel is tiny, only 180 small pages, but enormous bolts of detail are continually thrown down before us. The story of Dr Wolf’s life as a stigmatic is recounted in five swift pages. In an author’s note, Spark tells us that it is based on fact. But its veracity is not the difficulty: it is Spark’s dotty assertiveness, which allows her to say at great speed of Dr Wolf’s boyfriend when she was in Munich:
Her boyfriend was a theological student, of the Protestant faith. He spoke English fluently, made her speak to him in English so that she could read the English-language textbooks in psychology. He would have loved to be a Catholic, the churches were so much more cheerful than any others, so full of colour and glitter, incense and images.
We have not met the boyfriend before this moment, and we will never meet him again. The information about his wanting to be a Catholic is just the purest statement, to which the reader can only respond with a wary ‘okay, if you say so ...’
At the book’s end, we are told, in two absurdly tight paragraphs, that Walker and Lucan, after their attempt to blackmail Dr Wolf, went to Africa as tutors to the son of a tribal chief, and that Lucan was killed and eaten by the entire village. The killers had intended to murder Walker, but got the wrong man. Thus Lucan died as he once murdered, the victim of a misidentification. This is entertaining enough, but also silly in a way that casts a shadow back onto the entire novel. The silliness exaggerates Spark’s natural tendency towards brisk fairytale narration. The novel seems unable to decide whether the game it is playing is serious or flippant, but even as a serious game, it lacks emotional and philosophical substance.
As if aware of this, Spark sprinkles, like superstitious salt, a few elements of religious symbolism behind her. But it is difficult – if it is indeed worth the effort – to decipher her meaning. It would seem that Dr Wolf and Lucan are connected by blood. Lucan remarks on how much the nanny bled. Dr Wolf, of course, once bled a great deal, and we are reminded several times that Christians wash themselves ‘in the Blood of the Lamb’. Lucan’s favourite and habitual meal is smoked salmon and lamb chops, and much is made of it. Dr Wolf thinks that Lucan might well be a religious maniac. We are told that he knows about Dr Wolf’s past because he met her boyfriend at a ‘prayer-hostel’. One of Lucan’s British friends has been a sinister monk, Father Ambrose.
So – so what? Both Lucan and Dr Wolf are impostors. Was the nanny a sacrificial lamb? Are we to reflect on the paganism, the falsity, the sheer bloodiness, of the idea of the Paschal Lamb? Perhaps Spark is telling us that, against the words of the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God will never take away the sins of the world. When Lucan comes to Dr Wolf’s office, he says that he has sold his soul to the Devil, and Dr Wolf replies that she almost did the same, once. Are they both, then, those familiar Spark characters, devil-figures who cause disturbance and mayhem wherever they go? But this is too obvious to need mentioning. In the past, Spark’s novels have often suggested the dangers posed by various false religions. But again, that lesson would seem superfluous when we are already dealing with a fake stigmatic and a lamb-eating murderer: it is as if the novel were trying too hard to tell us something, like a very clean person who also smells clean.
The religious allusions seem trivial, or trivialised by the subject-matter. Spark is fond of this literalism of religious reference; we are always supposed to know which of her characters is demonically evil. Such literalism is a dilemma for religious novelists, because then they seem to be gesturing at the supernatural via the literal (such and such a character is a devil, and so on); and to make the supernatural literal is, in a sense, to answer the question before it is properly asked: it is, perforce, to assert the existence of the supernatural. Such a combination, of inquiry and assertion, of literalism and surrealism, of belief and scepticism, has always marked Spark’s fiction. Though it is necessarily a problematic mixture of elements – and falls apart in her latest novel – it has finely served a rather cold, unsparing, alienating religious vision, which might be summarised as the prosecution of the damned. But as this book’s contradictions energetically testify, it is hard not to feel the limitations, the dryness of this novelistic world-view – indeed, its religiously unnovelistic nature – so severely the opposite of what Camus wanted the novel sympathetically to do: ‘one must try to do what Christianity never did: to take care of the damned.’