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Posts Tagged ‘Muriel Spark’

This she blotted carefully and laid aside [a real letter she has written expressing real emotions]. Then, taking up the folder containing Beneath the Visiting Moon [her latest novel], she pulled out her papers, re-read her last paragraph, and bent her head obediently to her daily tasks of fantasy and obfuscation (Brookner, Hotel du Lac, characterizing what her heroine does when she writes fiction)

Friends and readers,

For the last 8 to 10 weeks and sometime before I’ve been having a wonderful time reading four twentieth Century women’s political novels, to wit, Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September, Olivia Manning’s Balkan and Levant Trilogies, Lillian Hellman’s Scoundrel Time, and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye — as well as (just as much fun in some ways) books on these women authors and other books by them and reviews and essays, not to omit watching relevant movies. This blog is not on this material, as I have written about these books and some of the movies on this blog and elsewhere, but I want to assert how enjoyable such books are.

This is a period when women were beginning to achieve all sorts of rights by law and custom they had not had before, but were still much constrained by the social roles imposed on them by determined patriarchy. Not until the 1960s and 70s do women begin to take jobs in the professions after going to college, and only after that are they more widely recognized in such colleges and jobs. So a paradoxical or complicated situation is theirs.

The political slant has been as enjoyable as one I did several years ago of two 20th century women writing historical novels set in the long 18th century: Daphne DuMaurier’s The King’s General and Susan Sontag’s Volcano Lover.

“What country? when she is a woman? (Woolf), women’s political novels differ from men’s; they’ve not been allowed (until very recently) to connect directly to the public world and state; have not joined wars for the usual canonized reasons; independence & self-esteem stirred but same ideology which undermines them returns. They question basic assumptions, about battle too. Naomi Mitchison’s worry that liberalism, belief in democracy, endlessly subject to internal dissent and attack from oligarchies, will dissolve if conservatives when they gain power yield to fascist ideas …

The teaching has gone over so well, or well enough, in these veins, I would like to continue, with intriguing switching of perspectives: Christa Wolff’s Cassandra and Four Essays, Eva Figes’s The Seven Ages [of Women]. I will teach these two next winter.  Also finally to branch out into other genres and non-Anglo texts (in translation) Marta Hillier’s Women in Berlin, Iris Origo’s War in Val d’Orca, Storm Jameson’s Journey from the North.

There is just so much from so many women, so often unsung, neglected, marginalized, died young (Winifred Holtby, say South Riding) and still misrepresented (Virginia Woolf). Non-Eurocentric texts: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s A Backward Place, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreters of Maladies. I’ve gone on to a number of fine books on women’s 20th century novels/memoirs under the aegis of different themes, eras, genres –just wonderful.

I’ve also been reading about women’s publishing houses, a history of Virago by Catherine Riley, not only as for the first time publishing women’s books in large numbers and continually, but publishing books by women telling their history, of their literature, their point of view.

Not so wonderful though: today in the New York Times, an article by Ruth Franklin ostensibly about the withdrawing from public of a biography of Philip Roth: the biographer, a male, has been accused of sexual assault, but there is further context about Roth’s own behavior and his books. It’s by Ruth Franklin and her title gives you insight into what is her real topic: “What we lose when only men write about men.” She tells you, quite correctly, that is it much much easier to get a contract or access to archives if you are man wanting to write a biography; I’ll add to that it is also much much easier if your topic is a famous man. Famous male writers count.

But if you are a woman intent (let’s say) on writing a literary biography of woman writer boy do you have rough road ahead and your work may never reach fulfillment. And if it does, what characteristically happens to it? I’ll give one example, we are told Boswell is the father of (literary) biography, his book is on the famous Samuel Johnson. Then we are invited to fast forward to later 19th century biographies, all by men. Guess what? There is a great powerful biography inbetween: Elizabeth Gaskell on the Life of Charlotte Bronte. Arguably it’s better than Boswell’s. What has happened: it was attacked at the time as unwomanly (telling some truths about Bronte) and Gaskell was sued; nowadays it is attacked as unbalanced and (oh dear) unfair to Bronte’s tyrannical father (who, we are told, against all evidence to the contrary was no tyrant).

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Tonight I want to talk about two novellas by women of the mid-century which at the same time I happen to be reading with a group of people on FB, “The Way We Read Now.” One of them by an author whose novels I now realize I read very naively in the 1980s, Anita Brookner, and another by an author I knew I had not cared for particularly, Muriel Spark, and now by dint of reading with others, have been driven to decide why. As part of this group I to some extent contributed a posting on each chapter of the novel day-by-day, one after the other: it was through this that I feel I got inside Brookner’s guarded emotionalism in her self-defensive Hotel du Lac for the first time, and at least confronted the chilling derision in Spark’s depiction of a group of a few poignant but mostly desperate and petty or selfish and ruthless very aged and dying characters.

On Hotel du Lac: this is a book about women’s relationships with one another; it’s (to use a word no longer familiar) feminocentric. We see that often the individuals in this group neither like or trust one another, though they pretend otherwise and can feel sorry for one another. Edith Hope is a modern Bronte heroine. Make a spectrum with Austen on one side, and Bronte on the other, and there’s no question. She truly wants to be solitary (whatever she says), to lose herself in the treasures of mind (as Jane Eyre says at one point this means more than anything), and she dislikes plush, luxury as all in very bad taste.

Like Brookner herself, Edith prefers the lifelong single life – but unlike Brookner has not found an occupation where she can find a substitute set of ethics for herself. A quiet retreat. This makes me remember Vanessa Bell who lived an utterly unconventional life sexually and otherwise and remained a very private person. Edith’s pseudonym is Vanessa Wilde.


Anna Massey as Edith Hope and Desmond Elliot, as the needling sadistic (if on the surface ever so kind) Mr Neville (the 1986 film is beautiful to look at)

After reading a couple of essays on the book: Margaret Stetz on “Visual Life” connects Brookner’s novels to her art books: Brookner critiques society through the painter’s work & life: Watteau is an idyllic escape but profoundly melancholy. Geuze is salacious and tells uplifting anecdotes so as to sell. In Hotel du Lac we have perspectives on the writing life. There’s much more and while am no longer in my 30s and would probably not read another Brookner novel soon (I read it in a far more aware way), I took down my two art books and would love to find the time to read her sketches on Romanticism and Its Discontents.

Fisher-Wirth’s tragic vision made me think about these women — maybe I should take this too gross caricatured mother-daughter and think about mothers and daughters in Brookner’s other fiction, Edith Hope’s estrangement from her mother. Mother-daughter relationships are central to women’s fiction. Hotel du Lac (lack as well as lake) is a deeply despairing book — she reminds me of Wharton but also Ishiguro — except this book lacks tenderness and little tolerance for the philistinism Brookner pretends to in her interviews.

Last Stetz’s “Reluctant Feminist:’ Brookner’s public remarks are rebarbative, abrasive & misleading; that Brookner seems to regard some patterns in women as not constructed but innate. Stetz shows parallels between Brookner’s fiction and Woolf (Voyage out repeatedly, sometimes using Rachel/Helen). I liked the writing the woman artist core of the book. I wish Brookner had presented Edith’s fiction in some way but Brookner is/was herself too much on guard. Other lacks in the book include its inflexibility of POV —

I tried the Morahan/Foster movie, and it lost Edith’s inner life so was a hollowed out, shallow version of the book, excising especially especially the bitterness against men who play flattering games with deluded women and profoundly unfaithful to any vulnerable partner.

I should say how strong and picturesque her writing style. The sentences on each page quiet utterances of art.

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The moments when Spark’s book most interested me were the rare passages of literary allusion in which she seemed to be inviting the reader to compare her supposed realistic depiction of the very old and dying to more romantic feelingful texts. I’d say hers is not realistic because Spark chooses to deprive her characters of any beauty, fulfilled hope, anything charitable or redemptive — insisting on pettiness, cruelty (to the point she is not satisfied with destroying the life’s work on aging and death of one man in a fire, the fire must burn to death a cat and dog as well), to me it seemed the meaninglessness of life for all (though they don’t see this).

Early on we have a very mocking description of the fiction of the 50+ year old son of two characters (“I simply could not go on with it. A motor salesman in Leeds and his wife spending a night in an hotel with that communist librarian … ” – an allusion to Philip Larkin?), and very late a ridiculing description of his mother’s romantic seemingly soap opera fiction, so entangled you cannot keep track of individual characters or events; there is an allusion to Dylan Thomas who did not go gentle into that good night; several to Dowson who wrote fin-de-siecle sensual poetry, especially his poem supposed written by a man in love with a women but unfaithful while she is indifferent to him (this parallels one of the very elderly couples in the book). Very Verlaine, with echoing refrains and classical allusion (one line refrain: “I have been faithful to thee, Cynara, in my fashion”).

It was Dowson who wrote the famous often quoted “Days of Wine and Roses:”

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.
They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.

Then near the close of the book allusions to last two stanzas of Byron’s Childe Harolde. They are really moving as Byron bids adieu to his book, to his dreams, to his poetry, to everything he has tried to suggest from his deep soul. If Spark means to say reflexively, see hasn’t my take been better? my answer is no. The central mystery of the novel is who is the neurotic man or supernatural or psychic spirit who has been pestering the characters with obsessive phone calls saying “remember you must die.” They are in no danger of forgetting. I was urged to see Spark as in a distanced way (ironic) trying to show us the lack of compassion in the treatment of the old. But to me the ironies were very unfunny: a very sick feeble man disinherited because it turns out his wife briefly had another husband first?

While reading the book, I happened to watch one of this year’s Oscar winner, The Father (see excellent review), with Anthony Hopkins as an very old man, and Oliva Coleman, his aging daughter who has recently been forced to bring him into her apartment as he has gone into senile dementia and much as she loves him, needs liberty to live a life fulfilling her own needs.

I thought to myself though maybe Spark would say it is absurdly sentimental because it presents the daughter as so concerned for her father, so deeply grieving at what is happening. But the people surrounding the man are not super-kind (especially a man who seems to be his daughter’s husband – it’s hard to tell since we are in the old man’s confused mind), and the story in front of us is how much a burden his daughter finds caring for him.


Miss Jean Brodie (Maggie Smith) takes “her girls” on a field trip (from the 1969 popular movie)

I thought one chapter from a book of essays on Twentieth Century Women Writers edited by Thomas Staley, excessively charitable:

William McBrien interprets (or explicates) Spark’s novels as manifesting “dandyism.” He links her to Max Beerbohm and says in her books “artifice” is “a spiritual strategy;” her writing is “macquillage” (make-up, cosmetics) “that may serve the spirit.” He quotes her saying “I believe events are providentially ordered,” and says that at the same time or maybe because of this she writes in a “insouciant” manner.

What troubles me about this is there is no discussion of the content in this general summary — he just asserts this as well as the idea that readers find her stories “engrossing.” (I didn’t; I admit I found the book very easy reading, no trouble to take in.) She gets away with what she does — what she swiftly and concisely piles on — because of her style — he uses the word “flippant and sophisticated’ for that — I’ll agree on flippant.

He then goes through quite a number of her novels where the characteristics found remind me of what is found in Memento Mori. In The Comforters a typewriter that clicks by itself with a voice that repeats the words the heroine utters. One critic, Peter Kemp, collected all her references to Job in her books and her statement in a Church of England Newspaper called “The Mystery of Job’s Suffering” where she shows (this is Kemp’s paraphrase) “how alone we are in life and how incomprehensible and inconsolable in human ways.”

At one point McBrien uses the phrase “Catholic Chic” of the fantasies in one of her books. There’s a mocking story about a convent and [The] Abbess, much “studied frivolity.” They include post-texts: one is called Robinson – a Robinson Crusoe story. He goes over The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie slightly, focusing briefly on how the heroine is a fascist. There are mystery elements in many, connections to T.S. Eliot (in one novel “an Eliotic voice, revealing the Unreal City, and Waste Land archeology), to Ivy Compton-Burnett. Flannery O’Connor admired her work

One quotation by Stevie Smith I found apt “Muriel Spark has a real genius for being gruesome and hilarious in practical circumstances, gay in city graveyards, gothics in factories.” It may be that if you read a number of her books, put them together and brought forth some consistent vision – she has one autobiography as novel (Loitering with Intent) that might help — you could make a case for her as a serious novelist. That’s what Wm McBrien is suggesting.

For myself I still may try Loitering with Intent because I’m interested in life-writing. To me there is something chilling and heartless in this book.

It was probably a good thing for me to have read this book so I won’t go overboard in my praise of all 20th century women writers. My blog may seem more balanced (ironic joke alert).

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To conclude, as long time readers of this and my other blogs may know, I’ve long been working on a project “towards a book” (whether I ever write one or not doesn’t matter) where I study life-long single women writers (“Not an anomaly” is its working title); now I’m seeing a way to modify my argument which has been at once too broad and too narrow and one others might not find appealing in the way I do. Brookner was a life-long single woman living with her parents. Muriel Spark also spent much of her life alone; she had a long term relationship with a woman she denied was lesbian.


A brilliant art study by Brookner where she uses the painter’s life, sensibility and paintings to characterize aspects of 18th century culture


Occasionally praised and reissued (because her novels sell), this critique of the book’s inadequacies by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt makes sense to me after reading Memento Mori

Ellen

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