Saturday, 28 April 2012

Two More Sparks: The Abbess of Crewe and The Takeover

A couple more Spark novels this morning; later in the day I'll put up a more general post with some questions looking back over Muriel Spark Reading Week for y'all.

I decided to try and cover some of the Spark titles which others haven't read this week, and so in the past couple of days I read The Abbess of Crewe (1974) and The Takeover (1976) - consecutive novels from around the middle of Spark's writing career.  Turns out others have now posted about The Abbess of Crewe (including my own mother), but I'm still alone on The Takeover.  Or The Take-over, sometimes.  But Chris won a copy in my very brief competition on Facebook, so perhaps I won't be alone for so long.  Victoria/Litlove wrote in her excellent post that she's seen a lot of people this week say "this isn't one of Spark's best."  I'm delighted to say I've seen equal amounts of "this is my first Spark novel and I love her!" but, for these two novels, I'm going to have to say... they're not Spark's best.  But Spark's sub-par is still rather wonderful.  Onto the books.

The Abbess of Crewe is, the cover of my rather ugly edition informs me, a satire on the Watergate scandal.  (And, rather wonderfully, apparently a film starring Glenda Jackson called Nasty Habits.)  Now, I don't know a lot about the Watergate scandal, which happened over a decade before I was born, so Our Vicar gave me a quick rundown.  All I knew was that bugging was involved, and that seems to be the most salient detail for understanding the links with The Abbess of Crewe.  Who but Muriel Spark would transfer bugging and intrigue from politics to an abbey?  One which, indeed, uses both the Bible and Machiavelli's The Art of War.

Alexandra is the Abbess of Crewe at the start of the novella - after a chapter, Spark does her frequent trick of taking us back in time, to the period where Alexandra and Felicity both wish to win the 'election' for Abbess - supposedly without canvassing for votes, which is forbidden by abbey rules.  Alexandra is one of Spark's casually ruthless characters, without any strenuous sense of morality (which one might expect from a politician, but is amusingly strange from a nun).  She says wonderfully snarky/Sparky things like this:
"I don't deny," says the Abbess, "that by some chance your idea has been successful.  The throw of the dice is bound to turn sometimes in your favour.  But you are wrong to imagine that any idea of yours is good in itself."
Alexandra is not only determined to become Abbess, she is certain that it will happen.  Of course, the reader knows that it will - but it is curious that Alexandra is herself unswerving in this knowledge.  This sort of prelepsis is common in Spark, and always unsettling.  Another unsettling aspect is - and I can't think of other Muriel Spark novels where she does this - that The Abbess of Crewe is all in the present tense.  Usually that's a big no-no for me, but it works quite well here - because it gives the sense of constant surveillance.  And that's what's going on in the abbey: everyone's movements are recorded and observed, in the buildings and grounds.  And then there is the scandal caused by Felicity, and started by the theft of a thimble, alluded to in the first chapter, but rather a mystery to the reader...

My favourite character was one who was rather irrelevant to the plot - even in the slimmest of novellas (and this one comes in under 100 pages in my edition) Spark finds room for tangents, doesn't she?  Sister Gertrude is off in a far-flung corner of the globe, trying to convert cannibals, somewhere "unpronounceable, and they're changing the name of the town tomorrow to something equally unpronounceable."  She is called by telephone every now and then (somehow), is utterly unflappable, issuing the detached and bizarre aphorisms for which Spark is famous ("Justice may be done but on no account should it be seen to be done.")

The Abbess of Crewe is one of Spark's weirder books, and also one of the more amusing - on Thomas's wonderful Quirktensity Graph he puts it somewhere near the middle, but I'd put it in a very-quirky-not-very-intense position.  For people who know lived through the Watergate shenanigans, I imagine the whole thing would be even more entertaining - for me, it tipped the scales at a little too strange, but it was certainly the sort of novella nobody but Spark could have written.

* * * * *

The Takeover is probably my least favourite of the ten Spark novels I've now read - but it's still rather interesting, and good; everything is relative.  I intended this post to be brief, so I'll whip through The Takeover pretty speedily.  It's set in Italy and apparently (the cover again) it's a 'parable of the Pagan seventies', whatever that means.  Hubert and wealthy Maggie Radcliffe have parted ways; Maggie returns to the area with her new husband but Hubert refuses to leave her house, which is still filled with her furniture.  He busies himself secretly selling off her antique furniture and valuable paintings, replacing them with impressive fakes.  Oh, and Hubert 'considers he is a direct descendant of the goddess Diana of Nemi.  He considers he's mystically and spiritually, if not actually, entitled to the place.'  Here he is, in full Pagan action:
Again, standing one winter day alone among the bare soughing branches of those thick woodlands, looking down at the furrowed rectangle where the goddess was worshipped long ago, he shouted aloud with great enthusiasm, "It's mine!  I am the King of Nemi!  It is my divine right!  I am Hubert Mallindaine the descendant of the Emperor of Rome and the Benevolent-Malign Diana of the Woods..."  And whether he was sincere or not; or whether, indeed, he was or was not connected so far back as the divinity-crazed Caligula - and if he was descended from any gods of mythology, purely on statistical grounds who is not? - at any rate, these words were what Hubert cried.
That's a great example of how Spark writes her narratives: she does not interpret or judge, she simply presents the characters, their words and actions, and sits back to watch them.  In The Takeover, though, the stuff about Diana doesn't really seem too important until the final section.  Before that, it's all about money and lies.

There are plenty of characters - other neighbours, including Maggie's son Michael and his wife Mary; various effeminate ex-secretaries to Hubert; Pauline Thin, his current besotted secretary, etc. etc.  More or less all of them are concerned with embezzling from one another, without any sense of conscience-twinging going on anywhere.  That's one of the reasons I couldn't entirely get on board with this novella.  I'm used to Spark's characters being rather unapologetically ruthless - but here they are in the Evelyn Waugh school of selfishness.

The dynamics between Maggie and Hubert are interesting, as she tries unsuccessfully to takeover her own house, and there are certainly many moments of Spark's inimitable style ("How do you know when you're in love?" she said. / "The traffic in the city improves and the cost of living seems to be very low.") but I'm afraid on the whole I found it rather lacking in momentum.  Perhaps if I hadn't recently read several other Muriel Spark novels, and dozens of reviews, I'd have found the joy of reading her style sufficient - but the comparison has made me feel The Takeover a bit lacklustre.

So, a very brief review, I'm afraid.  I daresay one could write a lot about The Takeover, and if any of you are well-acquainted with 1970s Paganism, it would mean more.  For today's post I seem to have picked the two Muriel Spark novels which require the reader to have lived through the 1970s, don't I?  And interestingly, although both are ostensibly about religious activity, neither really have much to do with religion.  That's one of the few links I can see between these consecutive novels - except for both giving away huge plot twists long before they happen, in typical Spark style.

Of the five Spark books I've reviewed this week, I think her autobiography is my favourite - and, from the novels, I would choose The Only Problem, which keeps growing in my estimation since I finished it.  Later today, as I mentioned, there'll be a general discussion post - especially for non-blogging folk, but of course everyone else is welcome to comment too.  Keep posting your reviews, and letting me or Harriet know!  What fun!



18 comments:

  1. AHH Watergate... Also having been born after that debacle and reading a book without the handy little tip I missed that. Makes a bit more sense, even with my fuzzy history memory.I still thought it was a fun book even without the reference, but glad I know now.

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    1. I'm glad that the cover to my copy told me this, otherwise I'd have missed it completely!

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  2. Even the 'weaker' novels sound interesting. I hope to manage to get my hands on all of her books over the next few years. She's one of those novelists who it seems achievable to read the complete works of and my enjoyment doesn't flag as I read more.
    Having read Robinson and The Go-Away Bird for this week it seems as if idolatry / paganism was a central theme from the beginning.
    The cryptic phone calls in The Abbess of Crewe also seem a faint echo those in Memento Mori, perhaps?
    And the Watergate scandal echoes other times where the 'intelligence' world (in which Spark played a part in WW2) plays a part in her books - such as in another 70's book, The Hothouse by the East River.

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    1. I think you're spot on in your first sentence - Spark is incapable of writing an uninteresting novel!

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  3. I love your point about the irrelevant characters to the plot being the best (and having the best lines) - having found Dorothy in The Girls of Slender Means great value, and she is mostly peripheral too. I will look out for the Abbess as Watergate was in my radar.

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    1. Spark breaks so many 'rules' of writing, and her writing is wonderful and unique because of it!

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  4. Well I haven't read either of these and despite your excellent review i don't think I will be rushing out to get them in the near future. But you never know....

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    1. I definitely think these can be saved for a bit longer... but The Only Problem would be up your street, I think...

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  5. I would certainly have missed the Watergate connection if I hadn't seen your tweet about it, but the novel immediately made more sense when I did. I'm glad I read it, if only for the wonderful humour.

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    1. There are some wonderfully comic moments, aren't there? Especially with Gertrude.

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  6. I just finished The Takeover this morning. Hopefully my review will be up tomorrow. It wasn't my favorite, that is for sure.

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    1. Oo, I'm glad someone else has read it this week - I look forward to comparing notes!

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  7. The Abbess of Crewe, perhaps alongside The Mandelbaum Gate, is the Spark I've most struggled to get a handle on. Clearly they both need to be reread. You can't expect to understand any of her books on first reading. There is always more to them than meets the eye.

    In the interests of completeness, my final Spark post of the week is here.

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    1. Thanks, Gareth! I've really enjoyed your participation this week.

      And I've not re-read a Spark novel yet. I suspect I'll re-read Jean Brodie before too long, and it'll be a valuable experience.

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  8. Hello, Just wanted to let you know that I read 'Not To Disturb' for the first time this week and found it an absolute gem, with some of the wittiest dialogue I ever read by her. Very dark, maybe just a Spielerei with a kind of diabolically cunning Jeeves-like butler at the helm... Only 91 pages, and a quotation from Job somewehere in the second half, which makes me guess that the Book of Job was one of her favourite parts of the Bible. Spark must be the wittiest catholic that ever held a pen. Were I a priest, i might have dreaded seeing her come in for confession.

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    1. What a brilliant comment, Leen! You would dread it, wouldn't you?
      I read Not To Disturb last year, after someone kindly gave me a copy, and although I enjoyed it I was so completely confused that I ended up not writing about it here... it was baffling! One to re-read, slowly, I think...

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  9. 'Wittiest catholic who ever held a pen', sorry, too hasty.

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  10. I haven't read either of these... yet, though it is my intention to eventually have read all of Muriel Sparks books. I agree with you though that even when she isn't at her best she is still quite, quite brilliant.

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