Thursday, 26 April 2012

Two Sparks: The Ballad of Peckham Rye and The Only Problem

Although I'm actually writing this in advance of Muriel Spark Reading Week, I'm confidently going to predict that we're all having a great time, and that you're all putting up brilliant, thought-provoking pieces on this wonderful novelist... yes?  Yes.

Since it's my day to post, I'm going to write fairly speedily about two Spark novels that I've read recently - and hopefully by the end of the week I'll have finished at least one more.  (There will be no shortage of Spark reviews around the blogosphere this week, but if you fancy reading all my archive posts on Spark, including this one, click here.)  I chose The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960) because my supervisor said it might be a useful comparison to Lolly Willowes, and The Only Problem (1984) because it looked really interesting, and also one that I hadn't seen mentioned anywhere else in the blogosphere.  Cutting a long story short, I thought they were both brilliant - neither take the crown away from Loitering With Intent as my favourite Spark novel yet, but both add to my cumulative for Spark.  You'll be avidly reading Spark posts here, there, and everywhere, so I'll try to keep my reviews brief... and hopefully enough to intrigue you to read them!


The Ballad of Peckham Rye is centred, indeed, in Peckham Rye - and concerns the arrival and influence of one Dougal Douglas (sometimes going by the name of Douglas Dougal.)  The novel opens with the aftermath of a bride being jilted at the altar - indeed, with the bride's mother insulting the jilting groom.  It's all a little confusing (deliberately, one imagines) and it's difficult to get the story straight - especially since everyone is superimposing their views and imaginings over the facts.  The brief chapter concludes:
But, in any case, within a few weeks, everyone forgot the details.  The affair is a legend referred to from time to time in the pubs when conversation takes a matrimonial turn.  Some say the bridegroom came back repentant and married the girl in the end.  Some say, no, he married another girl, while the bride married the best man.  It is wondered if the bride had been carrying on with the best man for some time past.  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 his wedding, that he went away alone on his wedding day and turned up again later.
This is a great example of how Spark plays irreverently with the normalities of narrative.  And if the reader expects everything to be neatly unfolded by the end of the novel, then he/she clearly hasn't read much Spark before.  She obeys few authorial 'rules', and weaves her narratives with little concern for the reader's expectation.  If she were writing a play (and she has; I should read them) she would unveil Chekhov's gun in the first act, and nobody would ever lay a finger on it again.

But as someone notes on the first page of The Ballad of Peckham Rye, "It wouldn't have happened if Dougal Douglas hadn't come here."  She is quite right... although it is difficult to trace exactly how Dougal Douglas influences the community, his influence is undeniable.

He turns up somewhat out of the blue, and starts working at 'Meadows, Meade & Grindley, manufacturers of nylon textiles, a small but growing concern.'  His role is fairly vague.  Mr. Druce, the head of the company, is keen to hire 'an Arts man', and Mr. Druce places Douglas Douglas in charge of 'human research.'
"I shall have to do research," Dougal mused, "into their inner lives.  Research into the real Peckham.  It will be necessary to discover the spiritual well-spring, the glorious history of the place, before I am able to offer some impetus."
This research, it appears, chiefly constitutes attracting the workforce from their duties, calmly meddling in their lives, and undermining their confidences.  Dougal is all things to all people, and yet (although it is never asserted directly) it appears he might be an incarnation of the Devil.  He certainly has growths in his temple which rather resemble sawn-off horns - and the events which ensue from his presence have rather the hallmark of evil.

It is a fascinating concept, and one which has Spark written all over it.  She never gives us the certainty (as Sylvia Townsend Warner does in Lolly Willowes) that we are dealing with the Devil.  There isn't really certainty about much, for either the reader of the residents of Peckham Rye - but events spiral and, although the jilted bride is not the worst of the calamaties, it is a structural close to Dougal's presence and the circular narrative itself.  All is done with Spark's brilliant detached authorial voice, with doses of the surreal and strange interwoven with the commonplace and starkly observational.  Brilliant.

* * * * *

The Ballad of Peckham Rye was Spark's fourth novel; The Only Problem comes somewhere towards the end of her almost half-century of novelising - but they are unmistakably by the same author.  The concept is quite different, but the manner of approaching it is still very Sparkian.  I say that the concept is different, but thinking about it, these two novels both concern the nature of evil, in some way - though both rather skirt round the issue.

'The Only Problem' of the title is, according to Harvey Gotham, the problem of suffering.  Accordingly, he has taken himself off to the French countryside to write a monograph on the Book of Job, and his mind rarely wanders from this topic.  His own suffering seems to take the form of interfering relatives and his ex-wife Effie, whom he abandoned in Italy over a stolen chocolate bar.  The sort of premise which makes me know I'm in the delightfully odd world of Muriel Spark.

Amongst the cast are Effie's sister Ruth, and Ruth's husband (Harvey's old student friend) Edward.
Edward used to confide in Harvey, and he in Edward, during their student life together.  Harvey had never, to Edward's knowledge, broken any of these confidences in the sense of revealing them to other people; but he had a way of playing them back to Edward at inopportune moments; it was disconcerting, it made Edward uncomfortable, especially as Harvey chose to remind him of things he had said which he would rather have forgotten.
That is a very Sparkian relationship.  I can't think of any uncomplicated friendships in the eight Spark novels I've read - there is always some element of uneasiness or sharpness, or simply the failure to communicate naturally which characterises so many exchanges throughout her work.  I love conversations and plot expositions which subvert the normal rules in some way, or ignore the anticipated responses - it's on the reasons I love Ivy Compton-Burnett - and here is an example from The Only Problem.  There are some spoilers in it, so skim past if you want to avoid them:
Anne-Marie had put some soup on the table.  Harvey and Ruth were silent before her, now that she wasn't a maid but a police auxiliary.  When she had left, Ruth said, "I don't know if I'll be able to keep this down.  I'm pregnant."

"How did that happen?" Harvey said.

"The same as it always happens."

"How long have you known?"

"Three weeks."

"Nobody tells me anything," Harvey said.

"You don't want to know anything."
We aren't long in the cerebal world of theological exegesis.  Effie - it is claimed - has become involved in a terrorist organisation, and the police think that Harvey is also somehow implicated.  In vain does he protest (although never especially animatedly - Spark's characters tend towards the calm and detached) that he hasn't spoken to Effie for years.  The rest of The Only Problem follows this mad chain of events - Harvey calmly continuing to offer his readings of Job, while the police interrogate him and his wife's motives and actions remain mysterious.

Spark doesn't, however, permit the obvious parallels.  A lesser novelist (had they been able to think of the juxtaposition) would have used the wider action of the novel as an example of the problem of suffering.  Instead, like in all the novels I've read by her, Spark just lets things happen.  There isn't really any rhyme or reason, or grand overarching narrative point; there are no neat conclusions, just the brilliance of Spark's eccentric but observant writing.

So, two more gems to the Spark canon!  I'm so pleased Muriel Spark Reading Week gave me the encouragement to read more Spark.  Do continue to put links in the comments box, if you've reviewed a Spark novel or written anything about our Muriel - and I hope you're having a fun week!

20 comments:

  1. Funnily enough I can understand how someone could be abandoned in Italy over a stolen chocolate bar but the lumpy temples bit in Peckham Rye is where Spark loses me. It most definitely has been a fun and informative week, Simon, thanks!

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    1. Ahh, shame, Darlene! Maybe not the best one for you. Thanks for taking part - and for the lovely words you said at the beginning of your post on A Far Cry From Kensington.

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  2. Here's a confession -- I have been totally defeated by The Ballad of Peckham Rye. I have had it by my bed for weeks and have started it at least twice and have had to abandon it as I just cannot get into it. I know I should persevere but it somehow repels me. I like the sound of the other one, though!

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    1. That does rather surprise me, Harriet! But there are no shortage of Spark novels to try, are there? I'm trying to convince Dad to try The Only Problem as his first foray into Spark territory, since its theological theme might interest him...

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  3. How It Strikes A Belgian Reader - for me, the highlight of Peckham Rye was always that ever-calculating little Dixie.
    http://leenhuet.wordpress.com/2012/04/25/wat-men-onthoudt/

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    1. I'm so pleased to have Muriel Spark Reading Week appear in more than one language!

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  4. I haven't read The Only Problem, but it is my list. And I enjoyed your review of The Ballad of Peckham Rye, and your comments on the nature of evil - you are so much more structured in your approach than I am!

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    1. I'd not heard of The Only Problem when I found it in a bookshop earlier this year, and it definitely seems to be one of her lesser-known ones - but I think it's still very good. And occasionally these connections come to me!

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  5. I was very interested to read your reviews as The Only Problem is my current read (I've also read The Finishing School) and I'll be posting tomorrow. Normally I adore Spark, but these haven't been quite so great as some I've read of hers. I think it must be me! But even not-great Spark is better than a lot of novelists.

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    1. I've heard lukewarm things about The Finishing School, so might put that one off for a while. The Only Problem certainly isn't her best, but as you say, non-great Spark is still pretty wonderful! I look forward to your post :)

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  6. Great point about the uneasiness/ sharpness in the interactions between characters. I've only read one Spark novel so far (The Girls of Slender Means, which I wrote about here: http://missbibliophile.blogspot.com/2012/04/muriel-spark-reading-week.html) but I certainly saw ample evidence of those kinds of complications lurking under the surface of relationships that might seem more straightforward at first glance.

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    1. Thanks :) and thanks for the link - I think Spark really is great at creating those tense relationships. It does make you wonder what it would be like to be her friend or partner!

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  7. Hi - you have also spurred me on to read Spark and yesterday I finished Memento Mori. Mmm was rather depressing in a way. Whilst I have seen the humiliation of old age and the vultures circling frail people in life and felt that the book was brutally honest, it put me off a little. Which Spark would you recommend that is a bit more easy reading? Don't get me wrong, I could see how well she brought it all to life, but right now I think if I don't read another one soon and enjoy it more, it may be some time before I go back to her, if at all....

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    1. I'm glad you tried Spark, Jane, and I'm wracking my brains to choose which one to suggest... I think, actually, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie might be a good one to try. It doesn't have the same dark humour - it's more of a taste of Spark's writing without the same bleakness. Avoid The Driver's Seat for now! The Girls of Slender Means could also work - and, although I haven't read it, A Far Cry From Kensington has got great reviews this week, and could be up your street. Good luck!

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  8. After reading The Hothouse by the East River, I definitely want to read more books by Spark. These two each seem like a good choice...

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  9. So far I have only read a brace of Sparks, and both of those I have read this week. Both novels come in at under 200 pages so are already have the beginnings of a winning formula for me. If had to use just two words that would describe both books I would choose

    SECLUSION and INTRUSION:

    In "The Only Problem" Harvey has tucked himself away to work on his study of the Book of Job, the one that contains "Job's comforters" but having been brought up as a good Catholic I don't know much about the Old Testament (and that is how one of the characters is described by Spark). His seemingly quiet and uneventful life is intruded upon first by a visitor or two and then ,,,, well you will have to read the book to find out more.

    In "Robinson" a plane crash results in Robinson (the man and the island) who have been peaceful and apart from normal human life, not to mention unsavoury beliefs causes another intrusion of unwanted guests.

    Of the two books, I prefer Robinson, written in the first person, female. Much of the events are gleaned from the journal of our main protagonist with a hint of a children's adventure story. Of course, with a title like "Robinson" we are supposed to think of Mt Crusoe but it also brought to mind "Swallows and Amazons" and "My Side of the Mountain".

    I popped into our nearest bookshop last thing today in the home of nabbing another Spark but no luck .... Now how about turning Spark week into Spark month?

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    1. Thanks for those mini-reviews, Ruth, wonderful - and I love your two words for Spark, they are food for thought.

      And I know, I want to make it Spark month now! I just want to read all of them... currently reading The Abbess of Crewe, which is strange... of course!

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  10. The Ballad of Peckham Rye was one I picked off the shelf in the library while trying to choose what to read for this week. I just couldn't get into the first couple of page, unlike when I picked up Robinson and it just clicked. It sounds like I should have persevered though!

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    1. Sometimes others just click instead! I'm keen to try Robinson now. Spark almost always sucks me in with her surreal openings to novels!

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