The Mandelbaum Gate
by Muriel Spark
Knopf, 369 pp., $5.95
Muriel Spark began as a novelist by staking out a distinctive territory of her own, a cranky half-world of solitaries and charlatans, occult dabblings and senile decay. Cranky, or worse: on the outskirts, obscenity nudges and madness beckons. Taken with a straight face, the early fiction would be appalling. But as it is, the light of comedy shines firm and clear over all Mrs. Spark’s work. She is no more disconcerting than she intends to be, a connoisseur of oddities and aberrations whose art is never infected by the morbidity of her subject-matter. Every move is neatly calculated, every device exquisitely shaped; she is detached enough from her creations for her to be able to make frequent jokes at the expense of fictional artifice itself, in the tradition of Tristram Shandy. At the same time she is far more observant than the average naturalistic chronicler, with a keen eye for mundane domestic detail, and a wonderful talent for mimicry. C. P. Snow (as he then was) once described her as a writer with one foot off the ground; but the other foot doesn’t, so to speak, budge. Of course, the macabre is all the more effective for peeping out from behind the commonplace; but latterly, in any case, it has pretty well disappeared. Certainly the cloven hooves, disembodied voices and other supernatural props have been dispensed with.
The recent books, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means, make their appeal in the first instance almost as genre studies. Each of them is notable for the unerring delineation of a specialized milieu, the precision with which accents and attitudes are burlesqued. These books also give full play to a characteristic flair for handling the internal mechanics of cliques and coteries. Are these only incidental virtues? There are constant reminders, admittedly, of issues which transcend the comedy of manners. Frank Kermode saw a series of solemn puns on poverty (blessed and otherwise) in The Girls of Slender Means; no doubt the metaphor of celibacy in The Bachelors is equally complex. Or again, we are left to make what we can—a good deal, presumably—of the act that in the final paragraphs of Miss Jean Brodie it is treacherous Sandy Stranger (sterile? alienated?) who ends up as Sister Helena of the Transfiguration, author of a treatise on “The Transfiguration of the Commonplace.” Allegorical meanings lurk in the depths, undeniably, and some would say that the Christian symbolism is all-pervading. But I suspect that the majority of heathenish admirers are content to enjoy the wit shimmering on the surface, and let it go at that.
In which case they will probably be disappointed by The Mandelbaum Gate, a book marking a new departure in spirit as well as in setting. The religious motifs are now less concealed and more insistent; the satire is largely muted. Not that Mandelbaum is without its amusing moments; on the contrary, it has a good many of them. But they are …