Extreme Instances

Before the thunders of Cherubim They said, “To whom is each man known?”
Before the swift motion of Seraphim They answered, “Each man is known to no man.”

An Angel enquired of an Archangel, “How many
Men have you seen?” And he replied, “Plenty,
And women too. Divine affection
For them isn’t easy. What a collection!”

From Muriel Spark’s Collected Poems: 1. An archangel might murmur “What a collection!” But then one of the perquisites of being a best-selling novelist is that even publishers who know what’s good may have to know what’s good for them. Mrs. Spark’s poems are pastiche. Sometimes skilled. But skill glitters from all her fiction—from her new novel. The Public Image, as from her Collected Stories: 1. Does it do more than glitter?

Frank Kermode adopted a Sparkish hauteur in praising her novels: “Some literate people dislike them, though not, so far as I know, for decent reasons.” Dislike tends to reduce any judgment to a matter of temperamental repulsion—but then that is very characteristic of the novels themselves, where distaste continually passes as disinterested scruple.

I have forgotten her name but I shall remember it at the Bar of Judgment.” So ends a story which indicts (“diminutive, charming, vicious”) a woman whose name till the Day of Judgment is going to have to be Daisy Overend. Most of the stories and novels set up a Bar of Judgment. Yet what is odd, to the point of being artistically suicidal, is their guilt before their own tribunal. They exemplify more than any other writing known to me, a body of work guilty of all that which it finds most hateful and which it most eagerly exposes. Mrs. Spark is the great example of the novelist as ferret, and yet what her novels most deplore is the ferret.

In the car that night on the way to Sadler’s Wells,
When he told his wife “the human situation is
Becoming increasingly complex,” she thought her marriage
Well worth it, the way he put things in nutshells.

But the poem itself is practicing exactly that complacent simplifying which it despises in the man and his wife; the nutshell about “the human situation” within the poem makes me wince rather less than does the nutshell which is the poem itself, a bright eye and a sharp ear being turned toward a human situation and confident of skewering two people with one overheard remark.

Yeats believed that literature was “the Forgiveness of Sin,” and even those who don’t agree with him about that may still see what he means when he rejects the idea of literature as accusation: “when we find it becoming the Accusation of Sin, as in George Eliot, who plucks her Tito in pieces with as much assurance as if he had been clockwork, literature has begun to change into something else.” Mrs. Spark plucks all her characters in pieces as if they had been clockwork, and all …

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