Sleep It Off, Lady
Lovers and Tyrants
“I knew,” the narrator of Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon says, “that since 1933 the rich could only be happy alone together.” Muriel Spark, in The Takeover, suggests that since 1973, with the oil crisis and the onset of the new Dark Ages, the rich have lost even that insulated happiness. Sponged on, held up, ripped off, blackmailed, kidnapped, they have become an endangered species, their paintings, antiques, cash, and multiple international holdings mere invitations to swindle and looting; all their assets transfigured into liabilities. There has been “a change in the meaning of property and money,” we are told:
a complete mutation of our means of nourishment had already come into being where the concept of money and property were concerned, a complete mutation not merely to be defined as a collapse of the capitalist system, or a global recession, but such a sea-change in the nature of reality as could not have been envisaged by Karl Marx or Sigmund Freud.
It’s hard to know what to make of this rather excited passage. It is not ironic, and here and elsewhere in the book Spark seems simply to confuse money with wealth, as if money didn’t count except in large accumulations. What’s more, the elegant and very funny plot of The Takeover tells another story entirely, since it shows Maggie, a rich and glamorous American woman, responding to economic danger by dressing like a gypsy, flirting with assassination, and successfully kidnapping the man who has made off with her fortune.
Hubert, an old friend whom she has been trying to evict from a house of hers throughout the book, but who has resisted stoutly, and has confected meanwhile a nice little nest egg for himself by selling off Maggie’s priceless paintings and valuable furniture, asks her if she can trust her kidnapped man not to report her once she lets him go. “Well, naturally, he couldn’t indict me,” Maggie says. “He’s too indictable himself. There are times when one can trust a crook.” “There’s something in that,” Hubert replies, and the novel ends with Hubert and Maggie reconciled. She knows he’s sold her stuff but she doesn’t care. The clear implication is that the rich and the crooked are birds of a feather, that the rich make the best survivors because they make the best crooks, and that the more seachanges in the nature of reality there are, the more it’s the same thing. The rich have the sufferings, to paraphrase Auden; to which they are fairly accustomed.
Spark enjoys the thought of charming larceny, and no writer of fiction, I suspect, can feel truly ill-disposed toward confidence men. What seems to happen in the passage I quoted above is that Spark’s ironic sympathy for both victims and crooks (and especially for victims who become crooks) turns into a rather prim horror of promiscuous thieving and a too eagerly articulated notion that recently the world really has changed …