Muriel Spark is a theological writer. Her doctrine lies concealed in the rococo parables she tells. So an account of her novels has to be an exegesis—quite likely a mistaken one. She might enjoy that. Her attitude to her readers is genially sarcastic, her manner crisp, dry, and light as a biscuit. Symposium is about a young middle-class Scottish witch. “In Scotland,” says her mad uncle Magnus, “people are more capable of perpetrating good or evil than anywhere else”; and so the novel is punctuated by sinister snatches from Scottish ballads. Magnus is debonair, wicked, quite rational when properly sedated, and content with his life in a mental home. Every Sunday he comes out to lunch with Margaret’s parents in St. Andrews: he has a special affinity with his niece. He knows she has the evil eye before she guesses it herself, and takes it upon himself to direct her into serious, planned evil doing. Until his intervention, she has only been involuntarily and inexplicably connected with violent deaths: two at her boarding school, then her grandmother’s murder by a psychopath from the secure wing of Magnus’s institution (presumably sprung by him), and finally the strangling of a young nun at the convent which she joins as a novice.
The convent is recycled from the community in The Abbess of Crewe, but the second time round the swearing, blaspheming, chain-smoking, Marxisant nuns have lost some of their power to shock and amuse. They are only an Anglican order, anyway. They concentrate on housework and hospital visiting instead of prayer and liturgy. Spark likes to signal her contempt for the goodworks side of religion as opposed to the theological side, and the community in Symposium is duly punished. Young Sister Rose shares Spark’s views: when a television crew arrives to make a program about the convent, she complains on camera that there is not enough “spiritual life” and that the nunnery is “virtually nothing but an entity in the National Health Service.” At this, the moribund Mother Superior summons up sufficient strength to strangle Sister Rose before breathing her last. The result is that the convent has to be closed down.
Margaret returns to St. Andrews at a loose end and has a seminal talk with Magnus:
“I’m tired of being the passive carrier of disaster. I feel frustrated. I almost think it’s time for me to take my life and destiny in my own hands, and actively make disasters come about….”
“Perpetrate evil?” Magnus offered.
“Yes. I think I could do it.”
“The wish alone is evil,” said Magnus with the distant equanimity of a college tutor who has two or three other students to see that afternoon.
“Glad to hear it,” said Margaret.
Magnus begins by producing a list of rich eligible bachelors for Margaret to marry. She picks “a junior researcher in artificial intelligence, the bionics branch.” His work comes to fascinate her; she suspects it might have a useful bearing …