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 relaxed, even genial. Mrs. Spark has lost (or abjured) the inhuman touch which has previously given her caricatures their edge, the ruthless gaiety proper to one who watches the oblivious scurryings of mere mortals from the vantage-point of “the four last things to be ever remembered.” (Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell, in case you’ve forgotten.) There is no longer the effect of looking through the wrong end of a telescope; the latest batch of leading characters are life-sized, and nothing if not human.
At the outset they sound as if they might have been conceived by an up-to-date E. M. Forster: decent, repressed, but ready to thaw in a warm climate. Freddy Hamilton works at the British Consulate in Jerusalem. An amiable, self-effacing bachelor, he has reached middle age without ever really escaping from the clutches of a dreadful old dragon of a mother back in Harrogate. His opiate is verse-making; as he walks through the clamor of Mea Shearim he is far away, inwardly running through Coleridge’s metrical precepts (With a leap and a bound the swift Anapaests throng). At first sight an improbable Galahad, he takes under his wing a school-teacher from England, Barbara Vaughan, who is planning to cross over into Jordan, partly on a pilgrimage to the Holy Places, partly in order to join the archaeologist she is hoping to marry (although as it subsequently turns out he has already left for Rome, where the Church authorities are debating the legal status of his previous marriage). Barbara is a Catholic convert, and half-Jewish by birth, but despite these minority affiliations her outward manner is wholly, unmistakably English, in a chilly sort of way. Certainly she wants no part in the Arab-Israeli quarrel, and it seems absurd that her Jewish blood should put her in danger as soon as she slips cross the frontier at the Mandelbaum Gate. But Freddy, as an old hand, recognizes the risks, and when she insists on going—since the principal holy sites are in Jordan, and behind the cool exterior she is “a passionate pilgrim”—he appoints himself her unofficial guardian.
In the second, Jordanian half of the book, there is an abrupt change of pace. Freddy whisks Barbara away from the convent where she is staying and entrusts her to a friendly Arab girl, Suzi Pamdez, who dresses her up as a deaf-mute native servant, complete with veils. The pilgrimage has turned into a mad escapade. Obstacles multiply: Barbara catches scarlet fever, her headmistress and closest friend, Ricky, suddenly appears, determined to stop the impending marriage, the news of which has consumed her with jealousy. Freddy and Barbara take refuge in a house outside Jericho owned by Suzi’s father—a dubious sanctuary, since it is used for a wide variety of shady transactions, including pro-Nasser espionage. From this point the imbroglio defies summary, involving as it does forgery, smuggling, international conspiracy, and similar excitements. But eventually the couple make their separate ways back to Israel and a more-or-less happy ending—Freddy after a breakdown in which he suffers temporary loss of memory, Barbara sneaking through the Mandelbaum Gate disguised as a nun.
The masquerades in the novel are less exhilarating than the author seems to find them, and in fact a good deal of the humor is rather tiresomely skittish. A faint air of larkiness (oddly reminiscent of Iris Murdoch) hangs over much of the book. My disappointment may not be entirely legitimate, since I must admit that I was hoping that Mrs. Spark would make more direct use of her chosen locale than she has, and naturally she was under no obligation to do so. But one doesn’t have to be Leon Uris to feel that her response to the Israeli scene is singularly blank. There is some well-aimed sniping at those relentless touristguides, a cursory inspection of the Eichmann trial, and not much else; the one Israeli character of any consequence, an archaeologist at the university, remains a cipher. The main Arab characters come off much better; charming, quick-witted Suzi Ramdez, her no less sympathetic brother (bored with Israeli chauvinism, unimpressed by Arab grievances), villainous old Ramdez père, with a finger in every profitable pie, are all equally credible. But even they tend to get lost in the folds of that elaborate cumbersome plot (which is further complicated, incidentally, by some artful juggling with the time-scheme, zigzaggings back and forth for which it is hard to see the strict necessity).
The fable is less tightly-knit and forceful than in earlier Spark books, then, but it is there all the same, endowing events which would otherwise belong more appropriately to a lightweight comedy-thriller with pattern and significance. Mrs. Spark’s titles are always to the point, and here it is the Mandelbaum Gate itself which best! embodies her theme. It stands in the heart of the holy city, the symbol of man-made division, an arbitrarily named checkpoint—not even a gate, really, more a passageway. There are nobler, more ancient gates in Jerusalem, like the Damascus Gate, through which Christ entered in triumph on Palm Sunday. But in this world a pilgrim has to travel du côté de chez Mandelbaum, along a path strewn with anomalies, contradictions, inglorious stumbling-blocks. How is all the unpredictable nonsense of such a world to be reconciled with the idea of immanent divine purpose?
Only through faith; but if Barbara Vaughan is secure in her religious convictions, she falters when it comes to applying them to the tangled actualities of daily living:
By constitution of mind she was inclined to think of “a Catholic point of view” to which not all facts were relevant, just as, in her thesis-writing days, she had selected the points of a poem which were related only to the thesis. This did not mean that she had failed to grasp the Christian religion with a total sense of its universal application, or that she was unable to recognize, in one simple process, the virtue of the poem. All it meant was that her habits of mind were inadequate to cope with the whole of her experience…
The essential thing about herself, she feels, remains uncategorized, unlocated; when an Israeli guide, baffled by the phenomenon of a half-Jewess turned Catholic, persists in asking her who exactly she is, she answers with an unintentional echo of God’s words to Moses: “I am who I am.” (It is unfortunate, by the way, that a writer who isn’t slow to chide non-believers for ignorance should locate the Burning Bush on Mount Sinai instead of Mount Horeb.) The trip to Jerusalem has precipitated a crisis of identity—a fashionable complaint nowadays, but in Barbara’s case one which can be attributed to specific causes rather than to a vague general malaise. Her fundamental conflict is between “a sense of fidelity in the observing of observable things” and the gift of faith—“the sum of things hoped for and the evidence of things unseen.” It is accentuated by the rival claims (or burdens) of her mixed background, and even more by the newly-awakened impulses of her heart. She has fallen in love, committed adultery with a man who is not yet divorced in the eyes of the Church (he is a non-Catholic); but despite the weary admonitions of her priest, she finds it impossible to repent. If the verdict of Rome goes against nullifying her fiancé’s previous marriage, however, she is prepared never to see him again. When she explains the situation to Freddy, he protests, good-naturedly enough, that it all seems a bit unfair, a bit extreme—and gets a passage from the Apocalypse hurled at him for his pains:
I know of thy doings, and find thee neither cold nor hot; cold or hot, I would thou wert one or the other. Being what thou art, lukewarm, neither cold nor hot, thou wilt make me vomit thee out of my mouth.
Poor Freddy, like most of us, is a Laodicean. But Barbara herself is scarcely equipped to live her life with apocalyptic intensity. By the following morning good taste has reasserted itself, and she regrets her outburst. “People who quoted the Scriptures in criticism of others were terrible bores…” Looking back, the episode seems ridiculous.
But then the central action of the book, the pilgrimage itself, is a pretty ridiculous affair, too—externally. It is as though Barbara is being deliberately forced to run an obstacle-course of melodramatic hazards and farcical indignities, and this in addition to the routine discouragements confronting a visitor to the holy sites—commercialism, fake shrines, sectarian squabbling. How can any sense of the sacred nature of her pilgrimage withstand such a moral battering? We are meant to take our cue, I suppose, from the brief sermon preached by an English priest to the party he is escorting round the Church of the Holy Sepulchre during Barbara’s clandestine visit. His text comes from St. Paul—“we have an everlasting city, but not here; our goal is the city that is one day to be”—and he warns his audience that they should not expect to be automatically exalted by every shrine they visit. Their real goal is the New Jerusalem, of which the actual city is no more than a shadow. Then why bother to go on a pilgrimage in the first place? “Because that is what people do.” “It’s an Act of Presence,” Barbara explains to Suzi, “as when you visit a bereaved friend and there’s nothing to say.” But since we are never allowed to share her thoughts when she eventually kneels at the shrines, it is tempting to agree with Suzi: “What a lot of trouble for such a small moment, here and there.”
More trouble than Barbara realizes, perhaps. When Freddy, lukewarm no longer, decides to help her make her pilgrimage, he destroys the letters which he was planning to send to Harrogate in order to patch up the quarrel between his mother and her half-crazy old servant. Afterwards, when he recovers from his amnesia, he learns that the woman has stabbed his mother to death. Supposing he hadn’t espoused Barbara’s cause, supposing he had sent the letters…Such calculations are not to be worked out. But they make one uneasy. Freddy, at least, has been visibly deepened by his experiences, and with Suzi his long-repressed sexuality has stirred. Months later the memory of his love-talk with her suddenly comes back “on a day when the sun was a crimson disc between the bare branches of Kensington Gardens, and the skaters on the Round Pond were all splashed over the heads and arms with red light, as they beat their mittens together and skimmed the dark white ice under the sky.” Artistically this moment is more of an epiphany than any of Barbara’s mute Acts of Presence. The truth is that although she insists that “there are some experiences which seem to make nonsense of all separations of sacred from profane” (she is thinking of the Eichmann trial), within the novel itself the separation remains in force, and we have to take her religious feelings on trust. It may simply be that it is beyond Mrs. Spark’s powers as a writer to present such feelings directly. But perhaps the fault lies with the very medium of fiction itself, with its natural bias towards the prosaic—and the profane. Whereof a novelist (unless he is Dostoevsky) cannot speak, thereof a novelist must be silent—and Mrs. Spark is no Dostoevsky. I admire her for the courage which it must have taken to write The Mandelbaum Gate, but I hope that in her next book she reverts to her incomparable comic vein.
October 28, 1965