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 the while she speaks of how wrong it is to treat human beings as if they were clockwork.

“She knew exactly what she was doing,” we hear of Miss Jean Brodie, and this—which may sometimes be praise—is then said of Mrs. Spark by W. H. Auden: ‘She seems to know exactly what she is doing.” But there are limits to the desirability of a writer’s knowing exactly what she is doing, so that one consequence of reading Mrs. Spark could be an admiration for Iris Murdoch. Not, in my case, for Miss Murdoch’s novels, but for the stated principles which Miss Murdoch’s novels fail to live up to. “Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real”: that, for Miss Murdoch, is the common ground for morality and literature, and it depends upon a sense of “the opacity of persons.” “To find a person inexhaustible is simply the definition of love.” But Mrs. Spark finds all her characters speedily exhaustible, whether she loves them or not.

Gutting her characters is her pleasure and ours. But is it just a sport, and is it much of a sport? She dispatches them with a nimbleness and insouciance, but why does she bother? “She responded idly with two afternoons in bed with him, after which they got dressed and made the bed.” But The Public Image seems as indifferent, as perfunctory, as the casual promiscuity which it is scorning. Annabel’s adultery with Billy O’Brien was back in the past, before she became a film star, before her husband Frederick became a script-writer, and before Billy got a real chance to sponge on them both and be their petty Judas. Yet pettiness comes in many forms, and when Annabel sees another of her lovers “standing on the rug like a toy doll-man,” we can’t help knowing that it is Mrs. Spark’s own imperious insistence which is keeping this lover at the level of a toy doll-man. It is not only the Roman setting for this story of publicity and marital disaster which reminds one of bad Moravia; The Public Image indicts slickness, commercialism, and prurience, in accents which are themselves slick, commercial, and prurient. Mrs. Spark herself calls the book an “ethical shocker,” but what shocks here is not any exploratory insight but simply the old alternatives: her fiction as either self-punishing or as self-deceiving.


Even the religious polemic in the novels is strangely self-defeating, as when in The Mandelbaum Gate Barbara muses on anti-Catholicism:

Ever since her conversion she had met sophisticated women who, on the subject of Catholicism, sneered like French village atheists, and expected to be excused from normal good manners, let alone intelligence, on this one subject.

The trouble is that “sneered like French village atheists” is a sneer morally and intellectually indistinguishable from the ones it is complaining about. But Barbara speaks, not her creator. The voice is Barbara’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Mrs. Spark—the hands which penned Ronald’s reflections on the subject of anti-Catholicism in The Bachelors.

“Merciless,” the reviewers have always said. Leave aside the question of why something which is a vice in life become a virtue in literature; but why fabricate characters at whose expense you can then exercise your mercilessness? Mrs. Spark’s great subject is blackmail (moral and literal). It looms again in The Public Image in that Frederick stages his own suicide and leaves some lying letters which would tarnish his film-star wife’s public image. Blackmail figures importantly in Memento Mori, in Robinson, in The Ballad of Peckham Rye, in The Bachelors, and in The Comforters. The Comforters is the one which most suggests the relationship between the novel and blackmail, since Caroline (who starts off by working on Form in the Modern Novel, and ends up writing a novel) hears the ghostly typewriter which sets down her thoughts and actions in novelist’s prose. Her theory is that there is a cosmic author making a book out of their lives, so that real people are fictitious too. The Comforters seems to manifest a genuine uneasiness about Mrs. Spark’s own practice (and not just about the novel form)—she must be aware of how closely her artistic proceeding resembles the snooping, prying, spying, blackmailing, and informing which bubble throughout her plots. “When Laurence had sized her up, as he always did with everyone…” (Laurence here being sized up as someone who sizes people up). “He actually was taking them in, sleuth-like” (says his creator-sleuth). “I’ve started compiling a dossier” (this remark itself being entered in one of Mrs. Spark’s many dossier-novels). “There’s an attempt being made to organize our lives into a convenient slick plot” (this a few minutes before Mrs. Spark’s convenient slick plot forces their car to crash).

Mrs. Spark knows what she is doing. Yet her contempt for Mrs. Hogg as a “moral blackmailer,” contempt for “her predatory habits with other people’s seamy secrets,” comes disconcertingly close to self-contempt. Mrs. Hogg knows people with seamy secrets; Mrs. Spark actually goes to the trouble to make up a Mrs. Hogg who will have a seamy secret about seamy secrets, and goes to this trouble in order to vent revulsion on her. No wonder there is so much about exorcism in these novels. No wonder that in one of the stories (“Bang-bang you’re dead”), “Sybil came to realize she was an object of the Weston’s resentment, and that, nevertheless, they found her indispensable.” If the Westons were ever to meet their Author, they would come to realize that they were an object of her resentment and that, nevertheless, she found them indispensable. Time has praised Mrs. Spark for “goading” her characters “to disclose their sins” and insisting on their “exposure.” But not all goading is unsadistic, and not all exposure is decent, so that as an artistic credo it seems rather narrow-minded and narrow-gutted. Except for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, the most magnanimous of her books, where not only are we given a character who is a match for her creator, but also the stylistic nonchalance perfectly fits that of the beady children. The other exception is The Mandelbaum Gate, in which Mrs. Spark curbed her predatoriness but at the price of demonstrating the paucity of her other energies. To tell a vivid tale, to paint a vivid scene, to blend religious speculation with a puzzling plot: these skills are real in The Mandelbaum Gate, but Mrs. Spark’s heart, so to speak, is not in it, and the book remains her Brideshead Revisited.


“I may take up detective work one of these days. It would be quite my sort of thing.” that is Laurence in The Comforters, and Caroline ponders him: “He keeps trying to detect whatever it is he’s looking for in life.” Detect: one is reminded of T. S. Eliot’s disapproval of Roderick Hudson, where Henry James apparently “to much identifies himself with Rowland, does not see through the solemnity he has created in that character, commits the cardinal sin of failing to ‘detect’ one of his own characters.” On such a view, the prime duty is to see through the characters you create, to detect them. But human beings cannot but be opaque, so ought our artistic ideal be, above all, to see through them? Such a view strikes me as not only ungenerous but also mistaken (it is part of Eliot’s remarkable incomprehension of the novel, remarkable in a great critic). Mistaken, not because it cannot produce novels (Mrs. Spark’s are extreme instances of novels in which the novelist is a private detective spying on his own characters), but because it cannot produce very good ones. The determination not to be taken in can itself take in the determiner.

Of Charmian Piper’s novels (in Memento Mori): “he says the novels all consist of people saying ‘touché’ to each other.” Mrs. Spark’s novels all consist of people being obliged to say “touché” to their creator. In The Ballad of Peckham Rye, it may be ludicrous of people to believe in Dougal Douglas and his “human research,” but not all Mrs. Spark’s buoyancy can disguise the fact that her novel itself exists only at the level of “human research.” “Oh, I would make an excellent informer”: a novelist indeed informs us (he gives us living information, and he informs us with ideas and principles), but there is something desolating and willful about this ideal of the novelist as informer or nark. To judge from those poetic Cherubim and Seraphim, Mrs. Spark thinks it proper to acknowledge that no man can be known to another. But to judge from the novels, she can’t find it in herself to believe any such thing, or at any rate she doesn’t much like having to do with characters where she cannot altogether know what makes them tick.

Mabel Pettigrew thought: I can read him like a book. She had not read a book for over thirty years, could never concentrate on reading, but this nevertheless was her thought…. [Memento Mori]

Fair enough, except that Mabel Pettigrew is here being read like a book. “It makes me creepy to think that people can find out all about you.” The uneasiness which is manifest in The Comforters can be glimpsed in The Ballad of Peckham Rye; if, as Frank Kermode says, “the devil as father of lies is the patron of novelists,” that ought to give a novelist pause. But when Mrs. Spark pauses, it is only the better to spring. Does she recognize that her writing indicts her writing? If so, she bears out the words of Stevie Smith in “Recognition not Enough”:

Sin recognized—but that—may keep us humble,
But oh, it keeps us nasty.

Another tag from Stevie Smith comes to mind and to hand:

Then I cry, and not for the first time to that smooth face
Charity, have pity.

For Mrs. Spark’s novels, on the smooth face of it, seem lacking in pity, however much they may claim (must claim, given their religious insistences) Christian charity. Kermode has praised their “key-cold charity,” rather as if charity were something to be slipped down one’s back to stop a moral nose-bleed. Yet he felt obliged to reply to the accusation that her novels lack charity:

This also misses the point, since the concept, cleared of cant, may be entertained in precisely the gratingly unsentimental way in which this pure-languaged writer understands it. There is certainly a remoteness, a lack of ordinary compassion, in her dealings with characters, but this is part of the premise of her fiction; if we feel sorry in the wrong way, it’s because our emotions are as messy and imprecise as life, part of the muddle she is sorting out.

But charity is something more than a “concept,” and can a particular moral attitude, in this case “a lack of ordinary compassion,” be part of the premise of a novel? Situations, facts, yes, but there is something inordinately trusting about letting a writer tell us to adopt a moral attitude by a say-so. That King Lear had three daughters is a matter for a premise; that a particular moral attitude is to be taken, such is not a matter of a premise but of a demonstration, an enactment. And is it self-evident that, whenever we feel sorry for Mrs. Spark’s characters but she doesn’t, this is our fault and we are feeling “sorry in a wrong way”? A reader must reserve the right to argue that it is Mrs. Spark who is feeling unsorry in the wrong way.

Her books abound in casual slaughters. “He came towards her with the corkscrew and stabbed it in to her long neck nine times, and killed her. Then he took his hat and went home to his wife” (The Ballad of Peckham Rye). “Here, another seaman, observed only by Nicholas, slid a knife silently between the ribs of a woman who was with him” (The Girls of Slender Means). But these curt killings have neither the phantasmagorical wit of Evelyn Waugh, nor the appalled concern of E. M. Forster. “Gerald died that afternoon. He was broken up in the football match”: that famous surprise in The Longest Journey crystallizes life’s arbitrariness rather than a novelist’s delighted discovery of the power of the perfunctory. But Mrs. Spark kills off her characters in the interests of interest. “Gratingly unsentimental”? Humphrey House spoke of sentimentality as “the imposition of feeling as an afterthought upon literalness.” But there can be something sentimental about the willed amputation of feeling as an afterthought, or as policy, from situations where feelings is simply natural.

When Dickens killed off Little Nell or Paul Dombey, it was held that he had bred them only for the market. Mrs. Spark breeds her murderees for the market, too, but when she slaughters them she does so with the particular kind of sentimentality we nowadays prefer: not sweet, but dry. As a novelist she rather likes seeing people in tears. So she shows us disagreeable people who rather like seeing people in tears. “She was crying, and it satisfied him to see her cry and to think that he had brought about this drooping of her stately neck…” (The Bachelors). But who is doing all this bringing about? “When misfortune occurs to slightly absurd or mean-minded people…it does not excite the pity and fear of the onlooker, it excites revulsion more likely” (The Comforters). Possibly so, but the raison d’être of art is something other than to minister to such revulsion.

Kermode is altogether convincing in invoking God: “the design of her world, like God’s, has more interesting aspects than mere chronological progress.” Perhaps when man proposes, God disposes with as cool a disposition as Mrs. Spark’s, though if he indeed looks upon His created world with the same eye with which she looks upon hers, then thank God I am an atheist. Not that all visions of judgment are tolerable to her; Calvin’s is not, “he having made it God’s pleasure to implant in certain people an erroneous sense of joy an salvation, so that their surprise at the end might be the nastier” (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie). But there is more than one kind of nasty surprise, and the judgments which Mrs. Spark delivers upon her characters have the wearied contempt with which Swift’s Jove on “The Day of Judgment” announced that the assembled human beings were all beneath his contempt. Gulled, “bit,” even by the Day of Judgment:

I to such blockheads set my wit!
I damn such fools!—Go, go, you’re bit.”

The difference is that human beings moved Swift to savage indignation, whereas with Mrs. Spark they seem merely to get on her nerves.

This Issue

December 19, 1968