Muriel Spark converted to Catholicism in 1954 and published her first novel to critical acclaim three years later. She was thirty-nine. She always insisted that the book could not have been written without her conversion. Catholicism had enabled her to write. It is hard to imagine another novelist, however devout, making this claim. So what is going on here and what does this tell us about one of the most eccentric yet consistent bodies of postwar fiction by any British writer?
In The Bachelors (1960) the Catholic Matthew has invited Elsie to dinner with amorous intentions, but the idea of falling into a state of sin makes it hard for him to follow through with his project. Cutting up an onion for the meal, he decides that if he eats it raw the girl will be so put off by his breath that there will be no danger of sinning. Then he is cheered, or tempted, by the thought that this is his last onion, hence absolutely necessary for the meal, a circumstance that seems to legitimize his opening himself to sin. But is it really the last onion? If there is another “miraculous onion” in the vegetable box, this will be a sign that he should eat it to stay pure.
In the event there is one “small shrivelled onion nestled in the earthy corner among the remaining potatoes.” Surely not “big enough for the supper,” Matthew reflects. He considers eating the small onion, but fears it will not be sufficient to put a girl off, then, thinking “lustfully of Elsie,” eats the large onion instead. As it turns out Elsie’s previous boyfriend was a great eater of raw onions. She is not put off at all and the two end up in bed.
Described like this, the episode seems a tongue-in-cheek comedy of moral conscience. But beneath the competition between sin and purity another struggle is being played out. Matthew seems less concerned by any real wrong he might be doing by seducing his dinner guest than by the idea that his sexual inclinations are a sign of “weakness.” By making love to a woman, he will lose that absolute control over his life that all the bachelors of The Bachelors seek. In this regard a large onion is “a mighty fortress,” a source of strength, while, comparing the two onions, it is hard not to feel that the shriveled specimen nestling between potatoes is an impotent organ. Matthew “seizes” the bigger “peeled onion” and eats it “like a man,” in order not to have sex. Virility lies in controlling one’s own urges, in the victory over oneself.
From beginning to end Spark’s work is shot through with these tensions. Whether it is a matter of controlling one’s weight, being disciplined about work, ending a relationship, resisting a con man,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.