22. Reality and Dreams (1996)
I read this two weeks ago and I cannot recall a thing. A film director gets injured and…does things? Whatever, it’s still probably more enjoyable than the last few Booker winners.
21. Symposium (1990)
An unusually likable rich person is targeted for murder by an apparently nice young woman. Never, never trust apparently nice young women in Spark novels. You will get poleaxed in the brain. The best part of this book is the Marxist nuns; I would have read a whole book about them.
20. The Hothouse by the East River (1972)
This is Spark’s A Fable, her Runaway Soul, her George Romero’s Land of the Dead, the endlessly delayed magnum opus that, on arrival, seems to have overripened into almost nothing. I wasn’t gripped, and neither, it seems, were most American readers of this New York-set novel, in which Spark hoped to “do” Gotham as she’d “done” the Holy Land in Mandelbaum Gate: a print version isn’t even available at the moment (though you can finally get an ebook). However, it does have a character whose shadow won’t cast straight, which is among the most perfect metaphors imaginable for what it’s like to live with someone who’s vaguely, undiagnosibly … off a little bit.
18-19. Aiding and Abetting (2000) and The Finishing School (2004)
Her two last novels, published when she was 82 (!) and 86 (!). In the first, a May-December couple pursues the fugitive aristocrat-murderer Lord Lucan (who was a real guy), while Spark succumbs to too-big-to-edit syndrome. Every several pages she absent-mindedly recaps the entire plot thus far, as if she were writing a monthly superhero comic (“It’s a good thing your planet’s yellow sun gave me the strength to survive that explosion”), or, as is more likely, as if she were succumbing to age. Still, it also shows that her knack for creating situations that perfectly externalize what would seem to be stubbornly internal states never left her. I’m referring to the character Beate/Hildegarde, a fraudulent stigmatic who did, in fact, despite her fraud, miraculously cure a few people. The inextricability of brutal honesty from self-humbugging in religious life was rarely better dramatized. I could, on the other hand, have done without the faintly racist cannibalism subplot.
Finishing School leaves a less distinct impression, but it’s got some hilarious satire of Bright Young Literary Things, some pointed and helpful remarks on those of us whose self-critical instincts hamper our art, and, that rarity in Spark, a forgiving ending. (Even the dithering main character finally publishes his damn book. There’s hope for us all.)
16-17. The Takeover (1976) and Territorial Rights (1979)
Her Italian period, and her nasty/macabre period as well. The characters in these books are dank, even by her standards. Still, Territorial Rights shows Spark handling a fairly populated plot with aplomb; and as for The Takeover, I can’t really not like a story in which a guy pretends to be the leader of a Diana-worshipping cult so he won’t have to pay his rent.
15. Not to Disturb (1970)
As a love triangle reaches its bloody end, the servants, who already know how this story ends, get ready for the book deals and TV chat-shows. Also, there’s a madman in the attic. It’s very funny for an anti-novel, not that funny for a Spark novel.
14. The Public Image (1968)
A cleverly-plotted study of a movie star. It was the first thing I’d ever read that actually gave me some sense of what it would be like to be world-famous, the psychological habits you’d pick up from necessity: the sick watchfulness and involuntary calculation. And yes, John Lydon himself confirms that it was the inspiration for this.
12-13. Robinson (1958) and The Bachelors (1960)
Spark was pretty much kicking ass right out of the gate; these are “the worst” of her early novels, and yet they would have represented a quite respectable peak for anyone else. Robinson does Robinson Crusoe but adds a lady, and also blackmail; The Bachelors gives us yet another memorably creepy would-be cult leader (a medium, in this case) and a sympathetic portrait of epilepsy.
11. The Mandelbaum Gate (1965)
A young Catholic convert visits the Holy Land and goes underground, all for the sake of a pilgrimage. This is Muriel Spark Goes Self-Consciously Big, with results that nearly won her the Booker Prize but, in the long run, has tended to turn off some of her more ardent fans, who find the book talky and self-serious. I can see where those who hold such a view are coming from, and the prose in the early chapters is leaden with explanation and background, but the back half of the book really takes off. I fell for this book, and I missed the characters after it was done: not always a feeling one associates with reading Spark.
10. The Driver’s Seat (1970)
Also from Spark’s anti-novel period, and one of the scariest books I’ve ever read. The heroine goes willingly to her own murder, from sheer nihilist perversity (or desire for control?). It’s like Evelyn Waugh got mindraped by Thomas Ligotti. Nothing so disturbing can be counted a literary failure. But yikes.
9. The Abbess of Crewe (1974)
A power-obsessed Mother Superior bugs her entire convent. It’s nuns doing Watergate. IT’S NUNS DOING WATERGATE. This book is so fucking funny. Take my word.
8. The Only Problem (1984)
Like the hero of this novel, I have read a lot of commentaries on the Book of Job, and its presentation of what this book calls “the only problem”: innocent suffering. This is worth all those commentaries put together.
7. The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960)
A novel about a corporate efficiency consultant who wastes everyone’s time, does no work, and is probably Satan. So, a realist work, then.
6. Memento Mori (1958)
This is a novel about a crank caller who tells old people “Remember you must die.” But he’s not the bad guy. Do you really need me to sell you on this any further?
5. Loitering With Intent (1981)
Spark wrote a score-settling autobiography in the early ’90s, but if you really want to know what things were like for an edgy, intelligent young woman in austerity Britain, cadging a living as a secretary to demented old sexists while cobbling together her first novel, read this hilarious caper. Actually, you should read it whether or not what you want to know that.
4. The Comforters (1957)
As Maud Newton has pointed out, Spark’s debut novel is a postmodern metafiction before those things had been invented. One character is a writer who knows she’s also a character in the book we’re reading. Another is a cipher with no interior life: literally, when she goes into a dark room, she disappears entirely. There’s an old lady who runs a smuggling racket and a would-be Satanist, and those are the boring characters. It really chaps my ass that this was Spark’s first novel.
3. A Far Cry from Kensington (1988)
Spark’s most epigrammatic and quotable book, not because 1-2 are less well-written, but because their prose is more subordinated to story. Not that Kensington‘s style isn’t equally appropriate to its narrative: that of a wise and sensible older woman casting a retrospective eye on her youthful life. You could tweet the entire thing. Better, you could memorize the entire thing, and then base your life on it. It’s like wisdom literature for smartasses. Look at these sentences:
If you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat. [N.b.: True! This is the only reason my wife was able to finish grad school in five years.]
It is my advice to any woman getting married to start, not as you mean to go on, but worse, tougher, than you mean to go on. Then you can relax and it comes as a pleasant surprise. [True! Goes double for teachers.]
It’s easy to get thin. You eat and drink the same as always, only half. … I offer this advice without fee; it is included in the price of this book. [True! Also, eat the least early in the day, when your willpower is least depleted, so that you’re covered if you go a little nuts in the evening. That “BREAKFAST IS A MUST” horseshit is useless for those of us who work sedentary jobs.]
My advice to any woman who earns the reputation of being capable, is not to demonstrate her ability too much. You give advice; you say, do this, do that, I think I’ve got you a job, don’t worry, leave it to me. All that, and in the end you feel spooky, empty, haunted. And if you then want to wriggle out of so much responsibility, the people around you are outraged. You have stepped out of your role. It makes them furious. [So, so true. My wife’s grad school advisor, on similar grounds, told her to wear her clothes inside-out every few months, just to keep people from thinking she’s too competent. She has failed to do so to her detriment.]
When you have to refuse any request that admits of no argument, you should never give reasons or set out your objections; to do so leads to counter-reasons and counter-objections. [Has gotten me out of so many stupid obligations I cannot even count them all.]
When you are looking for a job the best thing to do is to tell everyone, high and humble, and keep reminding them please to look out for you. This advice is not guaranteed to find you a job, but it is remarkable how suitable jobs can be found through the most unlikely people. [This so works. Tell the janitor; tell your mailwoman; tell the cousin you run into at a funeral; tell the homeless guy for whom you buy a sandwich. Trust me.]
And please, New York City publishers, heed these words, if no others: A large part of an editor’s job is rejection. Perhaps nine-tenths. In those days at least, it was not only rejection of manuscripts but of those ideas that seemed to come walking into my office every day in the shape of pensive men and women talking with judicious facial expressions about such mutilated concepts as optimist/pessimist, fascist/communist, extrovert/introvert, highbrow/middlebrow/lowbrow; and this claptrap they applied to art, literature and life to the effect that all joy, wit and the pleasures of curiosity were quite squeezed out.
2. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)
Most people think this is Spark’s masterpiece, and it’s not like they’re really wrong. You can never go wrong with a book that created an archetype, as this does, and that letter … (readers of the book know what I’m talking about, and everybody else needs to get on the stick).
1. The Girls of Slender Means (1963)
Every college town has one: the rental house that, year after year, attracts an oddly fascinating mixture of cool and awful women, giving the place an atmosphere permanently saturated in unfledged possibility, hormones, and late-adolescent cruelty. Take that house, then add to it a piece of not-yet-exploded WWII ordnance, and you have this: the pinnacle of Spark’s career, and one of the greatest, most poignant comic novels in English.