'Undoubtedly,' said Magnus. 'In families, one never knows.'
Muriel Spark's Symposium starts with a very basic plot: A collection of well-to-do Londoners meet for dinner, including the newlyweds Margaret and William--whose mother can't make it, because she's being murdered in her apartment on the other side of town. From there it branches off disparately, through the recent histories of all the dinner party's guests. That's a particularly Sparkian trick, to pack as much disparate information into a tightly sealed space, and here, as in The Finishing School, another "late" Spark novel, the sparseness struck me as a bit excessive. I think that Spark grew only chillier and more ascetic as she grew older, and parts of Symposium seemed jarringly rote.
The best parts--most of which have to do with Margaret, who might just barely be called a "main character"--are shuffled unceremoniously in and out without time to really appreciate their fertile weirdness. There's Margaret's mad Uncle Magnus, who everyone in the family seems to agree is not always mad, and who is the family's principle adviser in his lucid moments. And the Marxist sisters of Mary of Good Hope (Spark loves nuns!) who take Margaret in as a novice before a murder forces them to dissolve. Here's a letter Margaret writes:
Sister Lorne is furious because the Bishop sent a dictionary to Sister Marrow. He said he had been given to understand she was at a loss for words, how to express herself. He wrote something like that. And he recommended she should study the dictionary or look it up when the accurate epithet was called for. We had a meeting about the letter. Sister Lorne has written back to the Bishop that this was an insult. She said that four-letter words were the lifeblood of the market place, the People's parlance and aphrodisiac, the dynamic and inalienable prerogative of the proletariat. Sister Marrow added a PS. Fuck your balls Bishop, you are a fart and a shit. I posted the letter myself. The Bishop can't do a thing. Sister Lorne remarked that there is no power in Church or State that can stop the inexorable march of Marxism into the future.
Are the sisters of Mary of Good Hope a humorous diversion, or integral to the themes of the novel? As I always find with Spark, it's hard to tell. Margaret, we find out, has a bad knack for being around people when they are murdered, including her own grandmother. That's why she's in the convent. But, naturally, even her own family suspects that she may somehow be implicated in these murders, and for a moment, we are led to think that, too. Ultimately, Margaret decides that if she's going to be thought of as a murderer, she might as well have the fun of murdering, and she sets her sights on William's mother:
'I'll tell you what,' said Margaret, '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. I would like to do something like that.' She sat on the sofa beside Magnus, tossing back her red hair, rather like a newly graduated student seriously discussing her future with her college tutor.
'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.
Ironically--SPOILER ALERT--it's not Margaret that kills William's mother. She's done in by a ring of thieving butlers who swoop in on empty homes when they know their occupants will be at swanky dinner parties. The black comedy of it all is that Margaret, who has tried unsucessfully for so much of her life to bring good to others--she lives by philosophy she calls Les Autres--makes a sudden switch to the pursuit of evil, and she's foiled even in that. Spark wants us to laugh at Margaret's utter failure to practice any sort of morality at all. It makes sense, then, that she opens the novel with a quotation from Plato's Symposium:
...the chief thing which he remembered was Socrates compelling the other two to acknowledge that the genius of comedy was the same with that of tragedy, and that the true artist in tragedy was an artist in comedy also.
Fair enough. But Symposium is only infrequently funny, and the digressions to the other members of the party--of which there are eight or so, and whom I have addressed here not at all--enervates the central plotline of any real tragedy. The ironic comparison of the dinner party to a Platonic Symposium is cute, but as a writer's ethos, it seems more well matched to, say, Loitering with Intent. (Incidentally, the book that Fleur Talbot writes in Loitering shares a plotline with this novel.) Don't get me wrong, I loved reading it--I always love Spark's novels. But I wouldn't recommend it to a novice.