Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Bachelors by Muriel Spark

Marlene Cooper led the way, as she had done regularly since the year after her husband died, and she had taken to thoughts of the spirit.  For how, she felt, could it be that Harry Cooper, who his worst business enemies agreed was sheer dynamite, could come to nought in the end?  'No,' she said, 'Harry is as alive as he ever was.  He is communicating with me and I am communicating with him.'

There is a moment in Muriel Spark's The Bachelors that is as good an illustration of her approach to novel-writing as any.  Marlene Cooper, a devotee of the spiritual medium Patrick Seton, enters into a room where a seance is going badly:

The room was in turmoil when Marlene flung wide the door.  'What is this turmoil?' she said, trembling with the impatience she had been repressing throughout her service-hatch vigil.

That repeated word turmoil is completely Sparkian: Spark uses it, and so does Muriel.  The illusion of the distance between the author and the character is completely obliterated.  What's the point, you might imagine Spark saying, of imagining that these assortments of words we call characters have any inner life?

Which is funny, because The Bachelors, which centers on a circle of spiritualists who perform these seances, is all about inner life, and the presence of the spirit, and the question of what happens to it when one dies.  Patrick is accused by a seance-goer of being a fake, and bilking her out of her money.  Is Patrick a fake?  The question hardly seems to matter to Spark.  Although, since Seton is planning on killing his pregnant girlfriend by an accidental overdose of insulin, it might be fair to observe he doesn't seem too worried about her coming back during a seance with her grievances.

Seton is one of those classic Spark characters, all shallowness and self-interest masked as spiritualism.  (Thinking of Hubert in The Takeover.)  For a spiritualist, his spirit is thin:

There is a lot of nasty stuff in life which comes breaking up our ecstasy, our inheritance.  I think, said Patrick, people should read more poetry and dream their dreams, and I do not recognize man-made laws and dogmas.  There is always a fuss about some petty cash, or punctuality.  'Tread softly,' he recites to the young girls he meets, 'because you tread on my dreams.'  The girls are usually enchanted.  'I have spread my dreams under your feet,' he says, 'tread softly...'

Just, like, dream your dreams, man.  Of course, his claim to a spiritual life is a kind of cover for his own ego, and it's hard not to think that he would include the murder of his girlfriend or the defrauding of a lonely woman in the ranks of "a fuss about some petty cash."

The Bachelors is joined by other great personages: Ronald, an expert in handwriting and forgery whose epilepsy is mistaken for a spiritual fit is one.  Another is Marlene, who can't imagine her husband could ever die because he was such "sheer dynamite" in his business.  A favorite of mine is a bachelor who eats onions before dates so that women will reject him and he won't be tempted into lewdness.  Other "bachelors" fill out the pages with less interest, but in service of one of those silly shaggy-dog plots where nothing really happens but spinning wheels.

The Bachelors was Spark's second novel; it might have been her twentieth.  Its best moments are small and cynical, and never quite reach the heights of Miss Jean Brodie or The Girls of Slender Means, which manage to make cynicism seem huge.  But it shows a fully-formed style and a wholesome lack of sentimentality.

1 comment:

Christopher said...

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie >
The Mandelbaum Gate >
The Only Problem >
A Far Cry from Kensington >
Girls of Slender Means >
The Takeover >
Loitering with Intent >
Momento Mori >
Robinson >
The Ballad of Peckham Rye >
The Bachelors >
Hothouse on the East River >
The Driver's Seat >
Symposium >
Territorial Rights >
Aiding and Abetting >
The Finishing School