Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Symposium by Muriel Spark

I've read 5 or 6 Spark books now, and I never cease to be amazed at how cold she is to her characters. Not just in the way that many authors are mean, putting characters through their plot-required paces for some grand purpose. Rather, Spark treats so many--maybe most--of those who people who novels with barely contained contempt. A particularly worthy supporting character may earn pity. Unless you're Fleur Talbot, if you find yourself in a Spark story, prepare to get the sharp end of the stick. Everything is fair game: appearance, weight, intelligence, dreams, naivete, being too kind, not being kind enough. Anyway.

And Symposium is definitely not a kinder breed. Bookended by a dinner party involving all the novel's principals, it's a nasty, intermittently funny piece of work that delights in tearing the characters to shreds. To a man or woman, everyone--Hurley Reed, philistine painter; Lord and Lady Suzy, crushing boors;  the Utzingers, mutually involved in a bisexual cuckold; the Sykes, who I don't actually recall; and Margaret and William Damien, cheery, wealthy newlyweds--has something singularly unpleasant to hide or to flaunt.

The conversation at the dinner party is dominated by the unbearable Lord Suzy, who is quite distressed that the burglars who robbed his house also peed on the walls ("It feels like a rape", he says repeatedly, uncomfortably) and we are mercifully pulled from the dinner part to the weeks before, where we get background on everyone, but most especially Margaret Damien, the closest thing the book has to a protagonist.

Margaret is unlucky, always in the vicinity when bad things happen, and, tired of the blame, she's decided to get a piece of the action, by way of poisoning her new mother-in-law. How we get to this point is a masterful exercise in spare but clever plotting, spanning Italy to a convent with unusally profane and media-saavy nuns.

And is this funny? Well, sometimes. But much like The Finishing School, the mood here is so bleak and unsympathetic that you can hardly read for the characters, so the plot, twisting and unfolding, is the real draw. I laughed at the cursing nun, but what is one to make of a story in which everyone is a fool, and the last event is the only decent character being murdered by Suzy's gang of roving burglars? The tragedy is the irony, as Margaret is once again close to ground zero without being the bomb--but I can't say I really laughed.


Christopher said...

I demand a ranking

Brent Waggoner said...

Oh man. Ok.

Brent Waggoner said...

1. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
2. Loitering with Intent
3. The Takeover
4. Memento Mori
5. The Only Problem
6. Reality and Dreams
7. Symposium
8. The Finishing School

Randy said...

For both of you: https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2018/01/29/fatal-flaw-aphorisms-muriel-spark/