Monday, May 1, 2017

The Mandelbaum Gate by Muriel Spark

What actually happened to Freddy between the late Saturday afternoon when he lost his memory in Jordan and the early Tuesday afternoon when he regained it in Israel was to come back to him a little later--the outlines of his movements forcing themselves back to him, at first, in a series of meaningless threads. The details followed gradually, throughout the days and into the years ahead and occurred, then, in those fragments, more or less distorted, which are the normal formations and decor of human memory. 

Muriel Spark's The Mandelbaum Gate is the first novel of hers that hasn't grabbed me from the start. She tends to throw her reader into the middle of whatever mess she's writing her way out of, and typically I've enjoyed the orientation process in the opening chapters. Here, I found myself more disoriented than intrigued, and I struggled to keep reading.

The book is presented in flashes--mirroring Freddy Hamilton's episodic memories--and it pieces together a pilgrimage gone awry. Barbara Vaughn is a half Jewish Catholic convert in Jerusalem in pursuit of her beau, an archeologist whom she hopes to marry despite his recent divorce and her Catholicism.  As Ms. Vaughn travels from Israel to Jordan through the Mandelbaum Gate, she puts herself in danger (her Jewish heritage puts her at risk in the tumultuous 1960's), and as the gallant Freddy Hamilton intervenes, chaos (and scarlet fever!) ensues. Freddy loses all memory of his intervention and the book retraces his steps as the incidents of the long weekend slowly return to him. Spark jumps back and forth in her narration and circles back to phrases and scenes, shifting them every so slightly each time so that you can't always right away whether she's returned to a past scene or moved on to a new one. It left me feeling somewhat unmoored as a reader; this was clearly Spark's intention, but it made made the novel difficult to follow and hard to invest in.

I enjoyed the descriptions of Israel and Jordan--places I haven't read much about or thought of much outside of the context of the Bible or modern day conflicts (which leaves me with a massive, thousands year long gap in my understanding of its history). The holy sites and shrines are described with Spark's usual ability to capture the mood of a place with a well-chosen handful of details (and her usual ability to make everything feel just a little bit off). Ms. Vaughn even gets to attend a day of Eichmann's trial, a nice historical marker that grounded the story in a particular time and place.

Chris suggests in his review that Barbara Vaughn is a somewhat autobiographical character. If that's the case, this feels like something of a missed opportunity. One of my issues with the novel was how little of Barbara's internality we got to see. I've come to rely on Spark for funny, headstrong female leads, and while Barbara was certainly interesting and stubborn, she wasn't nearly as vibrant as some of Spark's other heroines. I wanted more of her and less of Freddy (who is constantly writing dogroll in his head, and drove me somewhat bonkers).

Overall, I struggled too much with this one to really enjoy it. I liked the idea of it, and I appreciated the stylistic echo of Freddy's memories and the stilted narration, but it took me over 200 pages to hit my stride and fully grasp what was going on. As a result, I kept putting it down and picking it back up days later (which may have led to further confusion on my part). While I enjoy some level of disorientation, this was a little much for me with not quite enough pay off.

1 comment:

Christopher said...

Did you not like it because you hate Israel