And on to the fourth book of the year which I started with a certain amount of trepidation – started in Scotland when and where due to snow the only pass times available were light housework, reading and bickering other what to watch on television. The television choice was lousy and housework never appeals, but reading by the fire was looking better than ever – well nigh irresistible in fact (not that I felt much need to resist), so I that’s what I did.
‘The Comforters’ was Spark’s first novel – it’s made me think it would have been interesting to read them all in some sort of order to see how some of her themes develop. ‘The Comforters’ and ‘Loitering With Intent’ have much in common both sort of being books about writing books. Having read ‘Loitering With Intent’ ‘The Comforters’ doesn’t feel like a first novel (although what does a first novel feel like?) what it does feel like is assured elegant and streamlined – a fine vintage Spark in fact.
Now is a good time to admit that Muriel Spark came as a bit of a late revelation to me. I was predictably aware of ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ but only read it for the first time a couple of years ago. My Jean Brodie is an everyman edition and has some other short stories/novellas in the same volume – which was the first intimation that I had of her wider writing. I know it’s not altogether unusual but it always surprises me to find how a writer can become utterly identified with one book to the point that everything else they wrote is almost forgotten. Muriel Spark (for me at least) was just such a case – I had no idea that she had written so much.
Now that I do know I’m particularly happy that Virago are republishing so many, because the real problem when an author is so linked to one title is that it generally becomes the only one you can ever find in a bookshop. Without having read more I had no idea how much I would come to love Spark, so it never occurred to me to look for other titles on amazon or even to order through a bookshop; equally without actual demand why would shops stock a wider selection?
What attracts me to Spark at her best (and this holds true with this book) is her combination of humour and detachment. She creates the most marvellous villains and Georgina Hogg who plays the role here is no exception. Described as a gargoyle (which she is) she is splendidly repulsive, as a blackmailing Catholic zealot with inconveniently large breasts. Actually all the characters have personality kinks and manias of one sort or another. They can’t help but search through each other’s tings, hate to be touched, retreat into monastic seclusion, refuse to deal with the unpleasant, imagine witches, or wish to convert and persecute all around them. It could be too much but isn’t partly because of the conceit that they are characters within a novel within a novel. For a book over 50 years old it feels remarkably contemporary.
It was the idea of a book about people realising they are in a book that intrigued me enough to add this to my holiday packing – I wanted to see how it would work – it turned out to do the trick, easily living up to expectation and suiting my reading mood exactly.