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Finally getting round to putting my thoughts together on this second phase of reading Muriel Spark to mark the centenary of her birth. My reading for this phase covers her novels from the 1960s and ran from 1 March to 30 April, though my final read did slip into May and there is in addition a missing title.

During March I spent a long weekend in Edinburgh and visited the Muriel Spark exhibition in the National Library of Scotland which was absolutely fascinating and sadly not allowed to be photographed. If I didn’t already love Dame Muriel the fact that she seems to have retained every single piece of paper that came into her life would have endeared her to me. My favourite was the handwritten letter from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis seeking the rights to Dame Muriel’s memoir; she didn’t get them. I will warn you now that I’ll be referring to y trip more than once 🙂

But, to the books …..

The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960)

My edition is the 1979 Penguin, I read the novel for the first time in 1981 and this is my fourth time of reading.

Dougal Douglas arrives in Peckham and insinuates himself into the lives of the workers in a local firm, and the wider community, leaving a legacy of “fraud, blackmail, violence and murder”

I go up and down with this one to be honest, depending on my mood. Sometimes I see Dougal as a trickster figure gleefully stirring things up and drawing out of the people around him what they are already capable of; on other occasions I consider him a monster, destroying lives and causing mayhem with no thought of the consequences.

This time round he was somewhere in between.

The Bachelors (1960)

My edition is a Penguin from 1985, first read in 1992 and this is my third go-round.

Bachelors of various types. Spiritualism. Mediums. Forgery. Unsavoury elements. All found in the environs of Chelsea, Hampstead and Kensington. Gossip and waspishness abound.

I appreciated the novel more on this reading that I have ever done so before. I read it on the train on my way back from Edinburgh and it was a very pleasant experience, considering how unpleasant many of the characters are, especially Patrick Seton who is a downright nasty piece of work. I have to say it’s one of my least favourite of the novels, but it’s still very good.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)

My first and still my favourite of the novels, this was on the syllabus for my Higher English at school and I fell in love immediately. My current edition is a 1980 Penguin edition with the STV serialisation cover showing the wonderful Geraldine McEwan. A classmate of mine was an extra in several of the schoolroom scenes, and having seen a clip in the NLS exhibition I’ve nabbed the series on DVD.

I have read this on at least seven occasions and it is one of my favourite books of all time. I’ve covered it on the blog before, and you can find more of my thoughts here.

The Girls of Slender Means (1963)

A Penguin 1982 edition where the pages have now parted from the cover, I first read this in 1984 and this is my third time.

The story is set amongst a group of young women in London in 1945 after the war has all but ended, all of whom live in the May of Teck Club, an institution founded in the days of Edward VII for “the Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years, who are obliged to reside apart from their Families in order to follow an Occupation in London.”

I still find this a very enjoyable novel, finding it both sharply drawn and terribly sad on this reading. I have written about the novel before and you can find my thoughts here.

The Public Image (1968)

This a 1982 Penguin edition, which I first read in 1983; this is my third reading.

Annabel is an actress living in Rome, where her husband Frederick takes his own life in a way designed to cause maximum damage to his wife’s public image. How will she deal with this?

I loved this book the first couple of times but 35 years older and in the light of #MeToo I can’t help but focus on how monstrous all of the male characters are to Annabel. t has dated quite a bit but if you can imagine it as a film in the style of Antonioni or one of his peers then it’s an interesting slice of 1960s hedonism.

And then there’s the one that’s missing….

The Mandlebaum Gate is the only book by Dame Muriel that I have started and been unable to finish; I wrote a short post about it here. But I am determined to give it another shot in the hopes that I just wasn’t in the right mood at the time, and will read it alongside the collected short stories in Phase 3.

 

 

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As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Dame Muriel Spark has long been one of my favourite authors and I’m taking part in the commemoration of her centenary this year by reading All of the Things. If you’ve been here long enough you may remember that I tried this before and failed miserably around book 8 out of the 22 novels that she wrote. But I’m determined to finish the project this time around.

Phase 1 took place between 1 January and 28 February and covered the novels she published in the 1950s…..

The Comforters (1957)

My edition is the 1982 Penguin, and I first read this novel in 1984; this is the third time of reading.

Caroline Rose is afflicted by what she calls the Typing Ghost, hearing her thoughts being spoken back to her as if she was the main character in a novel. Is that the case or is she going mad?

I love the waspishness of this novel which basically sets the tone for all of Muriel Sparks books – there is a lot of humour and quite a bit of philosophy, especially here where the very nature of existence is in question. Interestingly, Muriel Spark experienced hallucinations herself at one point due to medication she was taking at the time, though hers manifested themselves as jumbled words on the page which, as she pointed out, would not translate well to a novel. Such a strong and refreshing first book.

Robinson (1958)

My edition is the 2003 New Directions, bought specifically to fill the gaps in my collection when I tried to read all the novels back in 2006; this is the second time of reading.

January Marlowe is writing a journal covering the events of the few months she finds herself stranded on the island of Robinson, owned by a man also known as Robinson. She is there with two other survivors of a plane crash; no-one knows they are alive and they are all awaiting the planned arrival of a ship to tell the world they are OK and help them get back to their lives. But then there appears to have been a murder, and tensions rise as they become suspicious of each other.

I vaguely remembered the plot of this one but for some reason it really resonated with me more the second time around. Even though this is a first person narrative which often screams “unreliable narrator” I really trusted January’s voice. All of the men were downright unpleasant in one way or another so I was rooting for January all the way through. The plot is nice and twisty, which I loved. Of the three, this is the one I can see myself reading again soonest.

Memento Mori (1959)

My edition is the 1979 Penguin, probably one of the first of her books I bought after leaving school (which is where I was introduced to Muriel Spark through the medium of a certain Jean Brodie).

This is the fourth time I have read Memento Mori.

The novel concerns a group of elderly people, (almost) all known to each other and all experiencing the infirmities and complications of their advanced ages. A number of them receive mysterious phone calls where the caller simply states “Remember you must die.” Is this a hoax being carried out by someone they know? Or something more than that?

I first read this when I was 19 and I’m pretty sure that I was deeply impatient with the old folk, with their aches and pains and worries and constant tinkering with their wills and their habit of harking back to things long past. I’m 56 now and I find myself increasingly sympathetic to their plight and anxious for their continued well-being. And in Mrs Pettigrew we have one of Dame Muriel’s wonderfully monstrous women. Still a superb novel.

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So, very pleased to have successfully reached the end of Phase One; looking forward to starting the next group covering her novels from the 1960s. Some of my absolute favourites are in there!

 

 

About The Abbess of Crewe:

An election (?) has been held at the Abbey of Crewe. The new Lady Abbess takes up her high office with implacable serenity. She had expected to win – one way or the other

When did I first read this? sometime after 1977 (when the edition I have was published) and June 1980 (when I started keeping a record of books read)

What age was I? between 16 and 19

How many times since then? This is my fifth time of reading.

Thoughts about the book:

I have been a fan of Muriel Spark for almost thirty-five years which is an astonishing thing to realise given that inside my head I am still 17 rather than the batty old dear I sometimes consider myself these days. I can’t recall now when I was first introduced to her; my memory says The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (which I have reviewed here) but another part of me thinks that I may have read some of her stuff before then and that The Abbess was one of the first.

It fascinates me because it is a short and pointed re-telling of the Watergate saga if it had taken place in an English convent, with The Abbess the Nixonian figure and her rival, Sister Felicity, representing the Democrats. And of course it’s not the theft of the silver thimble during the election of the Abbess, it’s the ensuing cover up which causes the problems. I think this has stuck with me not just because it’s another one of Sparks’ perfect little jewels but because it’s about Watergate which has fascinated me since I read All The Presidents Men in the early seventies (I still have the film tie-in edition somewhere in the house with long-haired Redford and Hoffman on the cover) and I have quite a few books on the subject, so some of the fun in reading The Abbess is in trying to identify the equivalents of the real life protagonists such as Haldeman and Kissinger (though the latter is really easy, Sister Gertrude a wonderful character awkays at one remove from political danger).

So almost certainly not a masterpeice but one of my absolute favourites and short enough to be read in one satisfying sitting.

Favourite bits:

“Why should they trouble themselves about a salacious nun and a Jesuit? I must say a jesuit, or any priest for that matter, would be the last man I would myself elect to be laid by. A man who undresses, maybe; a man who unfrocks, no”

“And it seems to me, Gertrude, that you are going to have a problem with those cannibals on the Latter Day when the trumpet shall sound. It’s a question of which man shall rise in the Resurrection, for certainly those that are eaten have long since become the consumers from generation to generation.”

“Now if you please, Walburga, let’s consult The Art of War because time is passing and the sands are running out.”

This is the second book in my Big Re-read Project; it was also my first Readathon read and would have been part of my contribution to Muriel Spark week if I had been sufficiently organised to (1) read a couple of other Sparks and (b) get around to blogging about The Abbess.

I’m trying to avoid challenges this year given that I seem so prone to reading slumps and any kind of pressure which implies that I must read this thing at this time plunges me back into paralysis, but this was too much to resist. It is being partly hosted by Harriet Devine, and takes place between 23 and 29th April.

I had already planned to re-read a Muriel as part of my Big Re-Read project so it all fits in quite neatly.

And who knows, I might even get around to finishing this at last.

I seem to have an awful lot of reading going on at the moment; some of these books have been sitting on my table for months (if not longer) and I will at some point have to decide whether I am going to persevere or give up, but not just yet, I think:

  • The Mitford Girls by Mary S Lovell – “‘I am normal, my wife is normal, but my daughters are each more foolish than the other‘ bewailed Lord Redesdale, father of the Mitford girls. Part of my Mitford obsession as mentioned briefly here.
  • The Sicilian Vespers by Steven Runciman – “On 30 March 1282, as the bells of Palermo were ringing for Vespers, the Sicilian townsfolk, crying ‘Death to the French’, slaughtered the garrison and administration of their Angevin King.”
  • Bone Song by John Meaney – “Tristopolis. Death’s City. Countless dead lie in the miles of catacombs beneath its streets.” Zombies and stuff in noir crime story.
  • The Women of Muriel Spark and Muriel Spark – reading these as background to the great abandoned but about to be resurrected Reading Muriel Project
  • Growing by Leonard Woolf – an autobiography of the years 1904 to 1911, set aside for some reason I can’t quite fathom
  • The Nightmare Factory by Thomas Ligotti – to be dipped into, prose is very, very lush.
  • Jigs and Reels by Joanne Harris – forgot all about this one, must finish it as I’ve enjoyed the stories I’ve read so far
  • Small Avalanches by Joyce Carol Oates – another dipper
  • O, Beloved Kids by Rudyard Kipling – Kipling’s letters to his children, which was intended to kick-start a Kipling fest after I visited his house in the summer; still something I want to do…..

And sad to say I’m still reading some of the books on this list, namely:

Bride of the Book God

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Scottish, in my fifties, love books but not always able to find the time to read them as much as I would like. I’m based in London and happily married to the Book God.

I also blog at Bride of the Screen God (all about movies and TV) and The Dowager Bride, if you are interested in ramblings about stuff of little consequence

If you would like to get in touch you can contact me at brideofthebookgod (at) btinternet (dot) com.

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