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September 15, 2010

The Vicious Circle reads: The Comforters by Muriel Spark

Seriously, this book club just gets better and better. We all headed out to the west end this month to read Muriel Spark’s first novel, The Comforters. The brilliant new edition by Virago (which, actually, we don’t think should be available in Canada, but a bunch of us managed to pick copies quite discounted) has an absolutely perfect cover. As with Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the book reads as up-t0-date as the day it was published, and so a stylish modern cover is not trying too hard.

Also much appreciated was Ali Smith’s introduction, which you can read in abridged form here. An amazing example of a book intro– no spoilers, she doesn’t have her own agenda, and she helpfully places the book in its contexts, which were (somewhat incongruously) the realist, angry young men of the 1950s; Spark’s own biographical experiences, her conversion to Catholicism in particular; and allusions to The Book of Job (and yes, one of us discovered that his name should rhyme with “lobe”, and not “lob”, though that wasn’t even remotely embarrassing compared to having shown up one hour early by mistake, but alas…).

Immediate response to The Comforters was a few notches above “meh”. A couple of us liked it, but most of us found it hard to get absorbed. We could understand how the novel was so clever– a character becomes aware that she’s a character in the story, can hear the typewriter clacking and the narrator’s voice, meanwhile her sort-of boyfriend is caught up in his own plot involving his grandmother being a diamond smuggler. We loved the dialogue, we loved Spark’s meta-workings, the prose is amazing, but it was hard to really get invested.

It was suggested that this may have been the point. That Spark was playing with our expectations of what a novel is supposed to do to us, using the novel’s conventions to show these are conventions. “I just couldn’t get lost in it,” a reader might complain, and Muriel Spark might have answered, “It’s a book. Not a cityscape.” That the book’s weaker points (flimsy/no plot, relience on coincidence and connections) were quite deliberate, to make us question how much about novels we actually take for granted. Amazing, we all thought, that this was first novel, and it shows very much that Spark had been a critic who’d considered the novel very carefully. Amazing also that she was a Catholic convert (like Graham Greene, whose Travels With My Aunt we thought was akin to this book), and yet she mocked the process of conversion here, she writes about the occult, she makes fun of Catholics. Also, that Laurence and Caroline had a sexual relationship and were unmarried, which was more than a little risque for 1956.

It was suggested that Caroline’s experience with the voices in her head were analogous to any writer whose hard at work, and struggling not to get lost in her story, to retain herself in the flow of narrative and not be swept away. And this led to a comment about the story as an analogy of Spark’s own experience as a Catholic, the struggle to define her spirituality within and without the confines of organized religion.

We loved Georgina Hogg. Loved, loved loved her. Though we weren’t unhappy about her eventual fate, because she was scratching off poor Caroline’s face (and I just thought of this now– was she trying to rub her out??) and trying to drown her, and it wasn’t like she had an inner life anyway. We loved everything about the enormity of her bosom (and I mean that word the way it is intended). Louisa Jepp was also appreciated, and we commented on the women in the novel having all the strength. Oh, and how the books deals with homosexuality, matter-of-fact, amazing, once again in particular for the ‘fifties. Laurence was sort of sweet, but a bit dumb, though quite patient to put up with Caroline who no longer had sex with him. We also loved the distinction between Eleanor and the Baron’s relationship, with no love lost, versus Caroline’s and Laurence’s, who had love left.

With all of our experiences of the book being suitably enhanced, it was now time to talk about other things, and eat lemon cake, and eat more cheese, and yes, some pumpkin scones too. We talked about babies, and perverts, and how married people have secrets too, and we talked underrated and overrated, books we loved and books we hated, and some of us said Fuck too much, and we laughed a lot, and talked about most other things, and probably at some point, we even mentioned you.

Meeting adjourned. Amazing.

5 thoughts on “The Vicious Circle reads: The Comforters by Muriel Spark”

  1. Julie says:

    It was amazing. Great recap!

  2. I have 2 Muriel Sparks books on my shelf and have yet to read them. This isn’t one of them though.

  3. patricia says:

    Reading this post makes me think I’m right back in that cozy room, eating delicious pumpkin scones and lemon cake, and slowly getting stoned on very potent Swedish berry cider. Amazing, indeed.

    Is it possible to say Fuck too much?

  4. Deanna says:

    I was thinking yesterday that we really need to keep a running list of ALL the books we talk about in an evening. What an amazing reading list they would make. From Muriel Spark to Franzen and everything in between.

    Also, I have been dreaming about those pumpkin scones for days. Could the recipe perhaps be shared? 🙂 xo

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