Thursday, February 23, 2006

Muriel Spark: Aiding and Abetting

Muriel Spark is a sneaky old lady. There I was, going through Aiding and Abetting and thinking to myself, Oh dear, the old girl's a bit past it -- when all the time she'd been having me on. Leading me up the garden path.

The book, I thought, was turning out a bit dull and old-fashioned. And not terribly well focused. But then she suddenly ups and hits you with a few surprises. It's an experience rather like asking an awfully respectable old lady if she needs any help in crossing the road, only to be told Fuck off, sunshine, I can manage very well.

Muriel Spark was born in 1918, in Scotland, and Aiding and Abetting was published in 2000, so it was written when she was, lessee now, about 80. Crumbs. She could be excused if she was a bit over the hill. But she ain't.

Muriel Spark first came to public attention in the late 1950s. Memento Mori (1959) is the first of her titles that I remember anything about, and perhaps her most famous novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, came out in 1963. It was subsequently turned into a very successful stage play and later filmed.

The Spark career is a long and distinguished one, and it has been marked by several prizes and the award of a DBE in 1993. In other words, she has been honoured by the Queen (technically) for her contributions to literature, and is entitled to be addressed, on formal occasions, as Dame Muriel Spark.

Aiding and Abetting is a novel about Lord Lucan, a hereditary peer who was (and may still be) a living person. The name won't mean anything to you unless you're English, and over forty or so.

Lord Lucan was unhappily married. He had been in the army, but by 1974 he was a member of the idle rich who spent his time gambling. He was known as Lucky Lucan, but despite that he had large debts. On 7 November 1974, the Nanny of Lord Lucan's children was battered to death in the family home. Lucan's wife was also attacked, but managed to escape.

It was widely believed at the time, though never proved, that Lord Lucan had planned to kill his wife, on the Nanny's night off. But the Nanny had not gone out that night, and so Lucan, in his usual incompetent fashion, had killed the wrong woman.

Lucan promptly disappeared, and although there have been numerous 'sightings' he has never been traced. The police formed the view that Lucan's wealthy gambling friends, most of whom would cheerfully have battered Lady Lucan to death themselves, protected him at the time, and have provided him with funds ever since.

That, then, is the starting point of Muriel Spark's Aiding and Abetting. Should you wish to know more about the Lucan affair, you can find a whole web site devoted to it.

The first character to whom we are introduced is Dr Hildegard Wolf, a Paris-based psychiatrist. And Dr Wolf soon finds herself with two new patients, both of whom claim to be Lord Lucan. Dr Wolf, who has things to hide in her own past, is faced with the task of finding out whether either of the two men is telling the truth, and if so what is she going to do about it? And why have they come to her? Are they attempting to blackmail her?

As I said at the beginning, this is a deceptive book. There are, perhaps, too many coincidences for my fastidious taste, and the writing sometimes seems a little careless. But those are trivial points compared with the overall achievement. Furthermore, this is one of those rare books which get better and better as they go along. Until in the end I came to the conclusion that this one is quite wonderful.

One of the greatest prizes in fiction, in my view, is a story in which a character meets a fate which is entirely appropriate to his character, and which he brings about himself through an attempt to further his own nefarious ends. Which is exactly what happens in Aiding and Abetting.

What is more, the novel is gloriously politically incorrect in its conclusion. Now if that isn't a skilful piece of writing I don't know what is.

Yeah, you have to watch out for these sneaky old ladies. They're not as dumb as they look.

Oh, and another thing. This book is short! Yes, on top of all its other virtues it has that one as well.


Anonymous said...

Will somebody please tell me what the book"The Hothouse By The East River " is about..I could not understand the whole basically are they alive or dead.If they are dead then the whole book is a waste of time...

Anonymous said...

Sorry, all the characters are dead, in fact in Purgatory (a hallucinatory version of Manhattan in the 70s - if you know anything about NYC then you would see how appropriate that is). Paul (the husband) is dead but doesn't know it, and the ghosts of his wife Elsa and their friends are trying to get him to accept his own death. I'm sorry if this annoyed you - Dame Muriel liked to do that to innocent readers. There are numerous clues to the situation throughout. I suppose we don't expect to have such a theme treated comically - I am paricularly fond of the scene where the silkworms burst out of the aged (ghostly) Baroness Poppy's bosom, a gloriously Surrealist image, and a clue. With Dame Muriel's books, you have to read them to the end to find out what the mystery is going to be, then to re-read to pick out all the clues. She was one of the originators of the post-modern novel (or choose your own favourite term) and hers are still the best examples of the genre that I know. But it's no crime not to like that sort of stuff!
I can strongly recommend Loitering With Intent or A Far Cry From Kensington, as more enjoyable examples of her books. There are lots of critical misreadings of her work lying around, too, so take care. But those 2 later titles are pretty straightforward as well as divinely clever.