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In the House of the Famous Writer: Two Stories by Muriel Spark

Filed under: The Katharine Wheel: On Fiction   Tagged: , , , , , ,

I’ve admired Muriel Spark ever since a friend recommended her 1981 novel, Loitering with Intent, which I know I found delightful, though I cannot, now, remember a word of it. But I found other work of hers less congenial, and neglected her until a few weeks ago, when Emily tipped me off to a fascinating 2006 piece by Philip Weiss in The New York Observer chronicling Spark’s relationship with The New Yorker.

The Observer post is actually the second of two, and they’re both worth reading. The first gives an opinionated, informative overview of Spark’s entire oeuvre and a few details of her life. From the second, we learn that Spark was in her most prolific period when she came to TNY’s attention in the late 1950s, and soon published her most famous novel of all, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, in the October 14, 1961, issue. This was news to me, so I went back to my Complete New Yorker and found that, although it is not true, as Weiss claims, that the “entire issue” was devoted to Brodie, as with John Hersey’s Hiroshima in 1946, a significant portion of it was.

That TNY should devote so many pages to her work was a signal honor, and one she was accorded again when much of the May 16, 1970, issue was given over to her bizarre turnoff of a novel, The Driver’s Seat. (Wish I could’ve seen the hate mail for that!) Given this, I found it surprising that she wasn’t mentioned in Ben Yagoda’s About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made. According to Weiss, she doesn’t appear in other books about TNY either, which is stranger still.

The Observer post led me to the first story Spark published in TNY, “The Ormolu Clock,” from September 17, 1960. A spare portrait of the struggle between the proprietors of two tourist hotels in Austria, the story is a minor but compact gem. The more successful proprietor, Frau Lublonitsch, is complex. Take, for example, the first portrait we get of her:
You could tell … that Frau Lublonitsch had built the whole thing up from nothing by her own wits and industry. But she worked pitiably hard. She did all the cooking. She supervised the household, and, without moving hurriedly, she sped into the running of the establishment like the maniac drivers from Vienna who tore along the highroad in front of her place. She scoured the huge pans herself, wielding her podgy arm round and round; clearly, she trusted none of the girls to do the job properly. She was not above sweeping the floor, feeding the pigs, and serving in the butcher’s shop, where she would patiently hold one after another great sausage under her customer’s nose for him to smell its quality. She did not sit down, except to take her dinner in the kitchen, from her rising at dawn to her retiring at one in the morning.
Compare the Frau, then, with her bedroom, glimpsed briefly by the narrator:
It was imperially magnificent. It was done in red and gold. I saw a canopied bed, built high, splendidly covered with a scarlet quilt. The pillows were piled up at the head—about four of them, very white. The bed head was deep dark wood, touched with gilt. A golden fringe hung from the canopy …

The floor of the bedroom was covered with a carpet of red that was probably crimson but that, against the scarlet of the bed, looked purple. On the walls on either side of the bed hung Turkish carpets whose background was an opulently dull, more ancient red—almost black where the canopy cast its shade.
What in the world, one wonders, is the stolid, monochromatic Frau doing with such a bedroom? It’s an odd juxtaposition, and all the more intriguing for being unexplained.

Strange though the Frau might be, however, “The Ormolu Clock” is firmly realistic, and appears downright bland next to “The House of the Famous Poet,” which appeared in TNY on April 2, 1966.

“House” starts out with its feet planted on terra firma:
In the summer of 1944, when it was nothing for trains from the provinces to be five or six hours late, I traveled to London on the night train from Edinburgh, which, at York, was already three hours late. There were ten people in the compartment, only two of whom I remember well, and for good reason.
Nothing could be more mundane than this: we know the season and the year, and that it’s wartime in Britain. The narrator continues on to describe the two passengers she “remembers well,” a soldier of simian aspect and a young woman named Elise who works as “a domestic helper and nursemaid” in a London house. Elise invites the narrator to stay, and the narrator accepts because “at that time I was in the way of thinking that the discovery of an educated servant girl was valuable and something to be gone deeper into. It had the element of experience—perhaps even of truth, and I believed, in those days, that truth is stranger than fiction.” In other words, the narrator deigns to accept Elise’s invitation because she sees her as a curiosity.

The mundane details pile up (and I don’t mean to suggest, by using the word “mundane,” that they are boring). They arrive at the house, there are V-1 sirens in the background, there’s “a half-empty marmalade jar, a pile of papers, and a dried-up ink bottle.” There’s also “a steel-canopied bed known as a Morrison shelter”, and there’s mention of her food rations. The narrator makes much of Elise’s exhaustion; Elise holds an impromptu party, and the narrator heavily underscores how weary everyone is, while gently reminding the reader that there is a war going on: she talks again about the V-1 sirens, and about a young woman who has spent weeks sleeping in an air raid shelter in the Underground.

She is about to leave the next morning when the soldier she met on the train unaccountably shows up, with “an enormous parcel.” He proposes to sell it to her in exchange for his train fare back to camp. When she asks what it is, he says,
“It’s an abstract funeral,” he explained…

He took it out and I examined it carefully, greatly comforted. It was very much the sort of thing I had wanted—rather more purple in parts than I would have liked, for I was not in favor of this color of mourning. Still, I thought I could tone it down a bit.
She packs the abstract funeral into her “holdall” and into her pockets, and she runs out the door for her cab, “with the rest of my funeral trailing behind me.”

Whoa, Nelly! What’s become of the narrator’s belief that “truth is stranger than fiction”? Clearly, she no longer sees any necessary link between fiction and the world of fact. (Certainly, Spark did not. In a brief piece on the Brontës earlier that same year, Spark wrote, “… I believe that fiction should generally be considered a suspect witness (and if it is not stranger than truth, it ought to be) …”)

After the conventional naturalism of the first three-fifths of the story, Spark’s turn into the surreal is nothing short of vertiginous. The problem is, it violates the implicit contract between the author and reader about what sort of story this is; in the hands of a lesser writer, it would be intolerable. I’m not entirely sure it’s acceptable in Spark’s hands, either, but she knows what she’s done is extraordinary, and so her narrator pivots toward the reader to say,
You will complain that I am withholding evidence. Indeed, you may wonder if there is any evidence at all. “An abstract funeral,” you will say, “is neither here nor there. It is only a notion. You cannot pack a notion into your bag. You cannot see the color of a notion.”

You will insinuate that what I have just told you is pure fiction.
Insinuate it? I’d’ve told her that flat-out. From this point on, the story is no longer “pure fiction,” and we realize that it never was. It’s about an idea, a “notion” about notions—a meta-notion. On the train, the narrator meets the soldier again, learns that he makes these funerals “by hand,” and that both Elise and the famous poet have bought abstract funerals of their own. The soldier gets off the train, and after it leaves the station, mysteriously reappears.
“You again,” I said…

“No,” he said, “I got off at the last station. I’m only a notion of myself.”
This is unbearably cute, and it’s the point where I find Spark’s insistence on calling attention to the artifice of her story most irritating. The problem with metafiction and allegory is that they tend to punish the reader. Metafictionists want to frustrate the reader’s conventional, time-worn expectations of plot and character; allegorical writers deform the materials of the tale they are telling in order to make didactic points. Both forms can be intriguing and even perfect for their subject matter, but such instances are exceptions, not the rule.

Still, Spark manages to pull the story out of the hole. The soldier leaves the narrator at last (after some banter about the need for an abstract funeral because one can’t report on one’s own), she throws the abstract funeral out the window, and we are returned, mostly, to the conventional naturalistic story we began with: “In the summer of 1944, a great many people were harshly and suddenly killed…” In fact, we soon learn that both Elise and the famous poet were killed in an air raid just hours after the narrator left the poet’s house, and suddenly their funerals are no longer abstract.

But there are still some odd turns left. For one thing, Spark’s narrator, whenever she is “enraged by the thought that Elise and the poet were killed outright,” invokes not the people who died, but the mundane details of the house. Why? Because “the angels of the Resurrection will invoke the dead man and the dead woman, but who will care to restore the fallen house of the famous poet if not myself? Who else will tell its story?” Spark’s conversion to Catholicism explains the angels, perhaps, but it does nothing to explain the narrator’s focus on the house’s “blue cracked bathroom, the bed on the floor, the caked ink bottle, the neglected garden, and the neat rows of books.”

Why do those details matter so much? Because they keep the deaths of Elise and the poet from being entirely abstract, are proof that they lived? And why should their deaths matter, when the realistic premise of the entire story has been undermined, the narrator shown to be a puppet master as ruthless with her readers as she is with her characters?

Well, hold those questions a moment. Here’s the story’s last paragraph:
When I reflect how Elise and the poet were taken in—how they calmly allowed a well-meaning solder to sell them the notion of a funeral—I remind myself that one day I will accept, and so will you, an abstract funeral, and make no complaints.
The solider is, of course, the angel of death. He makes people’s funerals “by hand,” he comes and goes as he pleases (regardless of the laws of physics), and is only a “notion” until he becomes terrifyingly real, and the quotidian materials of everyday life—the cracked bathrooms, the dried-up inkwells—in which we invest so much of our emotional lives (as we see the narrator do when she visits the poet’s house) are all that we leave behind, poignant testimonies to our existence—so long as someone survives us who can bear witness. And with this finale, “The House of the Famous Poet” almost manages to have it both ways, to be both a meta-notion and a tragedy.

Or at least that’s how I see the story. I don’t pretend to fully understand it, and in this I’m not alone, for even Robert Henderson, the TNY editor who accepted the story for publication, described himself, according to the Observer, as “a little baffled as well as fascinated” by it. If you’re in the mood for a challenge, I recommend it. Me, I’m going to go re-read Loitering with Intent.


Hooray! You’ve salvaged what I found to be a maddening story. I still prefer “Ormolu,” but at least I can now see that “The House of the Famous Poet” is more than merely a perverse exercise.

It was maddening, all right. I confess I don’t always have the necessary patience to unpack stories like this (and some are too comfortable with their obscurity for my taste), but it can be very gratifying to work out a plausible explication.

One thing that ran through my head, though: I don’t think TNY would publish “The House of the Famous Poet” today, if submitted by a living author. Then again, it’s hard to imagine such a situation arising, as Spark’s brand of strangeness and opacity is unusual, to say the least.

Thanks, Jonathan. Much appreciated. I’ve dated the post accordingly.

Bravo. And remember Memento Mori? Good litcrit
but with soul.

susan braudyMarch 05, 2009

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