Spark, Muriel. Symposium.

NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1990.

This is my latest attempt to try to figure out just what it is about Muriel Spark’s novels that get her so many points with the critics. There’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, of course, which is marvelous, but I haven’t really been that impressed by her other works that I’ve read so far. So I keep reading, and wondering.

Hurley Reed and Chris Donovan have been living happily together in a nice flat in north London for seventeen years. He’s American and a moderately successful artist — not great, “an interesting man with some talent” — while she’s a widow and far wealthier than he is, which is why they’ve never married. It would spoil everything. What they’re famous for is their beautifully orchestrated dinner parties, as produced by Corby, their Indian-Mauritian chef, and Charterhouse, their butler (who is a bit embarrassed by the lack of other servants for him to order about). Chris and Hurley, in fact, often spend a pleasant evening reminiscing about past dinner parties, and who was there, and what all happened. Most of the invitees are known not only to Chris and Hurley but to each other, either personally, or through mutual friends, or by reputation. London society is like that. There’s the aging Lord Brian Suzy and his very young trophy wife, Helen (she had been a schoolmate of one of Brian’s daughters, who is now a translator at the UN), who were recently burgled and vandalized while they were asleep upstairs. (Though the gang wasn’t very astute in choosing what to steal.) And there’s William Damien and his new wife, Margaret (née Murchie), who met in the fruit section at Marks & Spencer, perhaps happenstantially (or perhaps not). Fatal tragedies have seemed to follow Margaret around, though, since her schooldays. (She’s beginning to wonder if she’s a disaster vector.) And there’s Roland Sykes, a notably honest genealogist, who has been researching the Murchies. (He’s thinking about giving up being gay.) And there’s Ernst and Ella Untsinger, who work for the EU in Brussels, and both of whom sort of have the hots for Luke. Ah, yes: Luke is another American, doing graduate work at the University of London and eking out his grant by serving table at dinner parties. So he’ll be at this party, too (recommended to Chris by the Untsingers, in fact), though obviously not as a guest. Not that he isn’t paying close attention to the guests for his own reasons. (And where did he get that Philippe Patek anyway?)

Spark, as she seems always to do, departs from the main storyline at frequent intervals to explore and explain the backgrounds and various interconnections among her characters: Mad Uncle Magnus Murchie, who is released from his institution every Sunday for dinner with his family (and has become their guru), and who may have had a hand in the murder of his mother — Margaret’s grandmother — shortly after the old lady rewrote her will in favor of Margaret’s father, Dan. (Magnus is young at heart: “To think that I was just over forty when I was reprimanded for streaking over Chelsea Bridge.”) And Hilda Damien, a middle-class widow who moved to Australia after her husband’s death, became an entrepreneur, and subsequently amassed considerable wealth. Naturally, she’s suspicious of her son-and-heir’s new spouse, though she’s buying them a flat in Hampstead anyway. But Hilda won’t be at the dinner party because she’s busy being murdered.

Oh, and not to forget the Order of the Sisters of Good Hope (Anglican), with whom the not-yet-wed Margaret Murchie had applied to become a novice. This was shortly after her grandmother’s murder, from which she refused to benefit — as she saw it — in any way. The convent, by the way, smells of beeswax, just as Margaret had expected it would. Even though it comes from a aerosol can. (The sisters seem to smoke a lot, too, and they read Marx. “We’re a very modern order.”) The nuns, I have to say, are a hoot, with their preference for four-letter words and their BBC appearances and their master plumbing skills. Margaret’s odd psycho-political theories would have fit right in, if it hadn’t been for the encounter with William over the grapefruit at M&S. And the convent experiences its own murder, by the way.

If it’s not obvious by now, this is, in fact, quite an entertaining book. But I don’t think it’s terribly successful as a novel. The writing is amusing in a dry, deadpan way, and the characters are certainly fascinating, but there’s really not much of a story. More a collection of connected portraits and vignettes. I also had to keep looking back at the first chapter as I got farther into things, to remind myself which characters were which and who was related to whom. I’ll admit it: Muriel Spark is still a puzzle. I guess I’ll keep trying.

Published in: on 25 February 2013 at 7:25 am  Leave a Comment  
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