As with real sparks, Muriel Spark’s novels only sometimes catch alight for me. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) caught, Loitering with Intent (1981) too, but The Girls of Slender Means (1963) and The Driver’s Seat (1970) didn’t take at all, Spark’s famously firm narrative grip seeming firm to the point of inertia in these novels, their characters just too agency-less to engage with. (When Nabokov described his characters as “galley slaves”, he could just as easily have been referring to Spark’s.) It’s not a good hit rate when I put it like that: 50%. So why do I keep returning to Spark? Well, partly because of that other quality her novels share with sparks: their brevity. You do not lose much time reading a Muriel Spark novel, two hundred pages constituting “a long one” for her. The other enticement is the secondary criticism. Whether it’s Alan Taylor’s memoir, Appointment in Arezzo (2017), which attests to her brilliance as a person, or the New Yorker reviews of John Updike, which attest to her brilliance as a writer, I always feel I’m missing something when I read around Spark, and am compelled to give her another go. Which is what I’m doing now, this time with an early novel, The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960), the fourth she published in as many years. Will this Spark fly?
Chapter one throws us straight into the action:
‘Get away from here, you dirty swine,’ she said.
‘There’s a dirty swine in every man,’ he said.
‘Showing your face round here again,’ she said.
‘Now, Mavis, now, Mavis,’ he said.
She was seen to slam the door in his face, and he to press the bell, and she to open the door again.
‘I want a word with Dixie,’ he said. ‘Now, Mavis, be reasonable.’
‘My daughter,’ Mavis said, ‘is not in.’ She slammed the door in his face.
The refused visitor is Humphrey Place, and he is refused for jilting Mavis’ daughter, Dixie, at the altar a few weeks previously. The scandal, we are told, was enormous, though we might have already sensed that from the passive construction of ‘She was seen to slam’ – not ‘she slammed’ – which suggests eyes on the exchange; that rumour and gossip, privacy and propriety have currency here. It’s a wonderfully economical setup.
And it gets better. Turned away from Mavis’, Humphrey retires to the pub, where he is promptly punched in the face by Trevor Lomas. A brawl breaks out –
Humphrey hit him. Trevor hit back. There was a fight. Two courting couples returning from the dusky scope of the Rye’s broad lyrical acres stepped to the opposite pavement, leant on the railings by the swimming baths, and watched.
– but that is not, on the evidence of the few monosyllables afforded it, what interests Spark; it is the onlookers who preoccupy her. And indeed, as in Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon (1951), the rest of the chapter sees the same fight discussed or witnessed several more times from several different perspectives, all slightly different but all in agreement on one thing: that the blame – for the fight, the jilting, the community-wide unrest – lies entirely with Dougal Douglas.
It is a lot to lay on a character we haven’t met yet, but Dougal does not disappoint. When we meet him in chapter two, the events of chapter one are several months hence and Dougal has just arrived in Peckham from Edinburgh University to interview for a nebulous job in “human research” at “Meadows, Meade & Grindley, manufacturers of nylon textiles.” He is an unattractively attractive prospect:
he dwelt with a dark glow on Mr Druce, he raised his right shoulder, which was already highly crooked by nature, and leaned on his elbow with a becoming twist of the body. […] Mr Druce could not keep his eyes off Dougal, as Dougal perceived.
Nor are Mr Druce’s ears his own:
I feel I’m your man,’ Dougal said. ‘Something told me so when I woke first thing this morning.’
‘Is that so?’ Mr Druce said. ‘Is that so?’
‘Only a hunch,’ said Dougal. ‘I may be wrong.’
And thus – with these gifts of gait and gab – Dougal gets the job.
The rest of the novel sees Dougal doing everything but that job. He whispers in Humphrey’s ear about the unsuitability of Dixie; he shocks with his frank discussions of sex; he astounds with his unusual dance moves; he gets a position at a rival manufacturing firm under the name “Douglas Dougal” while still at Meadows; but actual work he does not do. Consequently, the absenteeism he was brought in to stymie (and in which he is now leading the way) proliferates, and the moral and economic bedrock of the community begins to teeter. As perhaps does the reader’s faith in Spark’s apoliticism…
But fear not. As with Miss Brodie’s fascism, the social energies of The Ballad of Peckham Rye never develop into anything so tedious as a conscience, and the novel entertains to the last. Which is not very long, it’s true, but then sparks are meant to be short-lived, and there are always plenty more to put your tinder to. In the case of Muriel’s vast bibliography, I’ve barely scratched the surface.
The Ballad of Peckham Rye is published by Penguin and is available here.