Muriel Spark, Robinson
I sometimes find it ironic that Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) is generally identified as the beginning of realism in English literature. While Crusoe does, arguably, bookend a tradition of novelistic prose defined by a rational approach to observation, description, and narration of events, it also spawned a tradition of desert-island stories that demonstrate, again and again, how the isolated individual’s ability to represent what is “real” strains the devices of realism to the point that they inevitably shudder and break down. From the inexplicable single footprint that sends Defoe’s Crusoe into an existential crisis, to the bizarre supernatual whispers of the island on ABC’s Lost (NOTE: I have only seen Season 1 and am desperately awaiting the DVD release of Season 2 so don’t say ANYTHING about this show to me if you have seen more than I have—I am so deadly serious about this), the shipwrecked narrator is one of western culture’s most durable reminders of how, sometimes, the most realistic way we have of telling it like it is plunges quickly into the downright surreal.
Muriel Spark’s second novel, Robinson (1958), is an exemplary part of this tradition. More conventionally realist in style than her other novels, its familiar novelistic lexicon, passages of descriptive detail, and explicit invocation of the iconic Crusoe tale lull one into a sense of readerly security—that trust, so vital to realism, that one knows from the words on the page just what is going on around here. Spark’s narrator, January, relies on her own powers of observation and rational deduction to make sense of her surroundings and situation, and we in turn rely on her; by the time she, and we too, realize that “the real” behaves differently on an island—or, rather, for the solitary individual mind, untempered by social negotiation—eluding the formula of empirical evidence and rational judgment, more is at stake than we bargained for: for January, her very life; for us, our ability to believe that she, our only guide, is the best conduit of her own story. While those readers expecting a book full of Spark’s signature piquancy might be disappointed (which is not to say it’s not there; for example, one of January’s wreck-mates speaks a “peculiar idiom of English speech … acquired first from a Swiss uncle, using Shakespeare and some seventeenth-century poets as textbooks, and Fowler’s Modern English Usage as a guide,” and his dialogue is consistently hilarious), Robinson seems to me an excellent instance of a non-realist’s foray into realism, illuminating the genre’s frequently forgotten—even disavowed—quirks and mysteries.
Muriel Spark, The Ballad of Peckham Rye
The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960) seems more typical Sparkian fare, which is to say more arch, more satirical, and more stylistically bizarre. And yet, while in Robinson Spark uses realism to loosen readers from their moorings so that they founder in the depths of what seemed to be a straightforward story, in Peckham Rye her wry, detached sketches release the reader into a kind of drunken clarity about such Big Ideas as, say, human nature. Reading this short novel, I told a friend at the time, felt like being in one of those whiskey-induced hazes in which certain lines and observations blaze with a delightful, transcendent truth—for example, “Dougal gazed at him like a succubus whose mouth is in its eyes,” or “My lonely heart is deluged by melancholy and it feels quite nice”—while the lesser details, like What Is Actually Going On, recede elegantly into obscurity.
It’s such a treat to discover a writer like Muriel Spark well into one’s career as a reader. I look forward immensely to reading through the whole canon of her work.