First published here in 2010.
'A bewitching storyteller and, however unreflectingly, the first tribute readers pay to her art is surrender to the engrossing tales she tells. Storytellers are in slight evidence as our century lengthens,and the novelist who aims to entertain, nearly extinct.'
According to William McBrien, one time editor of the scholarly journal Twentieth Century Literature, that's how good Muriel Spark was, and how seemingly dire things were considered to be in the early 1980s. This according to his essay Muriel Spark, the novelist as dandy which I came across whilst reading Twentieth Century Women Novelists edited by Thomas Staley.
Nothing I've read by Muriel has disappointed me in the slightest, but I think reading a Muriel Spark novel is a bit of an act of faith for me because I can't pretend complete understanding or total comfort as I turn the pages, I just have to dive in from the high board and forget any elegant and well-practised piked triple twist somersault entries with a stack of Sparkian expertise to assist, this feels like a clumsy, feet first plunge and one that relies heavily on Muriel's all-seeing authorial eye to get me to the end with a modicum of enlightenment.
Bless her, Muriel always comes good
I find it helps to keep Muriel Spark's own words in mind,
'Fiction to me is a kind of parable, you have got to make up your mind it's not true. Some kind of truth emerges from it, but it's not fact.'
So to The Ballad of Peckham Rye published in 1960,
The inimitable Stevie 'waving not drowning ' Smith (and why haven't I read more of her?) reviewing The Ballad of Peckham Rye in the Observer in 1960 suggested
'Muriel Spark has a real genius for being gruesome and hilarious in practical circumstances, gay in city graveyards, gothic in factories.'
and that is exactly what you get in this little 143 page novel and then to discover that Muriel herself had decided
'I wanted to give my mind a holiday and write something light and lyrical - as near a poem as a novel could get, and in as few words as possible.'
and I'm inclined to think hallelujah for you Muriel.
The eccentric and enigmatic Dougal Douglas, the hump-backed, lop-shouldered young man who has two lumps on his head which he explains are the remains of a set of surgically removed horns, arrives in the south London suburb of Peckham Rye in the 1950s. Apparently famed for being the site of Boadicea's suicide, it's not long before this normally staid working-class community is thinking about following her example as young Dougal proceeds to create turmoil, because as well as ghosting the biography of a retired actress, he's also conducting research into the factory working environment and meeting some wonderful Sparkian characters along the way.
Muriel Spark does real, normal, ordinary people so well...
'Here they were, kneeling at the altar. The vicar was reading from the prayer book...
The Vicar said to Humphrey, 'Wilt thou have this woman to thy wedded wife?'
'No,' Humphrey said, ' to be quite frank I won't.'
He got to his feet and walked straight up the aisle...got to the door and into his Fiat, and drove off by himself to Folkestone. It was there they had planned to spend their honeymoon.'
So I had a smile on my face by page eight and I don't think it left me through to the end.
In amongst it all there is of course the inevitable moment of Sparkian comic- tragedy and that horror when I was caught with the smile on my face as someone was being murdered, and all I could think was 'Muriel, how could you do that to me.'
It's almost impossible for me to explain or define with any clarity, in fact I don't feel like I'm saying much in depth about the book at all, but on entering Muriel Spark's world I happily leave disbelief and sensibilities at the door, throw myself into the spirit of the game and I know I love going there.
William Boyd in his excellent introduction to my new Penguin edition suggests that Muriel Spark...
'hovers over her fictional world like a Dickens or a Trollope,happily telling us first what this character is thinking and then that one.'
and perhaps this is how Muriel gets me so successfully to the other end of the book in one piece, but could anything be truer than this assertion...
'It is worth remembering that life actually inclines to be this weird and this confusing - and that human beings are, on the whole, extremely odd....the Sparkian world in full-throated and exuberant splendour.''