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As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Dame Muriel Spark has long been one of my favourite authors and I’m taking part in the commemoration of her centenary this year by reading All of the Things. If you’ve been here long enough you may remember that I tried this before and failed miserably around book 8 out of the 22 novels that she wrote. But I’m determined to finish the project this time around.

Phase 1 took place between 1 January and 28 February and covered the novels she published in the 1950s…..

The Comforters (1957)

My edition is the 1982 Penguin, and I first read this novel in 1984; this is the third time of reading.

Caroline Rose is afflicted by what she calls the Typing Ghost, hearing her thoughts being spoken back to her as if she was the main character in a novel. Is that the case or is she going mad?

I love the waspishness of this novel which basically sets the tone for all of Muriel Sparks books – there is a lot of humour and quite a bit of philosophy, especially here where the very nature of existence is in question. Interestingly, Muriel Spark experienced hallucinations herself at one point due to medication she was taking at the time, though hers manifested themselves as jumbled words on the page which, as she pointed out, would not translate well to a novel. Such a strong and refreshing first book.

Robinson (1958)

My edition is the 2003 New Directions, bought specifically to fill the gaps in my collection when I tried to read all the novels back in 2006; this is the second time of reading.

January Marlowe is writing a journal covering the events of the few months she finds herself stranded on the island of Robinson, owned by a man also known as Robinson. She is there with two other survivors of a plane crash; no-one knows they are alive and they are all awaiting the planned arrival of a ship to tell the world they are OK and help them get back to their lives. But then there appears to have been a murder, and tensions rise as they become suspicious of each other.

I vaguely remembered the plot of this one but for some reason it really resonated with me more the second time around. Even though this is a first person narrative which often screams “unreliable narrator” I really trusted January’s voice. All of the men were downright unpleasant in one way or another so I was rooting for January all the way through. The plot is nice and twisty, which I loved. Of the three, this is the one I can see myself reading again soonest.

Memento Mori (1959)

My edition is the 1979 Penguin, probably one of the first of her books I bought after leaving school (which is where I was introduced to Muriel Spark through the medium of a certain Jean Brodie).

This is the fourth time I have read Memento Mori.

The novel concerns a group of elderly people, (almost) all known to each other and all experiencing the infirmities and complications of their advanced ages. A number of them receive mysterious phone calls where the caller simply states “Remember you must die.” Is this a hoax being carried out by someone they know? Or something more than that?

I first read this when I was 19 and I’m pretty sure that I was deeply impatient with the old folk, with their aches and pains and worries and constant tinkering with their wills and their habit of harking back to things long past. I’m 56 now and I find myself increasingly sympathetic to their plight and anxious for their continued well-being. And in Mrs Pettigrew we have one of Dame Muriel’s wonderfully monstrous women. Still a superb novel.

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So, very pleased to have successfully reached the end of Phase One; looking forward to starting the next group covering her novels from the 1960s. Some of my absolute favourites are in there!

 

 

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About The Abbess of Crewe:

An election (?) has been held at the Abbey of Crewe. The new Lady Abbess takes up her high office with implacable serenity. She had expected to win – one way or the other

When did I first read this? sometime after 1977 (when the edition I have was published) and June 1980 (when I started keeping a record of books read)

What age was I? between 16 and 19

How many times since then? This is my fifth time of reading.

Thoughts about the book:

I have been a fan of Muriel Spark for almost thirty-five years which is an astonishing thing to realise given that inside my head I am still 17 rather than the batty old dear I sometimes consider myself these days. I can’t recall now when I was first introduced to her; my memory says The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (which I have reviewed here) but another part of me thinks that I may have read some of her stuff before then and that The Abbess was one of the first.

It fascinates me because it is a short and pointed re-telling of the Watergate saga if it had taken place in an English convent, with The Abbess the Nixonian figure and her rival, Sister Felicity, representing the Democrats. And of course it’s not the theft of the silver thimble during the election of the Abbess, it’s the ensuing cover up which causes the problems. I think this has stuck with me not just because it’s another one of Sparks’ perfect little jewels but because it’s about Watergate which has fascinated me since I read All The Presidents Men in the early seventies (I still have the film tie-in edition somewhere in the house with long-haired Redford and Hoffman on the cover) and I have quite a few books on the subject, so some of the fun in reading The Abbess is in trying to identify the equivalents of the real life protagonists such as Haldeman and Kissinger (though the latter is really easy, Sister Gertrude a wonderful character awkays at one remove from political danger).

So almost certainly not a masterpeice but one of my absolute favourites and short enough to be read in one satisfying sitting.

Favourite bits:

“Why should they trouble themselves about a salacious nun and a Jesuit? I must say a jesuit, or any priest for that matter, would be the last man I would myself elect to be laid by. A man who undresses, maybe; a man who unfrocks, no”

“And it seems to me, Gertrude, that you are going to have a problem with those cannibals on the Latter Day when the trumpet shall sound. It’s a question of which man shall rise in the Resurrection, for certainly those that are eaten have long since become the consumers from generation to generation.”

“Now if you please, Walburga, let’s consult The Art of War because time is passing and the sands are running out.”

This is the second book in my Big Re-read Project; it was also my first Readathon read and would have been part of my contribution to Muriel Spark week if I had been sufficiently organised to (1) read a couple of other Sparks and (b) get around to blogging about The Abbess.

I’m trying to avoid challenges this year given that I seem so prone to reading slumps and any kind of pressure which implies that I must read this thing at this time plunges me back into paralysis, but this was too much to resist. It is being partly hosted by Harriet Devine, and takes place between 23 and 29th April.

I had already planned to re-read a Muriel as part of my Big Re-Read project so it all fits in quite neatly.

And who knows, I might even get around to finishing this at last.

I seem to have an awful lot of reading going on at the moment; some of these books have been sitting on my table for months (if not longer) and I will at some point have to decide whether I am going to persevere or give up, but not just yet, I think:

  • The Mitford Girls by Mary S Lovell – “‘I am normal, my wife is normal, but my daughters are each more foolish than the other‘ bewailed Lord Redesdale, father of the Mitford girls. Part of my Mitford obsession as mentioned briefly here.
  • The Sicilian Vespers by Steven Runciman – “On 30 March 1282, as the bells of Palermo were ringing for Vespers, the Sicilian townsfolk, crying ‘Death to the French’, slaughtered the garrison and administration of their Angevin King.”
  • Bone Song by John Meaney – “Tristopolis. Death’s City. Countless dead lie in the miles of catacombs beneath its streets.” Zombies and stuff in noir crime story.
  • The Women of Muriel Spark and Muriel Spark – reading these as background to the great abandoned but about to be resurrected Reading Muriel Project
  • Growing by Leonard Woolf – an autobiography of the years 1904 to 1911, set aside for some reason I can’t quite fathom
  • The Nightmare Factory by Thomas Ligotti – to be dipped into, prose is very, very lush.
  • Jigs and Reels by Joanne Harris – forgot all about this one, must finish it as I’ve enjoyed the stories I’ve read so far
  • Small Avalanches by Joyce Carol Oates – another dipper
  • O, Beloved Kids by Rudyard Kipling – Kipling’s letters to his children, which was intended to kick-start a Kipling fest after I visited his house in the summer; still something I want to do…..

And sad to say I’m still reading some of the books on this list, namely:

Bride of the Book God

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Scottish, in my fifties, love books but not always able to find the time to read them as much as I would like. I’m based in London and happily married to the Book God.

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