Wednesday, March 9

My Muriel Spark Selection Box

I tend to read books by different authors; I move on. To have read, not just two, let’s say three or more books by the same writer - for me that is a big commitment!  I have to really like that writer and there are probably only a dozen or so who fall into that category. Muriel Spark is one of them.  She is of course best known for her novels, but she also wrote a fine set of short stories.  Here is my selection.

The Executor is typical of her style - witty, carefully constructed, and makes you smile all the way through, even at the nasty bits.  Overall, just a pleasure to read.  I have read quite a few of her short stories and this is one of my favourites so far, both accessible and gripping.  The premise is that the narrator’s uncle was a famous writer, and when she becomes a ‘literary executor’ dealing with his papers after he dies, she decides to pass off an unfinished novel as her own. There is a real moral and spiritual debate encapsulated into the few pages of the story, as well as believable characters, lots of black humour and lovely realist touches.  But I don’t want to give too much away, so I will leave it there.

The Snobs is another fine example.  Spark presents the tale like a personal experience so it’s hard to know how much is fact and how much fiction, but the characters of the couple (the snobs themselves) are brilliantly described, and I’m sure everyone would recognise the type!  They pitch up at a French chateau where the narrator is a guest, and once they realise that the place is a bit ‘special’, it becomes infuriatingly difficult to get rid of them.  Hilarious in an infuriating sort of way!

My overall favourite is The House of the Famous Poet.  I've read hundreds of stories, but this is one of only a couple that have made me think, ‘yes, that is what a short story should really be like’.  It is so elegantly constructed, so clear yet complex, that any would-be story writers should look at it as an example of how to mould themes together.  Having said that, it would seem a tricky task to do it quite as neatly and wittily as Spark.

The story: the protagonist is on a train from Edinburgh to London in 1944.  She dislikes the look of a young soldier, but he turns out to be very kind to both her and another young woman she is sitting beside.  She tags along with the young woman to where she is staying in London - a large, slightly shabby-looking house.  Again, her first impressions are transformed when she realises that it is the house “of the famous Poet” (unspecified which one!) and she has to look at the experience with new eyes.  This is all well and good but Spark weaves in yet another theme, the real point of the story, in quite a surreal but poignant way, which makes the reader reevaluate all of the events so far.

I don't like to over-hype a story, but the world will definitely be a better place if you read this one!

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