Friday, 10 February 2012

Muriel Spark: Robinson

In my posting on Riddley Walker, I mentioned my love of the kind of books that have maps at the front. Take a look at this one - not just a map but an allegorical map. It's obvious that the island represents a man, and both, like the novel, are called Robinson, a literary allusion that couldn't be more obvious. In 1958, it was unusual to flout the conventions of realism like this - Thomas Pynchon and John Barth were being greatly daring when they did something similar some years later, in V (1963) and Giles Goat-Boy (1966). Muriel Spark, a poet turned novelist, was in the process of working out for herself the genre we sometimes call, in a term invented by the critic Robert Scholes, fabulation. As practised by her, we might define this as about two parts allegory to three parts comedy, the comedy somehow both exuberant and deadpan. The map says it all, with its Treasure-Island fantasy ('Secret Tunnels'), precisely worked-out geography described in slightly poetic language ('Blue & Green Lake', 'Paths to Snow-White Beach'), and hilarious allegorical features ('The West Leg', 'The North Knee').

Three passengers survive from the plane that crashed on Robinson's eponymous island: January Marlow, a youngish widow and the novel's narrator, Tom Wells, an unpleasant salesman and charlatan specializing in lucky charms, and Jimmie Waterford, a Dutchman despite his name, who turns out to be a relative of Robinson's. There is one other character, the boy Miguel who is the son of one of the pomegranate planters who worked on the island before Robinson purchased it, and now cared for by Robinson. At first life is idyllic. There is ample food and nothing much to do until the pomegranate boat arrives on its scheduled visit in August, apart from milking the goat, listening to Robinson's Rossini records, and discussing relationships and theology. Robinson and January are both Catholics, the former more or less lapsed, the latter, like Spark herself, a recent convert. Robinson has retreated to the island because of his disillusionment with aspects of his religion, and the moral implications of retreat from what one finds unacceptable form the novel's theme. 'No man is an island,' Jimmie reminds him, but Robinson is doing his best to become one. Like January, whose name he initially mistakes for the month and place of her birth, he is a category error in human form.

Two-thirds of the way through this short book, Robinson disappears, and the plot shifts abruptly into a not very mysterious adventure mystery. It is always more of a romp, if any novel so intellectually sophisticated and elegantly written (Spark, at her best, is one of the great prose stylists) can be described in such terms. As well as the secret passages, there is blood, a volcano, and a lot of tension and intrigue between the one woman and two men, each of whom might be responsible for Robinson's death. To complicate matters, January is attracted to the morally ambiguous Jimmie - whose broken English also contributes to the comic tone:
   I dressed quickly and went in search of Jimmie. He was drinking brandy in Robinson's study. When he saw me he said:
   'Alas, I am abased to the servile floor.'
   I shivered, for in my haste I had not dried myself properly. I said, 'I'd like a drink.'
   He poured some brandy for me. 'I lose my nerves.'
Robinson was published four years later than that other desert-island allegory Lord of the Flies. One could read something into that, perhaps: an island suddenly shorn of its global empire returning to and revising the island fantasies that had sustained the spirit of imperial adventure from the start (The Tempest, Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island). Another island novel, Joseph Conrad's Victory (1915), in which Axel Heyst's attempt to shut himself off from the wickedness of the world is rudely interrupted by the arrival of three strangers, must surely have been an influence.

Muriel Spark is the most established writer I have covered in White Threshold. By the end of her career she was Dame Muriel, author of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which became an Oscar-winning film, rich and internationally famous. When she wrote Robinson, her second novel, she was none of these things. And I believe it's valid to stake a claim for cult status that applies to only part of a writer's work. Spark's five early novels, from The Comforters (1957) to The Bachelors (1960), together with the stories collected in The Go-Away Bird and Other Stories (1958) began an extraordinary outpouring of dark, funny, risk-taking fiction. Once this surge had reached its climax with the success of Brodie (1961) and The Girls of Slender Means (1963), she never again returned to the same level of sustained creativity, though there are isolated successes like A Far Cry from Kensington (1988). The pre-Brodie novels have received comparatively little attention, and Robinson may well be the least known of them all. Hardly surprising in some ways: its nuanced metaphysical debate, adventure-story trappings, and high comedy played with a straight face are, even by Spark's standards, distinctly unusual.

Nine titles done now, and for the tenth I have reserved something special. My first pre-twentieth-century text is also the first not to have been written in English: a pan-European metafictional epic.


  1. Interesting. That map reminds me of Myles na gCopaleen's terrifying monster, The Sea Cat (in his book The Poor Mouth) whose shape is the map of Ireland tipped forward onto its nose/feet.
    Thanks for this Matthew. I've been following these posts, since I too have a liking for similar genres (horror, fantasy, sci-fi). I've never read any of Spark's work (and the same goes for the other writers you've introduced).

    1. I'd forgotten that - haven't read The Poor Mouth for many years. However a neighbour of ours had two West Highland terriers which were the exact shape of the map of Ireland (with the eye as Lough Neagh). Am thinking of doing one of the Flann O'Brien novels on the blog at some stage - you could argue he's too well-known, but not as well-known as Spark, after all. I strongly recommend all those early Spark novels - perhaps Memento Mori is the best of them, but I'm not sure.