Sunday, October 10, 2010

S(h)ame again? Working through an author's ouvre

Aiding and Abetting by Muriel Spark is the worst novel I have ever finished. Thin, slap-dash, meandering... Its only redeeming feature is its brevity (if it were any longer I would not have retrieved it that time I threw it across the room).

I know that a useful discussion of this book and its failings should include a plot summary, but I just can’t bring myself to do it, so here’s a link to the Complete Review’s review (which gives the plot and isn’t negative, though you have to scroll down past a number of negative excerpts from other reviews to get there).
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
is one of my favourite books, but I have also read and not-really-liked The Comforters, The Public Image and The Driver’s Seat. Which leaves me with a conundrum. Do I continue to pick up a Spark novel every year in the hope of getting another Brodie (I could, perhaps, be more scientific about which books of Spark’s I choose) , or do I just move on?


The audiobook I finished about the same time as Aiding and Abetting was similar in that it was by an author I’d read before and hoped this new (to me) book would delight me as previous works had. The author was E.M. Forster and the book/audiobook was A Room With A View. I’ve read Howard’s End, A Passage to India, and Maurice (Forster’s posthumously published novel) and hold the first two in great esteem.

A Room with a ViewA Room With A View (1908) is very, very similar to these other books in terms of mechanics. Conservative, static, uncreative types (symbolised as rooms in ARWaV) versus more liberal, dynamic types (symbolised by views/the out-of-doors). Howard’s End (1910) is the book ARWaV resembles most closely, though the later book is a step up the evolutionary ladder.

In A Room With A View, Lucy Honeychurch is lured out of her conservative background and tittering girlhood by the lower class Emersons: the Communist, atheist father and the earthy, quiet, impulsive son, George. Most of Forster’s moralising comes from the mouth of one or other of the Emersons, though they spend most of the novel out of shot.

Howards EndHoward’s End, however, splits the Emersons in two, with the outré politics and moralising taken up by the Schlegels, and the earthy, lower class role played by Leonard Bast. The endings of the two books are intimately linked to this division. Lucy and George Emerson end up happily ever after (until the Appendix, “A Room Without A View” Forster penned in 1958), whereas Bast’s quest to climb socially leads to his death. It needn’t be the case that a more negative ending automatically trumps a positive one, but in the case of these two books the more successful ending is a sign that the opposing forces in the novel were positioned to deliver maximum conflict.

With this said, I still enjoyed A Room With A View very much. It was a pleasure to enter Forster’s world again and relax into his prose. This is the reason I return to authors whose books I have enjoyed (despite some, like Maurice, leaving me cold).

To summarise my view as a reader: Dear Author, please give me something similar to the book of yours I liked the most, but not exactly the same, okay? If I want something completely different, I’ll read something by someone else.

As a writer —one who, if my short story collection is anything to go by, likes to jump around — I wish it wasn’t like this. Unlike a reader, if I feel like writing something completely different I don’t have the luxury of turning to someone else. It’s just me. So I jump around.
Those of you here from the beginning, you’re in for a bumpy ride.


Slender Means said...

Muriel Spark - her earliest books are her great books!

Craig Cliff said...

Well, I didn't love 'The Comforters' (her earliest of earliest) but I suspect I'll love 'The Girls of Slender Means' when I get around to reading it. (Not sure if I'm delaying my pleasure or disappointment.)

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