The Spark of perfection
A slender novel deserves a new look 50 years later.
is a freelance writer and researcher in Philadelphia
Most novels are not well-remembered. The relative few that are tend to seep into the cultural conciseness by placement in grade-school curricula. Who among us has not read, or pretended to, Animal Farm and To Kill a Mockingbird? Other, generally fatter, tomes live on in college courses and New Year's resolutions: This year you promise, emboldened by champagne, will be the year for Ulysses.
But the great bulk of fiction, when published, causes a ripple of reviews and then sinks into the depths, never to receive the scribbled marginalia of barely comprehending sophomores. Such has been the fate of Muriel Spark, at least on this side of the Atlantic, where she is remembered, if at all, for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. (Her books have not been much adapted to film, another sure way to win lasting fame.) But her brilliantly cold, slim novels did quite well, in her time, and they have not fallen so deep into obscurity that you won't be able to find her in the local used bookstore.
The beauty of Spark's work is that she doesn't follow this realization into boring nihilism. This is partially due to her Catholicism, allowing the random cruelties of life to play out against an eternal backdrop (although hardly a comforting one). But it is more because she does not sacrifice her characters' personalities to the void. Death is made all the more discomfiting because of how much fun it is to spend time with an amusing cast, gifted with captivating foibles and described by a sardonic narrator.
The Girls of Slender Means unfolds in London, largely between VE and VJ Day, as austerity reigns and everything from food to clothing is rationed. "Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions," the book opens. "All the nice people were poor; at least, that was the general axiom, the best of the rich being poor in spirit." The specific setting is the May of Teck Club, a boardinghouse for single women under 30 (based on the Helena Club, where Spark lived during the final years of the war). It is a charming, insular place, seemingly isolated from the outside world despite the obvious destruction around it, "houses like giant teeth in which decay had been drilled out, leaving only the cavity."
The May of Teck Club has survived years of German bombs and rockets, "three times window-shattered since 1940, but never directly hit." The main characters on the top floors of the hostel are quickly and neatly sketched out, chief among them the slim and beautiful Selina; the elocution-teaching Joanna, in London to cure herself of a tendency to fall for country curates; and the portly wannabe intellectual Jane, "who . . . spent much of her time in eager dread of the next meal." It is she who brings Nicholas Farringdon - a 33-year-old anarchist, failed poet, and intelligence officer - to the club, where he projects his fantasies of an ideal society onto the shabby camaraderie of the women's lives.
The intimate details of the club are enormously fun to read, from Selina's affairs to Jane's halting attempts to induct herself into an intellectual and artistic scene. Wonderful minor details adorn even the most minor characters: "The warden drove a car as she would have driven a man had she possessed one."
Throughout the novel, major world-historical events play out in the background, and a sense of dread mounts as Spark lets us know that some tragedy, which Farringdon witnesses, will tear apart the charmed world of the May of Teck. When it comes, the calamity illuminates the book's central theme, which Nick articulates: "Nowhere is safe."
The Girls of Slender Means is not without hope, of a kind. It is revealed early on that Farringdon has converted to Catholicism - and is martyred - after the events of the novel, but that is a questionable comfort to the less religious among us (Spark was a rather mordant Catholic, so may have seen redemption in his grisly fate). For the more secular-minded, the novel's tragic end is furnished with a variety of minor acts, from characters hitherto untested, illustrating (Camus-like) how even the smallest choices can offer some momentary relief to the suffering of others. Or, alternatively, how selfishness simply augments the ruthless ambiguity of it all.
Spark delivers such potent truths within a sprightly, elegant comedy, one that deserves to be read far more than it is.
E-mail Jake Blumgart at email@example.com.