I have been filling in some of the holes I didn’t even know I had in my readings of Spark on her 100th birthday year. I have not been disappointed. Don’t make my mistake: read everything of hers. Compounding the audacity of The Driver’s Seat (which really every crime writer needs to read especially) I at last got around to her debut novel The Comforters and I am astonished that it is not more celebrated.
Audacious: it’s the only word for it. It seems so now, and yet it came out in 1957. Why it is not a lynch pin of modern novel studies I cannot say: I suspect that in addition to her gender there’s the Catholicism. Literary studies are much more comfortable with dour Protestants, and very suspicious of the magical side of the older faith. But Spark never shied away from engaging with as well as critiquing her adopted faith and it’s part and parcel of her outlook which has as much whimsy as scathing satire, though she’s mostly accounted for the latter.
As Ali Smith writes in the introduction (which does a great job of spelling out the accomplishments of the book), ‘By the time we reach the Typing Ghost, which declares itself to Caroline by its literal repetitions, this style is already embedded; in many ways the narrator is a joke, the narration a mocking of bad literary style–and as we know by the end of the book, it’s been the narrator all along having the joke, and not on us, but with us.’
Of course the main reason you should read it is that it is a delight with a gripping storyline (even when Spark allows us to anticipate what will happen next it’s not at all like we think it is) and enormous fun all along the way. Some fave bits:
Just then she heard the sound of a typewriter. It seemed to come through the wall on her left. It stopped, and was immediately followed by a voice remarking her own thoughts. It said: On the whole she did not thing there would be any difficulty with Helena.
“You’re mad,” said the Baron abruptly. Caroline felt relieved at these words, although, and in a way because, they confirmed her distress.
“Neurotics never go mad,’ he said.
“You do not know the madness of scholarly curiosity, Mr Webster. To be interested, and at the same time disinterested…”
‘I think she’s too ignorant to be a witch.’