FFB: The Comforters by Muriel Spark

518etwianjl-_sx317_bo1204203200_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.’

Check out all the overlooked books at Patti’s blog (on hiatus) Todd’s place.

#FolkloreThursday: #storytime by Joanne Harris and the Storytime Band

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If like me you have not been able to catch the live version of Joanne Harris’ #storytime, you’ll be glad to know that this CD captures the experience rather well (I suspect). Music, song and story blend together to create a magical experience with the freshness of a live performance.

Folktale aficionados will find Harris’ stories to be in a familiar vein that we have all imbibed since childhood. Yet her fairytale narratives offer original takes on those tropes that will surprise and delight you. If you follow @JoanneChocolat on Twitter you know her impromtu #storytime threads are always surprising, often timely and generally hook you quickly.

This CD gives me ideas — always a good sign.

Buy the CD direct for just £5 and get it personalised.

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FFB: The Driver’s Seat – Muriel Spark

Was she asking for it?
Was she asking nice?
If she was asking for it,
Did she ask you twice?
Hole – Asking For It

2018-01-07 15.32.47It seems redundant to call this a lean novel from Spark — her novels are singularly lean. I always feel as if they have been sanded fine. I’ve been on a kick since the winter break before and after seeing The International Style of Muriel Spark exhibit with Miss Wendy at the National Library in Edinburgh, which I highly recommend you see. I loved it in the nosy way writers always want to peek at the process of others, but also damn, the woman had style — and chops. I feel like I need to cut my own prose to the bone like her or I’m just dithering too much. But you can’t miss anything: you have to absorb every clue. The thing is you don’t always realise what is a clue. You have to become hyper-vigilant and note everything which leads to a kind of madness rather like the heroine of this book.

coverThe Driver’s Seat is a great example of this. There is not one word in excess. This is a crazy book, off-putting to many I’m sure (I looked at some of the contemporary reviews) but both brilliant and searingly insightful. The blurb on the back (and what a marvelous cover, Penguin) from David Lodge calls it not only a ‘tour de force’ but ‘a crime story turned inside out’ which is a great description. Within the first few pages, you know that Lise is going to die. With mordant zeal, the narrator points out the clues that will be put together at the end of the investigation.

Many of them will puzzle the police forces. They’re both vivid and seemingly inexplicable. Like the clothing captured well in this cover: ‘the necessary dress’ as she calls it. the colours are so garish the porter of her building laughs at her.

She says, ‘Are you going to join a circus? Then again she throws back her head, looking down through half-closed lids at Lise’s clothes, and gives out the high, hacking cough-like ancestral laughter of the streets, holding her breasts in her hands to spare them the shake-up. Lise says with quiet dignity, ‘You are insolent.’

How marvelous is that? This whole world is at a slant, Lise’s particular slant, from her model of efficiency modular flat to the sudden and violent reaction to being informed that the dress she’s trying on is ‘stain resistant’ (‘I won’t be insulted!’). The alternation between helpless laughing and crying quickly leads to the deduction that the ‘months of illness’ that punctuate her sixteen years at the same job are definitely related to her mental health.

Now, here’s where it might get a little spoilery if you don’t want to know more about it than the fact that she’s doomed. She heads off on her holiday telling people she’s meeting a boy-friend though she doesn’t seem to know who and constantly lies about what she has done and plans to do. Even the narrator draws back at times, shying away from true omniscience at the most interesting junctures yet with chilling suggestions that have to be carefully sifted.

Lise is lifting the corners of her carefully packed things, as if in absent-minded accompaniment to some thought, who knows what?

The narrator seems uncertain what’s really going on, yet knows a great deal of facts –they’re just impossible to explain.  The novel reads like an assemblage of facts that took some time to put together, yet still don’t add up. Lise buys all the items used in her murder, deliberately and particularly. She even urges her befuddled killer to murder her: ‘She told me precisely what to do.’

Was she asking for it?
Was she asking nice?

I suspect that like many of us, Spark may have heard one too many times about a ‘girl who was asking for it’ and wondered what sort of woman would ask to be killed, really. A mad woman, an insanely driven woman who is both consumed by lust and gravely puritanical — and utterly deranged. Asking for it?

I have bookmarked the Liz Taylor film version, but I dunno…

I admire her hugely. Check out all the FFB over at Patti Abbott’s blog including Evan Lewis’ post on Bill Crider’s celebration of life.

Spark Satire

Review: Girl from the North Country

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Image via London Theatre Guide

I’ll be honest: I really really wanted to see Mosquitoes. I queued twice to try to get tickets. But I was denied the two Olivias (sob!). So I went to the Tkts booth intending to maybe see Hamlet but there being only obstructed view, I decided to go with Girl from the North Country. Advertising worked: I had seen that poster everywhere. Besides, the trip had picked up a musical theme somehow so it fit.

What a cast! Shirley Henderson, Ciarán Hinds, Bronagh Gallagher, Ron Cook, Jim Norton, Sheila Atim, Arinzé Kene. Of course, the underlying strength of Dylan’s songs had to count for a lot too: and then there was the script and direction by Conor McPherson.

For me, it just didn’t work. There was so much that seemed like it would be right: the Great Depression setting, the diverse cast of singers, the potential for drama inherent in the songs. The performances were a knockout: the songs were wonderful to hear in a completely different way. Thoughtful interpretations of old favourites — though I could have done without the bros next to me singing along with Jokerman. Hearing Dylan’s songs in a new way that was more bluesy than the usual Broadway show tunes style made them a new experience. The cast, especially Atim, brought the tunes to life. All of them were wonderful in the songs and the arrangements were innovative and interesting without feeling like they were going for deliberate novelty. The band was tight!

The script on the other hand — ugh! When you start out the play with a character introducing and setting up the scene, then saying ‘but I don’t come along until later’ — well, you’ve started out on the wrong foot. Theatre should throw you into a world, make it live. I’m hoping this is a work in progress because it definitely feels like one. The ideas are there but I didn’t believe even one of the characters. They felt like plot points. It’s to the credit of the stellar cast that they poured themselves into these characters. I felt for the actors but I never much felt for the characters.

Everything about it felt anachronistic. There’s so much here with potential: the economic hardship, the precarious difficulty of being a carer — Henderson’s character seemed to be as ‘crazy’ as the plot required at the moment though she wrung a good bit of sympathy out of this difficult woman, while the characterisation of the apparently autistic boy felt too much like a plot idea that never came to life — and the racial tensions which are brought up and then kind of sidestepped. I realise in a musical people might want to avoid getting too dark but seriously, it’s the Great Depression. You’re going to have to embrace the dark.

But I seem to be in a minority here, so see it for yourself and tell me what you think.

Daphne Oram’s Wonderful World of Sound

Isobel McArthur as Daphne Oram

Photo via Dundee Rep

We had a chance to catch the Blood of the Young and Tron Theatre presentation of Daphne Oram’s Wonderful World of Sound at Dundee Rep. This show is touring Scotland, so if you can do be sure to see it. If you don’t know anything about Oram, there’s a good primer at her official website. You may recall that her book on sound theory An Individual Note was kickstarted last year, a project spearheaded by the fabulous Sarah Angliss.

Co-written by star Isobel McArthur (pictured above) and director Paul Brotherston, the play gives an overview of key moments in Oram’s life from her childhood interests in music in archeology, to the 1942 séance where the 17 year old was encouraged to pursue music instead of a more traditional ‘girl’s path’ to safety and suffocation. Sheer determination and unflagging confidence in the power of sound eventually brings her to co-founding and becoming director of the famed BBC Radiophonic Workshop. McArthur embodies Oram with an enthusiasm and a dogged primness that allows the passionate creative force to burst out to great effect when it’s been denied too long.

The ensemble cast Robin Hellier, David James Kirkwood, Dylan Read and Matthew Seager move adroitly between parts, shifting accents and body language to make transitions clear. Ana Inés Jabares-Pita has designed a set that supports that nimbleness of the cast. The true magic of theatre is creating places and people in an instant that you completely believe. A small ensemble can sometimes feel like Tommy Cooper changing hats. With a minimum of props, this group portrayed a succession of situations with vivid clarity.

The live sound score by Anneke Kampman was simply amazing. She created ambience, soaring melodies, a wide variety of sound effects and really brought the whole philosophy of Oram to aural life. You can follow her on SoundCloud to hear more, but if you can catch her live do. The frisson between the music and the players energised the whole audience.

You can get a taster here:

FFB: Porterhouse Blue – Tom Sharpe

porterhouse_blue_bookI have been thinking about academic novels lately because I am — much as I swore never to do so — working on a roman à clef called Hire Idiots (the topic of which ought to be abundantly clear). I taught Lucky Jim in my senior seminar and enjoyed my students’ reactions to it. I’ve been thinking of re-reading Waugh’s Decline and Fall, but I can’t seem to find it. I’m not sure it’s even possible to write satire anymore as reality outstrips it, but now that I’ve started I want to finish.

I had not read Tom Sharpe’s novel of a fictional college at Cambridge. He’s probably best known for the Wilt novels. There’s no Jim Dixon or Paul Pennyfeather to fasten our sympathies to in this novel: everybody is kind of awful in a cringingly realistic way. There is the poor post graduate student Zipser who commands our pity if not sympathy, but alas, he exits the story rather early on. There are some great comedic scenes.

What’s fun about this book is the horrible way the petty politics quickly ascend to the heights of absurdity as the new Master of Porterhouse arrives and intends to make big changes. In the cyclical nature of politics (which I suppose ought to give us some hope at the moment) this 1974 novel gives us a college of hidebound tradition faced with the liberalising force of a reformer. Sharpe makes all the partisans ridiculous, but not without sympathy. The bullying Master is bullied by his wife (women are either harpies or sexpots if they appear at all, alas), the deaf Chaplain is mostly kind, the put-upon Bursar leaps from frying pan to fire, and the snobby porter has been grossly misused.

Anyone who has been in academia (or academia adjacent) will appreciate the humour here — especially when the score-settling tv host who’s also an alum arrives. Sharpe’s humour mostly rests in good and bad intentions going madly awry. I’ve got the mini-series based on it to watch when I get the time. Some quotes:

‘As far as the College Council is concerned I think that the best policy will be one of…er…amiable inertia.’

‘There’s nothing like prevarication,’ the Dean agreed, ‘I have yet to meet a liberal who can withstand the attrition of prolonged discussion of the inessentials.’ [ouch]

With the experience of hundreds of hours in committees behind him, the Master anticipated the arguments that would be raised against him by the Fellows…It was precisely on such divisions of opinion that he thrived. The original issue would get lost in argument and he would emerge as the arbiter between divided factions.

But first he needed an ally. He ran through the Fellows in search of a weak link.

‘We shall muddy the issue until it is uncertain…If there must be dirt let there be lots of it.’

‘Trouble with you academic wallahs,’ said Sir Cathcart finally…,’is you take things too seriously.’ [cringe]

‘In my opinion genius is by definition a capacity to jump the whole process of taking infinite pains, but then as I say, nobody listens to me.’

There was something perverse about English political attitudes that defeated logic.

His had been an intellectual decision founded on his conviction that if a little knowledge was a dangerous thing, a lot was lethal.

See all the neglected books over at Patti Abbott’s place.

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Review: Radio Girls

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Sarah-Jane Stratford

The Great War is over, and change is in the air, in this novel that brings to life the exciting days of early British radio …and one woman who finds her voice while working alongside the brilliant women and men of the BBC London, 1926.

‘If we have the sense to give [broadcasting] freedom and intelligent direction, if we save it from exploitation by vested interests of money or power, its influence may even redress the balance in favour of the individual.’

Hilda Matheson, Broadcasting (1933)

Did you know talk radio was started by a woman? Did you know she wrote a handbook for radio broadcasting in 1933? And was also an agent of MI5? And worked with Lawrence of Arabia and Lady Astor? Does it sound like too much to pack into a novel? Are you now shouting aloud, ‘Why has no one told me about this amazing woman before!’ because I certainly was. Hilda Matheson was a pioneer, a visionary, spy, writer, insightful revolutionary, lover of Vita Sackville-West — well, it’s all gilding the lily a bit. If she hadn’t existed, you’d have wanted to invent her.

In this novel Stratford does a very wise thing: she looks at Matheson through the eyes of a young Canadian-American expat whose life is transformed by working with her. In so doing she gets to use all the fun of a novel (adventure, romance, intrigue, friendships) to show the glories of the beginning of the institution that is the BBC. It was once full of women who were over time systematically driven out. As I’m also immersed in early electronic pioneers Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Oram, it’s easy to see how women keep getting nudged out of history by neglect because men are trumpeted for genius and women are loathed for it.

Stratford’s protagonist, Canadian-American Maisie Musgrove, is gauche and a bit overwrought at first, but this allows us to see the peculiarly British system that makes up the BBC. It’s one that has the latitude to offer opportunities to women — when everyone thinks it will fail — and then squeeze them out casually once the power of the institution becomes clear.

Musgrove’s transformation is gradual and affecting. Though desperate for a job, any job, at the start she soon comes to realise the power of sound and voice. She begins to listen to the people on the trams, the click of heels on lino, and appreciates the artistry but also the science behind the broadcasts. When an emergency requires use of the old 2LO transmitter, Hilda introduces Maisie to its intricacies and she’s captivated by its magic ‘but it wasn’t magic. It was better. This was the result of endless questions, the search for answers.’

The pace is breezy: I read two-thirds of it in one evening, but there’s a lot of history and information here too. In the lead up to the second world war, there are a lot of people who want to commandeer the power of the new medium and very real intrigues went on behind the scenes. Matheson’s determination to keep the plurality of voices represented is something, alas, the BBC seems to have lost.

I appreciated the author’s note at the end and just ordered Kate Murphy’s Behind the Wireless: An Early History of Women at the BBC which Stratford recommends. The book is out in the US too (though the cover isn’t as pretty, as usual). A very fun read that’s also chock full of interesting history.