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The Book Trail: From Virago to Persephone

I have chosen one of Muriel Spark’s books for this, the first of 2019’s, edition of The Book Trail.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list.

 

1. The Mandelbaum Gate by Muriel Spark 17593886
To rendezvous with her archeologist fiance in Jordan, Barbara Vaughn must first pass through the Mandelbaum Gate–which divides strife-torn Jerusalem. A half-jewish convert to Catholicism, an Englishwoman of strong and stubborn convictions, Barbara will not be dissuaded from her ill-timed pilgrimage despite a very real threat of bodily harm and the fearful admonishments of staid British diplomat Freddy Hamilton.

 

2. The Summer House: A Trilogy by Alice Thomas Ellis
In The Summer House trilogy, three very different women, with three very distinct perspectives, narrate three very witty novels concerning one disastrous wedding in the offing.  The Clothes in the Wardrobe: Nineteen-year-old Margaret feels more trepidation than joy at the prospect of her marriage to forty-year-old Syl.  The Skeleton in the Cupboard: Syl’s mother, Mrs. Monro, doesn’t know quite what to make of her son’s life, but she knows Margaret should not marry him.  The Fly in the Ointment: And then there’s Lili, the free spirit who is determined that the wedding shall not happen, no matter the consequences.

 

174655123. A Long Way From Verona by Jane Gardam
Jessica Vye’s ‘violent experience’ colours her schooldays and her reaction to the world around her- a confining world of Order Marks, wartime restrictions, viyella dresses, nicely-restrained essays and dusty tea shops. For Jessica she has been told that she is ‘beyond all possible doubt’, a born writer. With her inability to conform, her absolute compulsion to tell the truth and her dedication to accurately noting her experiences, she knows this anyway. But what she doesn’t know is that the experiences that sustain and enrich her burgeoning talent will one day lead to a new- and entirely unexpected- reality.

 

4. Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr
Ill and bored with having to stay in bed, Marianne picks up a pencil and starts doodling – a house, a garden, a boy at the window. That night she has an extraordinary dream. She is transported into her own picture, and as she explores further she soon realises she is not alone. The boy at the window is called Mark, and his every movement is guarded by the menacing stone watchers that surround the solitary house. Together, in their dreams, Marianne and Mark must save themselves…

 

5. Mistress Masham’s Repose by T.H. White 29124
‘Ten-year-old Maria, orphaned mistress of Malplaquet, discovers the secret of her deteriorating estate: on a deserted island at its far corner, in the temple long ago nicknamed Mistress Masham’s Repose, live an entire community of people—”The People,” as they call themselves—all only inches tall. With the help of her only friend—the absurdly erudite Professor—Maria soon learns that this settlement is no less than the kingdom of Lilliput (first seen in Gulliver’s Travels) in exile. Safely hidden for centuries, the Lilliputians are at first endangered by Maria’s well-meaning but clumsy attempts to make their lives easier, but their situation grows truly ominous when they are discovered by Maria’s greedy guardians, who look at The People and see only a bundle of money.’

 

6. The House in Norham Gardens by Penelope Lively
No.40 Norham Gardens, Oxford, is the home of Clare Mayfield, her two aged aunts and two lodgers. The house is a huge Victorian monstrosity, with rooms all full of old furniture, old papers, old clothes, memorabilia – it is like a living museum. Clare discovers in a junk room the vividly painted shield which her great-grandfather, an eminent anthropologist, had brought back from New Guinea. She becomes obsessed with its past and determined to find out more about its strange tribal origins. Dreams begin to haunt her – dreams of another country, another clture, another time, and of shadowy people whom she feels are watching her. Who are they, and what do they want?

 

5025367. They Knew Mr Knight by Dorothy Whipple
The Blakes are an ordinary family: Celia looks after the house and Thomas works at the family engineering business in Leicester. This book begins when he meets Mr Knight, a financier as crooked as any on the front pages of our newspapers nowadays; and tracks his and his family’s swift climb and fall.

 

8. Fidelity by Susan Glaspell
Set in Iowa in 1900 and in 1913, this dramatic and deeply moral novel uses complex but subtle use of flashback to describe a girl named Ruth Holland, bored with her life at home, falling in love with a married man and running off with him; when she comes back more than a decade later we are shown how her actions have affected those around her. Ruth had taken another woman’s husband and as such ‘Freeport’ society thinks she is ‘a human being who selfishly – basely – took her own happiness, leaving misery for others. She outraged society as completely as a woman could outrage it… One who defies it – deceives it – must be shut out from it.’  But, like Emma Bovary, Edna Pontellier in ‘The Awakening’ and Nora in ‘A Doll’s House’ Ruth has ‘a diffused longing for an enlarged experience… Her energies having been shut off from the way they had wanted to go, she was all the more zestful for new things from life…’ It is these that are explored in Fidelity.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which have piqued your interest?

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The Book Trail: The Biographical Edition

I am beginning this particular instalment of The Book Trail with a fantastic biography of one of my favourite children’s authors.  As ever, I am using the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list.

1. Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl by Donald Sturrock 8789494
A single-minded adventurer and an eternal child who gave us the iconic Willy Wonka and Matilda Wormwood, Roald Dahl lived a life filled with incident, drama and adventure: from his harrowing experiences as an RAF fighter pilot and his work in British intelligence, to his many romances and turbulent marriage to the actress Patricia Neal, to the mental anguish caused by the death of his young daughter Olivia. In “Storyteller, “the first authorized biography of Dahl, Donald Sturrock–granted unprecedented access to the Dahl estate’s archives–draws on personal correspondence, journals and interviews with family members and famous friends to deliver a masterful, witty and incisive look at one of the greatest authors and eccentric characters of the modern age, whose work still delights millions around the world today.

 

2. Eudora Welty by Suzanne Marrs
Eudora Welty’s works are treasures of American literature. When her first short-story collection was published in 1941, it heralded the arrival of a genuinely original writer who over the decades wrote hugely popular novels, novellas, essays, and a memoir, One Writer’s Beginnings, that became a national bestseller. By the end of her life, Welty (who died in 2001) had been given nearly every literary award there was and was all but shrouded in admiration.  In this definitive and authoritative account, Suzanne Marrs restores Welty’s story to human proportions, tracing Welty’s life from her roots in Jackson, Mississippi, to her rise to international stature. Making generous use of Welty’s correspondence-particularly with contemporaries and admirers, including Katherine Anne Porter, E. M. Forster, and Elizabeth Bowen-Marrs has provided a fitting and fascinating tribute to one of the finest writers of the twentieth century.

 

53505433. Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor by Brad Gooch
The landscape of American literature was fundamentally changed when Flannery O’Connor stepped onto the scene with her first published book, Wise Blood, in 1952. Her fierce, sometimes comic novels and stories reflected the darkly funny, vibrant, and theologically sophisticated woman who wrote them. Brad Gooch brings to life O’Connor’s significant friendships–with Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Hardwick, Walker Percy, and James Dickey among others–and her deeply felt convictions, as expressed in her communications with Thomas Merton, Elizabeth Bishop, and Betty Hester. Hester was famously known as “A” in O’Connor’s collected letters, The Habit of Being, and a large cache of correspondence to her from O’Connor was made available to scholars, including Brad Gooch, in 2006. O’Connor’s capacity to live fully–despite the chronic disease that eventually confined her to her mother’s farm in Georgia–is illuminated in this engaging and authoritative biography.

 

4. Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World by Claudia Roth Pierpont
With a masterful ability to connect their social contexts to well-chosen and telling details of their personal lives, Claudia Roth Pierpont gives us portraits of twelve amazingly diverse and influential literary women of the twentieth century, women who remade themselves and the world through their art.  Gertrude Stein, Mae West, Margaret Mitchell, Eudora Welty, Ayn Rand, Doris Lessing, Anais Nin, Zora Neale Hurston, Marina Tsvetaeva, Hannah Arendt and Mary Mccarthy, and Olive Schreiner: Pierpont is clear-eyed in her examination of each member of this varied group, connectng her subjects firmly to the issues of sexual freedom, race, and politics that bound them to their times, even as she exposes the roots of their uniqueness.

 

5. Muriel Spark: The Biography by Martin Stannard 7905899
Born in 1918 into a working-class Edinburgh family, Muriel Spark became the epitome of literary chic and one of the great writers of the twentieth century. Her autobiography, Curriculum Vitae, recorded her early years but politely blurred her darker moments: troubled relations with her family, a terrifying period of hallucinations, and disastrous affairs with the men she loved. At the age of nineteen, Spark left Scotland to get married in southern Rhodesia, only to divorce and escape back to Britain in 1944. Her son returned in 1945 and was brought up by Spark’s parents while she established herself as a poet and critic in London. After converting to Catholicism in 1954, she began writing novels that propelled her into the literary stratosphere. These came to include Memento Mori, The Girls of Slender Means, and A Far Cry from Kensington.  With The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), later adapted into a successful play and film, Spark became an international celebrity and began to live half her life in New York City. John Updike, Tennessee Williams, Evelyn Waugh, and Graham Greene applauded her work. She had an office at The New Yorker and became friends with Shirley Hazzard and W. H. Auden. Spark ultimately settled in Italy, where for more than thirty years—until her death in 2006—she shared a house with the artist Penelope Jardine.  Spark gave Martin Stannard full access to her papers. He interviewed her many times as well as her colleagues, friends, and family members. The result is an indelible portrait of one of the most significant and emotionally complicated writers of the twentieth century. Stannard presents Spark as a woman of strong feeling, sharp wit, and unabashed ambition, determined to devote her life to her art. Muriel Spark promises to become the definitive biography of a literary icon. 16 pages of b/w photographs.

 

6. John Keats: A New Life by Nicholas Roe
This landmark biography of celebrated Romantic poet John Keats explodes entrenched conceptions of him as a delicate, overly sensitive, tragic figure. Instead, Nicholas Roe reveals the real flesh-and-blood poet: a passionate man driven by ambition but prey to doubt, suspicion, and jealousy; sure of his vocation while bitterly resentful of the obstacles that blighted his career; devoured by sexual desire and frustration; and in thrall to alcohol and opium. Through unparalleled original research, Roe arrives at a fascinating reassessment of Keats’s entire life, from his early years at Keats’s Livery Stables through his harrowing battle with tuberculosis and death at age 25. Zeroing in on crucial turning points, Roe finds in the locations of Keats’s poems new keys to the nature of his imaginative quest.  Roe is the first biographer to provide a full and fresh account of Keats’s childhood in the City of London and how it shaped the would-be poet. The mysterious early death of Keats’s father, his mother’s too-swift remarriage, living in the shadow of the notorious madhouse Bedlam—all these affected Keats far more than has been previously understood. The author also sheds light on Keats’s doomed passion for Fanny Brawne, his circle of brilliant friends, hitherto unknown City relatives, and much more. Filled with revelations and daring to ask new questions, this book now stands as the definitive volume on one of the most beloved poets of the English language.

 

37541007. George Eliot by Jenny Uglow
Best known for her masterpieces Middlemarch and Silas Marner, George Eliot (1819–1880) was both one of the most brilliant writers of her day, and one of the most talked about. Intellectual and independent, she had the strength to defy polite society with her highly unorthodox private life which included various romances and regular encounters with the primarily male intelligentsia. This insightful and provocative biography investigates Eliot’s life, from her rural and religious upbringing through her tumultuous relationship with the philosopher George Henry Lewes to her quiet death from kidney failure. As each of her major works are also investigated, Jenny Uglow attempts to explain why her characters were never able to escape the bounds of social expectation as readily as Eliot did herself.

 

8. A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E.M. Forster by Wendy Moffat
With the posthumous publication of his long-suppressed novel Maurice in 1970, E. M. Forster came out as a homosexual— though that revelation made barely a ripple in his literary reputation. As Wendy Moffat persuasively argues in A Great Unrecorded History, Forster’s homosexuality was the central fact of his life. Between Wilde’s imprisonment and the Stonewall riots, Forster led a long, strange, and imaginative life as a gay man. He preserved a vast archive of his private life—a history of gay experience he believed would find its audience in a happier time.  A Great Unrecorded History is a biography of the heart. Moffat’s decade of detective work—including first-time interviews with Forster’s friends—has resulted in the first book to integrate Forster’s public and private lives. Seeing his life through the lens of his sexuality offers us a radically new view—revealing his astuteness as a social critic, his political bravery, and his prophetic vision of gay intimacy. A Great Unrecorded History invites us to see Forster— and modern gay history—from a completely new angle.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which, if any, will you be adding to your to-read list?

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Virago Week: ‘The Public Image’ by Muriel Spark ****

One of Muriel Spark’s many novels, The Public Image was first published in 1968, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize the following year (incidentally, this was won by P.H. Newby’s Something to Answer For). It is one of the newest additions to the Virago Modern Classics list, and Martin Haake’s cover art renders the book wonderfully distinctive.

9781844089673The blurb, quite rightly, states that the novel ‘couldn’t be more relevant for today’s celebrity-obsessed culture’.  The Public Image tells of a ‘glamorous actress’ named Annabel Christopher, whose ‘perfect image must be carefully cultivated, whatever the cost’.  ‘Tawny-eyed’ Annabel is an ‘English girl from Wakefield, with a peaky face and mousey hair’.  She is the mother of a small baby named Carl, and has just moved with her husband, Frederick, to Rome.  A friend of her husband’s, who is introduced rather early on, asks her whether the move is purely in aid of maintaining her public image.  Annabel states in response that she is merely there to film, but one cannot help but wonder very early on if a sense of duplicity shrouds her answer.

Frederick Christopher is a small-part actor who seems to have all but given up on his career in front of the screen, and is content to live instead upon Annabel’s money, ‘reading book after book – all the books he had never had leisure to read before’.  He is continually envious of his wife’s success in comparison to his own, and believes that she merely has ‘meagre skill and many opportunities to exercise it’.  He turns to scriptwriting and finds surprising success.

From the very beginning, there are undercurrents that all is not well within Frederick and Annabel’s relationship, and such doubts are drip-fed to the reader from both perspectives – for example, ‘He [Frederick] wanted to leave her, and made up his mind that he would do so, eventually…  Whenever any of his old friends began to suggest that her acting had some depth, or charm, or special merit, he silently nurtured the atrocity, reminding himself that nobody but he could know how shallow she really was’.  Both are unfaithful, and Spark touches upon their numerous affairs throughout.  The couple, however, do not let their marital problems show: ‘… they were proud of each other in the eyes of their expanding world where he was considered to be deeply interesting and she highly talented’.

Throughout, Spark writes wonderfully, and it appears that she buries herself within the minds of her protagonists and then lets the reader into their deepest secrets.  She describes the tensions within and consequences of strained relationships so marvellously in all of her novels, and the same can definitely be said here.  She shows how publicity can both aid and destroy the person under the scrutiny of the entire world.  Spark also demonstrates how easy it is to fall into the midset of doing things merely to maintain one’s ‘public image’, and how detrimental this can be.  This multi-layered novel exemplifies duplicity and human cruelties, and is an absorbing read, which certainly deserves its place upon the Virago Modern Classics list.

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Two Poetry Collections

9781784101244The Complete Poems by Muriel Spark ***
I have read a lot of Spark’s fiction, but none of her poetry; it seemed obvious, therefore, to pick up a copy of her Complete Poems and read it during the month of her centenary. The poems here are not chronologically ordered, which annoyed me a little; I like to see how poets evolve over time, particularly over the decades in which Spark wrote. The content here is quite varied; Spark writes extensively about writing and London, which I was expecting, but other poems deal with catching bad colds, and leaning over old walls, which I perhaps was not.

Spark’s poems are witty and clever, but the collection did not feel like a coherent one to me. Perhaps this is because of the lack of chronological ordering; had it been structured in this way, and one could see the progression of Spark’s poetic voice and the continuation of themes, it would have worked better. Sadly, some of the poems here were a little silly and juvenile for my particular taste, and I was largely indifferent to the collection as a whole; very few of these poems really stood out.

 

The Sun and Her Flowers by Rupi Kaur ** 9781471165825
I downloaded a copy of Rupi Kaur’s The Sun and Her Flowers from my library’s online catalogue, mainly to see what all the hype was about. I am one of the few, it seems, that hasn’t read her debut poetry collection, Milk and Honey, and doubt that I will seek out a copy after my experience with this, her second book.

Firstly, I wasn’t at all a fan of the illustrations, and do not feel as though they have a place within poetry anyway; they detract somewhat from the actual writing, and make it feel a bit gimmicky. The Sun and Her Flowers largely felt fragmented to me, like a series of quite random thoughts had been quickly jotted down. It felt unfinished. I found the collection quite banal at times, because the same themes are repeated over and over again; the two overriding themes are ‘woe is me’, and ‘I am strong and powerful’. Whilst I enjoyed a few of these poems, I felt indifferent to the vast majority of them. It is not the kind of poetry which grabs you and doesn’t let go; yes, it passes a couple of hours, but I do not feel as though I really got anything of worth from the collection. I perhaps would have enjoyed it more before I had discovered the likes of Sylvia Plath, or had I read it whilst in my early teens. It had an overarching ‘Tumblr’ feel to it.

Also, as far as I’m concerned, the following is not a poem (yet it is in Kaur’s book): ‘you do not just wake up and become the butterfly’.

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‘The Finishing School’ by Muriel Spark ***

My University held a two-day conference to mark Muriel Spark’s centenary in early February, and it seemed rude not to buy a book whilst I was volunteering.  I have read quite a few of Spark’s books to date, but The Finishing School is one of those outstanding which I have had my eye on for quite a while.  I was intrigued enough, in fact, to begin reading it right away.

According to a few of the lecturers and general Spark fans whom I spoke to at the conference, The Finishing School is her weakest book.  Ali Smith, however, deems it ‘one of her funniest novels…  Spark at her sharpest, her purest and her most merciful’.  The Smith quote held weight for me, as she is one of my favourite authors (this will come as no surprise to anyone who follows my reviews, I’m sure!). 9781782117575

The Finishing School, first published in 2004, comes in at just over 120 pages in its newest Canongate edition, and is easy enough to read in a single afternoon or evening.  It is Spark’s final novel, published 45 years after Memento Mori, and 43 after her most famous work, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.  It certainly marks a departure; whilst there are definitely similarities to be found between The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Finishing School, particularly with regard to its school setting and imparting of an education of sorts from rather a tyrannical teacher, it is neither as searching, nor as acerbic as the former.  The story here is not quite as tense psychologically as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie either.

The Finishing School, named College Sunrise, is located in Ouchy, on the edge of Lake Geneva in Switzerland.  Here, a ‘would-be’ novelist, Rowland Mahler and his wife, Nina Parker, run a finishing school ‘of questionable reputation to keep the funds flowing’.  After having failed to make a profit in Brussels, where the school was opened several years beforehand, Rowland ‘moved the school to Vienna, increased the fees, wrote to the parents that he and Nina were making an exciting experiment: College Sunrise was to be a mobile school which would move somewhere new every year.’

One student named Chris, just seventeen years of age, shows remarkable promise in the field of literature, and is working on his first novel about Mary Queen of Scots, with interest from a host of publishers.  In the school, in consequence, ‘jealousy and tensions run high’.  No one person’s relationship with Chris is as fraught as that between himself and Rowland, whose criticism Chris relies on, but who is markedly jealous that he is getting somewhere with his writing.  Nina, whose opinion is given at points later in the novella, believes that Rowland’s jealousy of Chris is what is prohibiting him from producing a coherent novel of his own.

Spark gives an insight into the workings of Rowland’s mind and frustration within his own writing.  This manifests itself into a seething hatred of Chris’ work, which he can see is very good: ‘Rowland was frightened; he felt again that stab of jealous envy, envious jealousy that he had already experienced, on touching and reading Chris’s typescript.’  Of his writing process, Spark goes on to say: ‘All the students of Sunrise knew that he struggled with a novel.  They often volunteered to give him ideas for it, which he accepted politely enough.  They begged him to read it aloud to them, but the truth was, the book was not yet in any readable condition.  It consisted of paragraphs here and there on his computer, changing from day to day.  He was in a muddle, which was not to say that he would not eventually get out of it, as in fact he as to do by writing a different sort of book.’

The Finishing School uses a structure of rather short chapters, which works well.  Much is included about the craft of writing, the price of education, and relationships between particular characters; there are extramarital affairs, crises of self, and friendships which will not be shaken by anything.  The style here, as ever with Spark’s work, is amusing in places – in fact, the humour here is noticeably biting in places – and peopled with interesting character constructs.  I did find it engaging, and whilst it is not my favourite Spark book, it is fascinating to see how her writing style has evolved since the beginning of her career.  My only qualm with The Finishing School, which made me give it a three- rather than a four-star rating, is that the ending is quite peculiar; I do not feel as though it was quite satisfactory, as it feels rather hasty and cobbled together.  Regardless, this is certainly a novella worth seeking out.

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One From the Archive: ‘Territorial Rights’ by Muriel Spark ***

First published in April 2014.

‘Territorial Rights’ by Muriel Spark (Virago)

The blurb of Territorial Rights, one of prolific author Muriel Spark’s novels, says that it is ‘a celebration of human imperfection and complexity, with as many shifting identities, wardrobe changes, and sumptuous settings as a comic opera’.  The novel was first published in 1979, and has been recently reissued by Virago.

The novel’s protagonist, Robert Leaver, has one aim in life – to become a serious art historian.  The blurb, however, shows that there is an obstacle in way of his plans, when ‘his hopes for an academic life are put on hold when he flees from London to Venice to escape one lover and seek out another: the enigmatic Bulgarian refugee Lina Pancev’.  Spark states that the trip which her protagonist takes is his first to the city, and goes on to describe that ‘he was young; but he had only half a mind to feel enchanted, the other half being still occupied with a personal anxiety in Paris from where he had just come’.

Lina, the woman with whom Robert meets up with in the city, has her own problems.  Her father, Victor, was suspected of being involved in a plan to poison King Boris of Bulgaria.  She has journeyed to Venice in order to locate her father’s grave and pay her respects.  Robert’s friend Curran, a sixty-something American, who is also introduced rather early on in the story, believes that Lina is ‘dangerous.  She’s a defector from Bulgaria and it seems to me she’s being followed’.  Indeed, many of Spark’s characters in Territorial Rights are not quite as they seem from the first.  Elements of smoke and mirrors have been used throughout, to create almost a mystery novel of sorts.

Territorial Rights soon turns into a family affair.  Rather than remaining the protagonist of the piece, Robert is merely the link in the chain, allowing Spark to tell the stories of many other characters whilst using their relationships with him as a starting point.  Robert’s father, for example, turns up in Venice on the premise of having a ‘little holiday’ with his mistress, Mary Tiller.  A parallel story also runs alongside the action in Italy, which details the actions of Anthea Leaver, who decides to appoint a private investigator from the ‘Fidelity Department’ to watch her unfaithful husband.

As with the majority of Spark’s novels, the third person perspective has been used throughout.  In this way, Spark highlights the differences between her characters, from the rather eccentric and adulterous Lina, to caddish Robert, and his sensible mother, Anthea.  The characters are introduced at intervals, and the way which Spark has of launching her readers directly into the action which involves each and every person she creates is marvellous.  She is so gifted at crafting believable scenarios and memorable characters.

Throughout, Spark’s writing and the sense of place which she creates are certainly strong.  As in her other books, her wit and cunning find strong footholds throughout the novel, and she does sarcasm so very well.  The political undercurrents, which are brought to the forefront of the novel from around the halfway point, have all been well considered.  Territorial Rights is not the best of Spark’s stories, but it is a clever and thoroughly entertaining one nonetheless.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Public Image’ by Muriel Spark ****

My revisited choice for our Fifty Women Challenge was Muriel Spark’s The Public Image.  One of Muriel Spark’s many novels, The Public Image was first published in 1968, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize the following year (incidentally, this was won by P.H. Newby’s Something to Answer For). It is one of the newest additions to the Virago Modern Classics list, and Martin Haake’s cover art renders the book wonderfully distinctive.

‘The Public Image’ by Muriel Spark (Virago)

The blurb, quite rightly, states that the novel ‘couldn’t be more relevant for today’s celebrity-obsessed culture’.  The Public Image tells of a ‘glamorous actress’ named Annabel Christopher, whose ‘perfect image must be carefully cultivated, whatever the cost’.  ‘Tawny-eyed’ Annabel is an ‘English girl from Wakefield, with a peaky face and mousey hair’.  She is the mother of a small baby named Carl, and has just moved with her husband, Frederick, to Rome.  A friend of her husband’s, who is introduced rather early on, asks her whether the move is purely in aid of maintaining her public image.  Annabel states in response that she is merely there to film, but one cannot help but wonder very early on if a sense of duplicity shrouds her answer.

Frederick Christopher is a small-part actor who seems to have all but given up on his career in front of the screen, and is content to live instead upon Annabel’s money, ‘reading book after book – all the books he had never had leisure to read before’.  He is continually envious of his wife’s success in comparison to his own, and believes that she merely has ‘meagre skill and many opportunities to exercise it’.  He turns to scriptwriting and finds surprising success.

From the very beginning, there are undercurrents that all is not well within Frederick and Annabel’s relationship, and such doubts are drip-fed to the reader from both perspectives – for example, ‘He [Frederick] wanted to leave her, and made up his mind that he would do so, eventually…  Whenever any of his old friends began to suggest that her acting had some depth, or charm, or special merit, he silently nurtured the atrocity, reminding himself that nobody but he could know how shallow she really was’.  Both are unfaithful, and Spark touches upon their numerous affairs throughout.  The couple, however, do not let their marital problems show: ‘… they were proud of each other in the eyes of their expanding world where he was considered to be deeply interesting and she highly talented’.

Throughout, Spark writes wonderfully, and it appears that she buries herself within the minds of her protagonists and then lets the reader into their deepest secrets.  She describes the tensions within and consequences of strained relationships so marvellously in all of her novels, and the same can definitely be said here.  She shows how publicity can both aid and destroy the person under the scrutiny of the entire world.  Spark also demonstrates how easy it is to fall into the midset of doing things merely to maintain one’s ‘public image’, and how detrimental this can be.  This multi-layered novel exemplifies duplicity and human cruelties, and is an absorbing read, which certainly deserves its place upon the Virago Modern Classics list.

Purchase from the Book Depository