Thursday, 13 August 2015
Battered Penguins - The Go-Away Bird & Other Stories by Muriel Spark
There are twelve stories in this collection, which was first published in 1958. The first, Black Madonna, introduces Raymond and Lou Parker, a Catholic couple who at first seem unbothered - possibly even quite pleased - by their childlessness. They have a three-room council flat that they like; they are able to buy a motor car, unlike their neighbours who have children; they "read two books apiece a week"; and, in Lou's case at least, they have managed to leave behind and largely forget a fairly squalid early life.
At the time of the story, a Black Madonna, carved from oak, is given to the church the Parkers belong to, by a "recent convert." Although some of the congregation find it ugly, the priest explains, with as much pretension as Lou and Raymond reserve for the conduct of their existences, that it must not be draped or dressed, as this will "spoil the line".
Shortly after the appearance of the Black Madonna, two young Jamaican men arrive at the motor works where Raymond has a job. Lou and Raymond befriend them, with self-consciously determined liberal lack of prejudice. At about the same time, Lou begins to test the Black Madonna to see if her rumoured power to answer prayers is real. After a few small requests, the couple decide "to put in for a baby to the Black Madonna". The result brings to mind the old adage about being careful what you wish for.
Perhaps this story is meant to be read as if told from the point of view of God, whose eyes, Lou's poverty-stricken sister points out when they visit her, "are not shut". Leaving aside the question of whether the dull flatness that results when Spark keeps within this authorial voice is interesting or not, the truth is that Spark is not actually able to maintain a non-judgemental all-seeing Godly tone throughout. Unfortunately, she cannot resist poking fun at the couple, with heavily ironic asides such as this one:
"For no one could call Lou a snob and everyone knew she was sensible".
The unevenness of Spark's tone also jars when she suddenly decides to offer the odd humanising detail about her protagonists. For example, when Lou visits her sister, Spark drops her insistence on describing nothing but the external aspects of Lou and her behaviour and suddenly allows us into the most hidden parts of her mind:
"Lou looked at the chipped paint, the dirty windows, and torn grey-white curtains and was reminded with startling clarity of her hopeless childhood in Liverpool".
For the rest of the narrative Lou and her husband are presented as mere cut-outs. As a result, the story's climax is unaffecting, unbelievable and the whole thing seems contrived by the author for no reason other than to poke fun at aspirational middle class people with delusions about themselves. The same is true of You Should Have Seen the Mess, a later story in the collection. It is told in the first person by a character who judges everything and everyone by how hygienically they lead their lives. In this story, Spark thinks she is ventriloquising a particular type accurately, but I am not convinced she pulls it off. The characterisation is too one-dimensional and, in both stories, the targets are so harmless I can't quite understand why Spark felt it worth the effort to attack them.
The second story in the book, The Pawnbroker's Wife, is gripping by comparison with its predecessor. In it, Spark creates an impression of sinister malice at work. The element of the supernatural in The Pawnbroker's Wife is also evident in The Twins and in The Portobello Road. Although Miss Pinkerton's Apocalypse isn't really very good - except for the fact that it provides the book's funniest line, viz. "It is not radioactive; it is Spode" - that story also falls into the semi-supernatural category. Come Along, Marjorie and The Seraph and the Zambesi share the mysterious quality of The Pawnbroker's Wife but, sadly, they are less obscurely frightening. Of all this group, The Portobello Road stands out for its very clever plot twist.
Daisy Overend targets a different kind of hypocrite from Lou and Raymond and works better than their story. Perhaps this is because it is told in the first person by an obviously hostile narrator. The reader isn't distracted by wondering whether he or she is supposed to dislike the main character - the narrator makes it absolutely obvious that, as far as she is concerned, the reader is meant to dislike the main character a great deal. On the other hand, this makes the piece seem fairly trivial. One is left with the impression that Spark was using this piece of writing to spite an old adversary. The final effect is that one has been witness to a piece of delighted but obscure revenge that probably gave its writer great pleasure to create but contains little to nourish the reader's mind.
The Go-Away Bird is the longest story in the collection. In it, Spark has a great deal of fun highlighting the flaws of the English. Via Daphne, her main character's, naivety as a new arrival in the country, she reveals skilfully how much most people's notion of "England" is stubborn myth.
While the central events of the story take place in "England", they are framed by episodes in Africa that prove the truth of a remark made quite early on by a drunk. This character is probably the only decent person Daphne encounters during her life.
"I grant you we have the natives under control", he tells Daphne, "I grant you we have the leopards under control ...We are getting control over malaria. But we haven't got the savage in ourselves under control".
I suspect Spark felt that statement applied not just to humanity in colonial Africa, but humanity in general. Although she usually writes icily, apparently without sympathy, it may not be because she dislikes her individual characters, but because she dislikes humanity itself. The world of her stories is a world peopled with characters who are preoccupied with the personal and fleeting, who ignore - either deliberately or because they are too limited to recognise it - the infinite.
The exception that proves the rule is A Sad Tale's Best for Winter, which is my favourite story in the collection. It concerns Selwyn Macgregor who lives by a graveyard and entertains "a lively faith in the Resurrection". He contemplates the graveyard, he drinks a lot, he runs out of money at a certain point every month, vanishes into his house, presumably does not drink until he gets more money and certainly does not communicate with any living soul during that time. When his next lot of money arrives, he opens his doors again and repeats the above process. He refuses to change his ways when he is asked to. He remains cheerful but stubbornly enigmatic. And, while I won't tell you how the story ends, that doesn't mean anything exciting happens.
One reason I love the story is that it contains this wonderful passage:
"There wouldn't be much point in going into many details about Aunt Macgregor, what she looked like in her navy blue and how her eyes, nose, and mouth were disposed among the broken veins of her fine severe old face, because her features went, as Selwyn said, under the earth where corruption is, and her navy blue went to the nurse",
In addition, I find the thing wonderfully enigmatic. Spark does not make her position clear, as she does in Black Madonna and You Should Have Seen the Mess. Her narratorial voice is much less intrusive, less caustic than in the other stories in the book. As a result, perhaps, the story echoes about puzzlingly for days afterwards in one's thoughts.
Overall The Go-Away Bird and Other Stories is an intriguing curate's egg. Like Scott Fitzgerald, Spark sometimes wrote rather bad pieces. Like him, she also wrote plenty of things that were exceptionally good. This book contains no genuine duds - in fact, I suspect that even the ones I have criticised may emerge as far better than I realise, once I've let them settle in my memory for a while. My favourites in the collection are those that contain an obvious element of the supernatural, but, for readers who like things that don't immediately give up their secrets, each story has its own particular strangeness and is worthy of at least one read through.
I should also point out the cover drawing by Terence Greer, which I like very much