Friday, 19 August 2011
The Hothouse by the East River
The Hothouse by the East River - Muriel Spark
This is an odd book. A couple (Paul and Elsa) live in an old overheated apartment looking out on the East River. Their talk is obtuse, disconnected. She looks out the window while talking to him and there is something wrong with the orientation of her shadow. "He sees her shadow cast on the curtain, not on the floor where it should be according to the position of the setting sun from the window bay behind her, cross town to the West Side. He sees her shadow, as he has seen it many times before, cast once more unnaturally. Although he has expected it, he turns away his head at the sight."
As well as a son and daughter they both have analysts and their shared past during WWII in England where they worked broadcasting propaganda into Germany. "He had simply overlooked her limited knowledge, drawn by her extreme attractiveness." Some German prisoners chose to work with them and one of these (who may have had an affair with Elsa) has now turned up in New York selling shoes. He doesn't appear to have aged much and his identity is suspect. This is the cause of much jealousy and fear on Paul's behalf. He can't get anyone to take this presence seriously, or the history behind it. "Back in 1944 when people were normal and there was a world war on' says Paul to his son, 'it was a serious thing to be a spy. Very serious indeed."
Strange exotic plants can grow in hothouses and something strange is going on here. The dialogue has a brittle tension that reminded me of William Gaddis' Carpenter's Gothic. It feels that the wrong word could simply shatter the connections between characters. And then the connection does shatter and is rebuilt but with a different source of tension - sometimes characters seeming to reverse positions at will.
Both novelist and characters seem to be spreading a fog of deliberate obfuscation. Elsa treats her analyst with disdain, congratulating herself on rattling him. "Paul says, 'Have you nothing better to do with your money than waste your doctor's time with it?'" Her analyst finally comes to the conclusion, having seen her shadow dance that "'This is a major event in your case history. You've externalized.'" Is this a psychosexual projection à la The White Hotel, or maybe a psychosexless one? Ballard meets Austen?
The fact that we are dealing with tensions arising from WWII suggests that this may be a response to that cataclysmic event in modern history, the shattered narrative reflecting the so called shattering of reason. But Spark punctures wider reading with bathetic humour and cul-de-sacs of misinterpretation. "'My family will find that I've been working for the British. Here, we have lard to eat. They have no lard in Germany today. They will say I have done it for lard. They will never have me back.' She says, 'Oh you're very erratic.' 'Erotic?' He brightens at the word, smiling towards her. 'Erratic' she repeats. He stops and takes his little dictionary from the inside pocket of his saggy tweed jacket and gravely looks up the word."
The characters increasingly seem like the detritus of whatever happened between them all 'during the war'. "'I'm a spent volcano. Just a slag heap with a hole down the middle and a thin wisp of curly smoke coming up out of my hair.'" No argument or conversation seems to finish, as if - were one to finish - something might happen, some truth might emerge. "'You think of everything, my dear, until you think of something else.' He speaks softly as if she is becoming dangerous, as indeed she is when she speaks like this."
Spark resolves it all at the end. This is not quite as satisfying as other books of hers that I have read but it is brilliantly written and constructed, with liberal dashes of humour and mystery. I will be back to fill my jug from this particular well.