Saturday, 15 March 2014

Not to Disturb

Not to Disturb - Muriel Spark

"'Their life,' says Lister, 'a general mist of error. Their death, a hideous storm of terror - I quote from The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster, an English dramatist of old.'"

This short novella is from the early seventies and is similar in style to The Hothouse by the East River, which I read and wrote about a few years ago. It is a spectral book, with elements of a play, and of a film script, only ninety one pages long and telling a story of murder and suicide in a locked room, mostly from the outside. And not alone are we outside the room but we also seem in some way to be outside time.

The book opens with the servants discussing the impending violent death of their masters, the Baron and Baroness Klopstock. Some speak of it as if it has happened already and discuss the stories they have prepared for the papers and the various deals they have engineered/are engineering with the media for the story. "Clovis looks up, irritably, from his papers. 'France, Germany, Italy bid high. But don't forget in the long run English is the higher-income language. We ought to co-ordinate on that point.'"

It is as if a production of Hamlet was told through the eyes of the wardrobe and make up department, sitting back stage discussing the costumes and effects they created for the performance while we hear some sounds from the stage. Indeed something along these lines is suggested as being true of the life of royalty - "This parquet flooring once belonged to a foreign king. He had to flee his throne. He took the parquet of his palace with him, also the door knobs. Royalty always do, when they have to leave. They take everything, like stage companies who need their props. With royalty, of course, it is all largely a matter of stage production. And lighting." Spark simultaneously writes a potboiler with high passions and sexual intrigue and unwrites it, taking away all the tension and placing the action out of sight. It is a high wire act that suggests that Spark was somewhat ambivalent about the whole idea of writing yet also challenging and exploring what writing could be. It seems at times like a work of high modernism, and references to The Waste Land and Kafka would seem to back this up.

It also plays silly games and is at times very lighthearted, almost slipping into schoolyard humour - "To put it squarely, as I say in my memoir, the eternal triangle has come full circle." There is a sort of matter of factness about how the servants have prepared to exploit their 'masters' fate and indeed the way they have been exploiting their foibles, that has a refined seam of the crude humour of the inveterate cynic. (I find myself imagining the audiobook read by Sid James) Propriety is presented as a front for impropriety, an addiction to sex largely the reason for the fate of the Baron and Baroness. A priest arrives on a motorcycle with a press clipping about a new anti-sex drug, thinking it might help the Baron and Baroness but ends up being subsumed into the servants intrigues and marrying a pregnant maid to the mad brother in the upstairs room, ensuring the maid will inherit the baronial fortune.

It can also be seen alongside say The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum as a broadside against celebrity culture, against the exploitation of tragedy and the media's delight in scandal. It can too, with it's 'locked room', be seen as somewhat of a play on Agatha Christie mysteries. There is another room, too, at the very top of the house, where a sex crazed young man is kept, a sort of madman in the attic. But the hints and clues we are given don't seem to quite add up, the references as much red herrings as clues. The world feels contemporaneous but it also feels dislocated in time. It is clear that the rules of behaviour have changed and passages seem strangely askew, as in some science fiction, leading you to suspect this world at once familiar is in fact totally strange.

"Forget them,".."they're only extras."
Loose ends are tied up with a throwaway shrug. Two friends (who arrived with the Baron's secretary - the third side of the triangle), a transvestite and a masseuse, may have seen too much but they will not disturb the plan - here's how they are dispatched:
"Meanwhile the lightning, which strikes the clump of elms so that the two friends huddled there are killed instantly without pain, zig-zags across the lawns, illuminating the lily-pond and the sunken rose  garden like a self-stricken flash photographer, and like a zip-fastener ripped from its garment by a sexual maniac, it is flung slapdash across Lake Leman and back to skim the rooftops of the house..."

This use of deus-ex-machina is hardly out of place in a novel which is concocted from quotes, references and the plot of a pulp bodice ripper. There is even a pot, or at least a casserole, boiling away in the oven as the novel progresses. Although often portrayed simply as a satire on the rich, their behaviour and the corruption that wealth drip feeds to all within its aura, it is also a satire on readers and shudders with disgust at the pretences and falsifications necessary to put together a book. I feel strangely fascinated with this book and will return to it, a proposition its extreme brevity makes more likely. It is a gloss on itself, an obituary and a jeremiad.

If I say "It is" or "It can" any more this blog will  self destruct with embarrassment at my unwieldy prosifying. But, in my defence, it is three o'clock in the morning and, as I learnt from the alibi scenario, lack of sleep can be equivalent to shock.

Well, that Sunday Albert was home, they had a hot gammon,  
And they asked me in to dinner, to get the beauty of it hot—  
Goonight Bill. Goonight Lou. Goonight May. Goonight.
Ta ta. Goonight. Goonight.  
Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night."
(from The Waste Land. T.S.Eliot)


  1. I had heard about this book but have not read it.

    The concept and the execution of this work sound fascinating to may. There are lots of appealing elements, the view from the outside, the madness locked away, the allegories, etc.

    At fior the quality of your post, in my opinion IT IS well written and entertaining.

  2. Great review - now I know what deus ex machina means!

    Another writer from an earlier generation who is definitely worth rediscovering I think.

    Have added your blog to my blogroll

  3. Thanks Tom. You will find your excellent blog already has a place in my blogroll. Spark is absolutely worth investigating. I've been reading one or two of her books each year since I started this blog. This is not the one I'd advise you to start with - I guess the classic Prime of Miss Jean Brodie or The Girls of Slender Means would be my recommendation but there are plenty more in the first rank and I have quite a few left to read myself.