Monday, 23 April 2012


Robinson - Muriel Spark
"I recall that Robinson had advised more than once 'Stick to facts.'"

On a small island called Robinson a group of survivors from a plane crash are rescued by the island's owner Robinson and his adopted son Miguel. The survivors are January Marlow, the narrator; Jimmie Waterford, a relative of Robinson who was, strangely, on his way to the island; and Tom Wells, publisher of "Your Future"* a hokey spiritualist type magazine and purveyor of lucky charms and other 'services'). There is no way to contact the outside world and they must simply wait for the arrival of a boat which will come to collect pomegranates in a few months. There is a map of the island at the beginning and it looks like the chalk outline of the victim at a murder scene. (see below) Who, or what, is the victim? Perhaps it is the novel itself. And who is guilty, and what are they guilty of?

Map 'borrowed' from White Threshold - thanks Matthew
By drawing on Defoe for inspiration/reference Spark calls to mind the tradition of realism which Defoe was such a master of. His narrators seem true and often have their origin in real people and research of newspapers etc. His journalism was reflected in his fiction. Spark, however, does nothing of the sort. The map itself is the first indication that this is not pretending to be true. And in case we miss one hint the book is littered with them. For instance this observation that  January makes about Jimmie, and a story he tells her: "To this day, I don't know whether this particular story is true. There was just enough of the element of rootless European frivolity in Jimmie to make any yarn about his connexions seem possible, or, on the other hand, to make suspect his stories; and this may have been part of his wooing, he may have sensed that I am a pushover for a story, that I would far rather have a present of a good story than, say, a bunch of flowers, and will more or less always take kindly to the raconteur type." (Well if books are seductions, I've long been seduced by Muriel.)

An early piece of dialogue lets us know that the island may be more metaphoric than geographic:
".... Jimmie adressed me:
'Ha!' he said. 'No man is an island.'
'Some are,' I said. 'Their only ground of meeting is concealed under the sea. If words mean anything and islands exist, then some people are islands.'
'That's a point,' said Robinson.
'Is so,' said Jimmie, 'mayhaps.'"

So as well as subterranean tunnels we will have subterranean (or submarine) meanings. Or perhaps we won't. Spark is brilliant at creating surfaces which conceal as much as they reveal. It is alluring to imagine a key which makes everything fall into place, particularly considering Spark worked in 'intelligence' during the war. However, I think that there is a deliberate straining towards meanings which don't quite coalesce. January herself talks about the (fictive) gestation of the book: "Robinson thought at the time that keeping a journal would be an occupation for my mind, and I fancied that I might later dress it up for a novel." And is she a novelist - well, "mayhaps". "'I'm a widow,' I said, 'and a journalist' - I thought this was understating the case, but it provided an approximate category to poet, critic, and general articulator of ideas."

When January tells us about deciphering a face, is she hinting at how to read this book? "In the course of deciphering a face, its shape, tones, lines and droops as if these were words and sentences of a message from the interior, I fix upon it a character which, though I know it to be distorted, never quite untrue, never entirely true, interests me. I am as near to the mark as myth is to history, the apocrypha to the canon."

One of the major themes in Robinson is religion, with a tension created between paganism and more conservative Catholicism. (Spark herself converted to Catholicism in 1954, four years before Robinson was published.) January, too, is Catholic, but with urges. "It was a warm night, free from mist, full moon. I had a desire to throw wide my arms and worship the moon. 'But' I thought to myself, 'I am a Christian.' Still I had this sweet and dreadful urge towards the moon, and I went back indoors slightly disturbed."

Robinson has ensconced himself on the island in part because of his ideological disagreements with the Catholic Church, particularly around what he sees as the cult of Marianism. January finds this very similar to the attitude of one of her brother's in law. Indeed as the novel progresses, memories of her sisters and brother's in law play a greater part, ("Looking forward to going home, I was necessarily looking backward.") as do memories of and conjectures about her son Brian, who will think, along with everyone else, that she is dead. Indeed, there are times when you start to wonder of this will be an 'and then I woke up' kind of novel, with the characters on the island altered versions of the people in her real life à la Wizard of Oz. (This of course is what novels are, codifying the character, lives and interests of the novelist through a creative cryptology.)

You can't help thinking of how this book related to Spark's own life, in which she had left her husband and son in Africa. She left her husband when her son was two and the continent when he was five (if Wikipedia and my memory of what Wikipedia said are to be trusted)

As well as his dislike of idolatry within the Catholic Church, Robinson also dislikes it in any other form, and he is horrified by the lucky charms and spiritualist writings which Tom Wells has in his briefcase. The existence of these things in his world is a challenge to him. "I felt that Robinson was determined to keep control. He was fixed on controlling himself, us, and his island." Of course Spark cannot resist seeing the most primitive of religious practices in Robinson saying grace - "And when we had finished he gave thanks according to the form used by English Catholics, following it with that usual prayer for the faithful departed which frequently suggests to my mind that we have eaten them."

Issues of control and revolt come up in families and there is a sense that January is the black sheep of her family, one who may or may not have scandalous secrets. However these she will not reveal to us, no more than to her brother in law who "was always inexhaustible in trying to catch me in an illicit love affair, but he never succeeded; and whether this was because I never, in fact, had a lover, or whether I had, but effectively concealed the fact, you may be sure Ian Brodie is still guessing."

But mystery can be seen as an essential part of the universe, particularly the Catholic one. If we think we can find an easy solution are we not sure to be victims of the basest form of charlatans: "distinguished psychometrists, clairvoyants, Karma interpreters, astrologers, yoga spiritualists, divine healers, astral radiesthetists, saliva prognosticators, and so on and so on." Indeed Tom Wells not alone knows people  of all these types but is himself the distinguished "BARI SAWIMI" who "can provide Tactile Regeneration. Send fragment of Personal Garb, cloth 3" x 7" for immediate postal reply & satisfaction. P.O. 37s 6d. no cheques to 'Bari Sawimi', Box 957 Your Future."

Anyway, before I bore all but the most inveterate readers in the blogosphere I should move towards wrapping up this post. The tensions that bedevil the small group of inhabitants come to a head when Robinsons' clothes and a great deal of blood turn up but not his body. Having seen items disposed of in the volcanic hole known as the "Furnace" and with a trail leading there it appears that someone has disposed of the island's owner. This racks everything up a notch."For the turmoil and the frightened talk and conjecture, the strangeness and dread of the past day crowded in, almost as if I had a capacity prepared for it; as if, from the time of the crash up to this day I had been a vacuum waiting only for the swift delayed rush of horror to enter in; as if, really, the getting away with a mere concussion and a broken arm, my luck in falling into Robinson's hands, my easy recovery, and the normal life of Robinson's household, were not to have been trusted..." Hmmm, "not to have been trusted", like everything in the world of this book.

Clues to the perpetrator and nature of the crime litter the book. It's not why you read the book, more of a McGuffin, as fellow Scot Hitchcock would have said. Read it for the metaphysics, the metafiction and for fun. Vintage Spark.

*Tom Wells frowned surreptitiously at me. 'It's a bit beyond him,' he whispered. 'Your Future is mainly for those who have passed through the early talismanic stages of spiritual attainment,' He tapped his sheaf of papers. 'We have serious articles here' he said, 'by professors.'
'Give me Your future,' said Miguel.
'Give him Your Future,' I said.

 I particularly enjoyed the following aside, particularly as I am shipwrecked on the island Proust at the moment. "Brian returned to announce that he had found a pastry-cook's owned by a man by the name of Marcel Proust, and this seemed to us both excessively funny."

My reading of this book was inspired by The Muriel Spark Reading Week hosted by Stuck in a Book and Harriet Devine's Blog


  1. Seamus this is a terrific review of a little known Spark (well, little or rather un- known to me, anyway). It sounds fascinating. Thanks so much for joining in!

    1. Thanks Harriet - and thanks for hosting the reading week. I'm looking forward to reading a host of posts on Spark.

  2. I ve read a far cry from kensington ,it was my first spark and I enjoyed it so will try here again and loving the old penguin cover of this one so may look out for it as my next one ,all the best stu

    1. I'll have to get A Far Cry as well. It seems to receive a lot of positive write ups. I love the old Penguin covers myself and the series of Spark covers is particularly good.

  3. Nice to see the map has found another home! Love the early Spark, and I'd like to add my voice to all the recommendations of A Far Cry..

    1. The map taken without attribution and all. Attribution now added.

  4. Excellent review, Séamus - like Harriet, I knew very little about this, but now (after you and one other blogger reviewed it) I'm really keen to read it. Although I haven't read Robinson Crusoe. (I have, however, read Foe by J.M. Coetzee. Maybe I should just read all the books influenced by Defoe?!)

    1. If you are going to read a Defoe may I recommend A Journal of the Plague Year which is one of my favourite books and was a big influence on Camus' The Plague (La Peste). Although the material is very dark I find it a compelling book.

  5. Lovely to find another excellent blog via Muriel Spark Week. I really enjoyed how deeply you got to grips with Robinson. I love that quotation about how she reads (into) faces: so telling.

    1. Ditto (re finding blogs). Thanks for visiting. Spark invites all sorts of readings, I find.