Muriel Spark’s Early Fiction: Literary Subversion and Experiments with Form
by James Bailey.
University of Edinburgh Press, 2021.
Hardback, 224 pages, $100.

Reviewed by Asher Gelzer-Govatos

Reading critical approaches to a favorite author can be an exercise in futile frustration, especially when the author in question is as elusive and original as Muriel Spark. Critics and scholars of Spark have generally fallen into two camps. The first camp, now associated with an older generation of critics, including Malcolm Bradbury and Frank Kermode, sees behind Spark’s work the driving motor of an intense theological investment, born of her conversion to Catholicism in the years leading up to her debut as a novelist. This Spark, concerned with a supernatural sense of control, knows and sees all, and handles her characters with a precision that borders on cruelty.

Within the last twenty years, the other critical camp of Spark studies has proved ascendant. This second camp wants largely to lay aside the religious Spark in favor of an examination of the ways in which she does or does not fit into that nebulous stream of cultural production known as postmodernism, and, by extension, the ways in which that putative postmodernism may or may not reveal new ways to talk about Spark in relation to feminism, post-colonialism, queer theory, and more.

Some of us who both love and work on Spark find this relentless taste for taxonomy tiring, and wish a plague on both houses. It may be true, as the postmodernists assert, that the narrow focus on precision and control has blinded some of the theological critics to the gaps and the playfulness that ripple through her novels. But it seems at least as true, contra these same critics, that Spark fits only uneasily into the categories they have devised for her, and that the religious elements cannot be simply wished away.

The critical history sketched above hangs heavily over James Bailey’s new book Muriel Spark’s Early Fiction. Bailey’s subtitle, Literary Subversion and Experiments with Form, makes clear where he stands with regard to the Sparkian critical divide, but the problems with the book stem not from his critical sensibilities per se, but from the heavy hand with which he crams recalcitrant bits of Spark’s work into his chosen frame. It’s a shame that that frame comes to dominate so completely, because there are many moments throughout the book where Bailey offers some fresh insight.

Before I critique more thoroughly Bailey’s approach in the book, I want to make sure to spell out not only the basic premise but also what the book does well. Through a mixture of topical and historical treatments, Bailey analyzes what he sees as the heart of Spark’s early fiction: her relentless formal experimentation in service to pointed critiques of dominant social forces. Using topics like Spark’s predilection for ghost stories, her interaction with the mass media forms of tabloids and film, and the relation of her novels to the nouveau roman school of French fiction, Bailey leads the reader through the initial two decades of Spark’s career, while putting special emphasis on the last decade of this period.

The biggest strength of Muriel Spark’s Early Fiction is Bailey’s deep, thorough engagement with archival material, much of which has never been plumbed by critics. He delves into Spark’s compositional processes, and in several places uncovers real-life antecedents for the more violent of Spark’s plots. By cementing the factual origins of novels like Not to Disturb and The Driver’s Seat, Bailey rightly pushes back against the common image of Spark as utterly detached from the world, spinning plots in the privacy of her own mind.

Bailey’s taste for archival curios has an analogue in his desire to read the more obscure texts of Spark’s oeuvre. He brings in several scraps of unpublished poetry, but also offers one of the only deep readings of Spark’s stage flop Doctors of Philosophy, an engagement I found stimulating and thought provoking. He also notes Spark’s repeated interest in adapting her novels for the stage or screen, tracing an interest in dramatic form through her career that someone (perhaps Bailey himself) should pick up and explore more thoroughly.

Muriel Spark’s Early Fiction presents itself throughout as a provocative reinterpretation of Spark’s work, and I found several of Bailey’s critical provocations stimulating, if not always convincing. One major challenge comes in the book’s very title: I am accustomed to thinking of Spark’s career, like Gaul, as being divided into three parts—the early satires, the mid-period heavily influenced by the nouveau roman, and finally the more varied later period. Bailey makes a reasonably compelling case that these first two periods might be viewed together as a single unit.

Chapter Three, by far the book’s strongest, traces the influence of the nouveau roman all the way back to the early comic trifle The Ballad of Peckham Rye, through The Mandelbaum Gate, and into its fullest flowering in The Driver’s Seat. Along the way Bailey does excellent work distinguishing the different valences the nouveau roman school has for Spark as she interacts with the detached style of authors like Alain Robbe-Grillet through the years: she adopts neither uncritical devotion, nor mere parody, but an ambivalence that takes lessons from the nouveau roman while also criticizing its excessive detachment.

Bailey’s strongest provocation is his reading of Spark’s frequent use of metaleptic techniques (e.g. proleptic “flash forwards” in action, or the intrusion of voices that seem to come from another world) as evidence not of her taste for narrative omniscience, as often argued, but as a technique of absolute control that exists within the diegetic world of each novel. Here Bailey’s critiques of the “Catholic” critics sharpens to a point: Spark’s novels should be read not as worlds created by a cruel, omnipotent narrator, didactic fictions with a simple moral point, but rather as fictions presided over by faltering narrators who only attempt control, novels that thus critique dominant power structures, especially those that oppress women.

This reading of the metaleptic as somehow contained with the diegetic world of the novels is, taken by itself, an intriguing suggestion, one that combats the caricature of Spark as, well, a caricaturist, and a cruel one at that. But this central idea, so tightly held, also exacerbates the central critical problem with Muriel Spark’s Early Fiction: despite Bailey’s insistence that he wants to approach Spark from a number of angles, the angles he chooses all end up looking conspicuously similar, and those he excludes form a ghostly presence of their own in the text.

For Bailey, the rejection of narrative omniscience stands as proof positive that Spark should not, in any serious way, be considered a Catholic author. Because the critics who highlight her conversion also harp repeatedly on this omniscience, doing away with one also eliminates the other. As Bailey strongly puts in his introduction, “Spark emerges from this book as a writer whose developments in style are neither introspective nor overtly preoccupied with Catholicism, but are restlessly concerned instead with exploring the possibilities of literary form to produce an agile kind of social critique.”

This dogged (one is tempted to say dogmatic) insistence on what Spark is and is not as an author gives the book its strange gravity, both thematically and historically. It’s a bit deflating for Bailey to give such textured, subtle explorations of the specific ways in which Spark’s texts work at a narrative level, only for him to tie this formal experimentation back, almost every time, to the conclusion that Spark is seeking to critique gender roles. Not that there’s not truth in the assertion—Spark, who escaped an early marriage to an unstable man, certainly presents an acidic view of marital relations, and of the limitations placed on women by society—but there’s a plodding repetition to this critical maneuver.

What’s sad about this sameness is that, while presented as new and exciting, it isn’t even that. In the introduction, Bailey paints the Catholic, omniscient critical school as some sort of impregnable fortress against which the forces of newness have only recently arrayed themselves. But Theorizing Muriel Spark, the first major attempt to unseat the old critics, is now two decades old, and has had, along with subsequent efforts in the same vein, a huge impact on Sparkian studies. If Muriel Spark’s Early Fiction had been written for a popular audience, still in thrall to Bradbury and Kermode, this approach might make sense; but what Spark scholar worth her salt has not already, like Sandy Stranger in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, extracted the pith from these critical arguments and discarded the husk?

Ultimately, though, what’s most frustrating about Bailey’s critical frame is that it precludes a richer understanding of the many cunning passages of Spark’s work. That’s apparent in Bailey’s choice of texts as much as anything: every chapter save the first builds toward a consideration of one of the late sixties/early seventies texts. Of the early early novels, only three come in for close consideration: Spark’s debut novel The Comforters, by far the most metafictional of the early works; and The Ballad of Peckham Rye and The Mandelbaum Gate, both of which act as a prelude to Bailey’s longer discussion of The Driver’s Seat.

It is indicative of the book’s preoccupations that, for example, we get a full chapter and a half on The Driver’s Seat, and a detailed discussion of every one of the late early novels, but get virtually nothing on important early works like Memento Mori and The Girls of Slender Means. This seems less like an oversight and more like a deliberate choice to center those of Spark’s texts which fit Bailey’s frame. Why, for example, does Bailey’s chapter on ghost stories contain no analysis of The Bachelors, a novel explicitly about séances and the occult? The simplest explanation: because the book’s account of spectral presences cannot fit easily into the feminist reading Bailey wants to propose.

I return again to the dichotomy set up by Bailey between omniscience (tied to detachment and Catholicism) and diegetic metalepsis (tied to literary and social subversion). Bailey’s critique of Bradbury and others raises an important point: Spark’s novels are not uniformly cruel, detached, and airtight. But part of what Bradbury and others have missed is that a cruel, detached narrator-cum-God fits pretty poorly with the broad sweep of Catholic theology. Or, indeed, with the diegetic presence of God as a character in the book of Job, the book of the Bible Spark meditated on most in her life, including in two novels, The Comforters and The Only Problem.

If your only sense of what it might mean for a novel to have religious content relies on this paradigm of detached omniscience paired with narrow didacticism, then it makes perfect sense to see Spark’s novels as missing any imprint from her adopted Catholicism. But if, instead, you can see religion itself as providing a range of interesting compositional possibilities—if you can sense that a firm commitment to doctrine and practice in one’s personal life need not exclude a taste for literary play or social critique—then it seems hard to keep Spark’s Catholicism out of the picture. Spark’s lodestar in the Catholic literary world, John Henry Newman (whose name appears not once in Bailey’s book), certainly displayed in his writings a subtle flexibility in his approach to religious problems, a twisty complexity endemic to Spark herself.

Bailey’s analysis of Douglas Dougal, the troublemaker at the center of The Ballad of Peckham Rye, demonstrates the limitations of his approach. In rejecting the traditional reading of Dougal as merely a devil-like personage (he has stumps on his forehead, the remnant of horns), Bailey seeks to recuperate Dougal as a disruptive figure, who shakes the citizens of Peckham Rye from their stiff suburban stupor. That’s partly true, but this reading misses Dougal’s own role as a figure at once both helpfully disruptive, and himself beholden to the dull, mechanical rhetoric of the H.R. department. That Dougal could be at once both devil and disruptor, disturber of stale norms and reinforcer of his own dull edicts, never occurs to Bailey.

Despite the framing issues of the book, Muriel Spark’s Early Fiction makes valuable contributions to the body of critical work surrounding the author. His patient archival work fleshes out Spark’s compositional processes in helpful ways, and many of his readings offer helpful new perspectives. I hope Bailey writes more on Spark, but I also hope in subsequent works he can loosen his grip a little on favorite theoretical approaches, and do more to follow the labyrinthine paths of Spark’s playfulness.  

Asher Gelzer-Govatos is a Visiting Professor of English at Doane University. He completed his PhD in Comparative Literature at Washington University in St. Louis, writing on the reception of Kierkegaard in 20th Century British literature. His writing has appeared in publications including The Hedgehog Review, Books & Culture, and The Week. He is also the cohost of The Readers Karamazov, a podcast on literature and philosophy. You can follow him on Twitter @conceptofdredd.

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