Staff Pick: The Final Six Novels of Muriel Spark

After reading the first sixteen novels of Muriel Spark in 2015, I can proudly say I completed the final six in 2016. Each book is unique, of course, but there are some common characteristics among them. For one thing, none of the characters is likeable or sympathetic; for another, everyone’s keeping secrets. The pages are filled with intrigues, infidelities, acts of violence, deception, schemes, plots, and narcissism, yet there is a decided lack of high drama in the delivery. Spark’s cool matter-of-factness and sharp eye for detail somehow make the most implausible plots and wicked behavior seem totally acceptable and reasonable; her sardonic sense of irony, deft turn of phrase, and spiky point of view all add to the pleasure.

In Territorial Rights (1979), Robert, an art history student, flees his lover in England to study in Venice, where he starts a romance with Lina, an artist who has defected from Bulgaria. Lina, who is being followed by the Bulgarian secret service, is searching for the grave of her father, who was killed by Bulgarian Royalists. And as it happens, Robert’s father, Arnold, is on holiday in Venice with his mistress. Robert disappears and a blackmail note is sent. Needless to say, complications abound.

Loitering with Intent (1981) tells the story of Fleur Talbot, who is writing her first novel in 1950s London. She works for Sir Quentin Oliver as the secretary for the Autobiographical Association, whose eccentric members are writing their memoirs. Fleur uses her experiences at the association as material for her novel, but she also suspects that Sir Quentin is fleecing the association’s members. When Sir Quentin realizes what Fleur has been up to and learns of her suspicions about him, the two engage in a fierce battle of wits.

In A Far Cry from Kensington (1988), Agnes Hawkins, now comfortably settled in Italy, looks back at her life as a young war widow in 1950s London, where she worked as an editor and lived in a rooming house. As Agnes becomes involved in the lives of her housemates, the dark side of things is revealed via anonymous letters, blackmail, and suicide. And there is a subplot that unexpectedly introduces the pseudoscience of Radionics.

With a nod to Plato, Symposium (1990) is the story of a dinner party. But in true Spark fashion, there’s more going on than that: there’s a convent of Marxist nuns called the Sisters of Good Hope, a burglary ring, a mad uncle, and several mysterious deaths. We are told early on that one of the expected guests won’t be attending the dinner because she will instead be murdered. And that’s all in addition to the revealing flashbacks.

The plot of Aiding and Abetting (2000) is based on the true story of an English earl, Lord Lucan, who in 1974 London killed his daughter’s nanny, mistaking her for his wife, whom he was intending to kill. The story picks up twenty-five years later in Paris, with Lucan still on the run for his crime. We meet Hildegarde Wolf, a fraudulent psychiatrist now working in Paris, who used to be Beate Pappenheim, a fraudulent stigmatic in Germany. She has two patients, both of whom claim to be Lucan. What follows is a series of improbable and outlandish escapades, that, for readers willing to suspend disbelief, make for an engaging read.

Spark’s final novel is The Finishing School (2004). It's the story of Rowland Mahler and his wife Nina Parker, who run Sunrise College, an experimental finishing school in Switzerland. Rowland is trying to write a novel, but when he discovers one of his pupils, Chris Wiley, is also writing a novel, Rowland becomes consumed with jealousy and obsessed with Chris in a paralyzing way. Intrigues, infidelities, and betrayals ensue. And yet, in the end, everyone lives happily ever after. Finis! 

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Tiina Aleman is Commonweal’s production editor. Her translation of Estonian poet Doris Kareva's Shape of Time was published by Arc Publications (U.K.). 

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