“The Girls of Slender Means” by Muriel Spark

Has ever an author been more appropriately named, I wonder? For the novels of Muriel Spark do indeed sparkle. They sparkle and they scintillate with brilliance and high spirits. And yet, neither the brilliance nor the high spirits obscure the very serious nature of her themes. The Girls of Slender Means is, in these respects, very characteristic of Spark. Here, she is writing about very serious themes indeed – about death, about faith and the lack of it, and, I think, about the evil that lurks within the everyday; and yet, none of this diminishes the sheer ebullience of the writing. The characterisations are adroit, the milieu superbly evoked without the need of extended descriptive passages, and the plotline – jumping backwards and forwards in time so insistently that one can never tell whether the scenes set in the past are flashbacks or the scenes set in the future are flash-forwards – is organized and paced to absolute perfection. By the end, one feels like applauding the author for her virtuoso performance. For a Muriel Spark novel is a performance: hers is not an art that hides art, but, rather, an art that draws attention to its own brilliance: display of her novelistic brilliance is, indeed, part of the intended effect. And yet, even given all this, there is something about this novel, something I find difficult to account for, that leaves me vaguely dissatisfied.

***

There are certain artists whose imaginations are by nature expansive, and there are others whose imaginations contract. As with most such dichotomies, these are not the only possibilities, but, rather, two poles of a spectrum: nonetheless, they can be, I think, useful categories. When it comes to literature, modern taste tends, I think, towards concision: various books, especially those written in ages more leisurely than ours, are castigated for being “too long”, though rarely if ever is any book from any period criticised for being “too short”; and the glib though frequently made criticism “needs a good editor” is based on the hopefully mistaken assumption that a “good editor” always recommends cutting rather than expanding. But whatever modern taste may be on this or on any other matter, each work of art should be judged in terms of the artist’s aesthetics: it is as foolish to criticise a Mahler symphony for being “too long” as it is to criticise a Sibelius symphony for being “too short”.

As a novelist, Muriel Spark is towards’ Sibelius’ end of the spectrum – at least, as far as concision of material is concerned. The one novel of hers amongst those I have read that essays a larger canvas is The Mandelbaum Gate, and this I found her least convincing: having achieved all she can with her characteristic economy, she seems to find vast areas of the canvas that needed still to be filled, and she appears unsure what to fill it with. In consequence, much of the novel is filled with unnecessary and frankly rather tiresome intricacies of plot, equally tiresome knockabout comedy, and depictions of individual psychology that seem, even in a novel that is by the standards of most other writers merely of medium length, over-extended. The characteristic wit and ebullience seem missing, or, at best, diluted.

But here, in The Girls of Slender Means, she is on more familiar ground: the canvas is small, and there is no empty space that requires filling. Most of the action of this novel takes place in London in the summer of 1945, in the months immediately following VE Day. However, given the hithering-and-thithering time scheme, we know almost from the start that one of its central characters, Nicholas Farringdon, later becomes a Catholic missionary and is killed – or “martyred”, as we are told – on some far-flung shore. We see Nicholas Farringdon through most of this novel not as a Catholic missionary, nor even as a particularly religious man: but we know that he will later become a religious man; and we witness the events that change him.

The scene is a boarding house for young ladies in Kensington. The very first sentence tells us that immediately after the war, “all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions”: these were girls of very slender means, but nonetheless maintaining as best they can the gentility of their class. Each of these girls is depicted with but a few of brush-strokes: we are very far here from the intricate probing of characters’ minds that we find in the works of, say, Henry James or Edith Wharton. But these few brush-strokes are all applied with exquisite skill and assurance. And there emerges through all this a picture of evil within the mundane and everyday that is as potent as those which emerges in the much longer works of James or of Wharton – in such works as, say, The Portrait of a Lady, or The House of Mirth.

The novel never loses its lightness of touch and its delicious eccentricity, but none of that prevents the climactic sequence from being truly horrific. An unexploded bomb goes off, and the girls of slender means are trapped inside a dangerously burning building: the only way out is through a very narrow window through which only the girls of extremely physical slender means can escape. Another escape route is found, but for all the girls to escape is a race against time. And it is at this point that Nicholas Farringdon perceives the evil that changes the course of his life.

Both the conception and the execution are beyond reproach: it is not often that such seriousness of matter can be addressed with such unfailing lightness and wit. But there remains something that I continue to find unsatisfactory: why does Nicholas turn to religion after this experience?

It could be said that I find myself puzzled by this question because I do not myself adhere to a religious faith, but I don’t think that’ll do. Yes, Nicholas turns to religion because he is affected by what he sees; but, as far as I can see, what he sees could just as well have turned him into an atheist. Different people can, of course, react differently, often radically differently, to the same thing; but whatever it is in Nicholas that makes him react in this particular manner is not, I think, something that can be understood without a painstakingly detailed examination of the kind of person Nicholas was; and Spark’s novelistic aesthetic does not, I think, allow for such painstakingly detailed examination. Her brilliantly concise style and her scintillating wit and sparkle are all qualities that make this novel so wonderful; but it is also these qualities that prevent a question that seems to me to be of central Importance from being answered, or even, for that matter, addressed.

This is a problem I find myself often running into in novels by writers professing religious faith. It is not the faith that I find problematic, but, rather, the frequent reticence on the part of the author in explaining how this faith affects the characters’ thinking and their outlook. Why, for instance, does Sandy in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie become a nun? I can accept that she does; but if the author does not explain to me what goes on in her mind that prompts her to make this decision, it is something I am forced to take merely on trust. There is a point where the author seems to say to the reader: “Unless you subscribe to and understand this particular theology, you are not going to understand this.” And for me, this is unsatisfactory: it is the novelist’s job precisely to make us understand, to take us into the minds of others, even others who may be very different from ourselves: if a character subscribes to a specific faith, the novelist must show us what it is like to live with that faith, what it is like to see the world through its lens; and silence on that aspect leaves, for me at least, a great hole in the middle. There is a great deal to enjoy here, much to admire and even to applaud; but in what seems to me to be the central point of the work – not the stimulus that causes Nicholas to become religious, but, rather, how that stimulus works on him to that end – there is a most disconcerting silence.

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9 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by alan on April 10, 2014 at 9:16 pm

    “modern taste tends, I think, towards concision”.
    Possibly this is your way of saying that you don’t have a modern taste.
    However, happily the internet is at hand with a webpage of novels of note and their wordcounts.
    The 19th century Russians(and George Elliot) are lengthy, but I don’t think your case is established.
    More work is needed.

    Reply

    • I was referring to modern taste in novels on the part of the reader: if the criticisms on Amazon, Goodreads, and various book blogs and book boards are anything to go by, length is regularly criticised for being log, brevity rarely if ever criticised for being short. As for writers, they will naturally follow their own individual artistic bent.

      Reply

  2. “it is the novelist’s job precisely to make us understand, to take us into the minds of others, even others who may be very different from ourselves: if a character subscribes to a specific faith, the novelist must show us what it is like to live with that faith, what it is like to see the world through its lens; and silence on that aspect leaves, for me at least, a great hole in the middle. There is a great deal to enjoy here, much to admire and even to applaud; but in what seems to me to be the central point of the work – not the stimulus that causes Nicholas to become religious, but, rather, how that stimulus works on him to that end – there is a most disconcerting silence”

    I think you’re working from two false premises here: first, that the novelist’s job is to explain the behavior of characters; and second, that there is a clear and describably causal effect for all behavior. This might sound like the sort of “exception of the faithful” you refer to in the post, but if you look for a gradual movement into acts of faith, you may simply not find one. Catholic (at least) literature is full of Damascene moments, of leaps of faith, of sudden encounters with grace, etc, that cannot be illustrated by carefully detailed psychological portraits, because (to the faithful) life itself is full of such moments, inexplicable and indescribable.

    I’ve been reading a lot of Japanese literature lately, and I confess that I do not understand a great deal of the character action, internal or external. I don’t claim that as a weakness of the author, but as my unfamiliarity with Japanese culture and moreso simply the ultimate unknowableness of any other person. Sometimes the job of the writer is to show that some people cannot be understood.

    Reply

    • Hello Scott,

      I think you’re working from two false premises here: first, that the novelist’s job is to explain the behavior of characters; and second, that there is a clear and describably causal effect for all behavior.

      Indeed, both premises are questionable, to say the least. Let me address the second one first.

      The novelist, who, I think, attempted more insistently than any other to determine describably causal effects (if not necessarily “clear” causal effects) was Tolstoy; but even he, in the epilogue to War and Peace, admitted that beyond a point, it is not possible for the human mind to understand the causality. Not that there was no causality: Tolstoy was so convinced of causality that he goes as far here as to deny freedom of will or of action: rather, that the causes were frequently seemingly infinite in numbe, and each infinitessimally small; and the human mind is not capable of processing this.

      But this was by no means Tolstoy’s final, settled view: by the time he came to write Anna Karenina, his view appeared to have shifted (I wrote a piece about it here). Here, Tolstoy takes his analytical viewpoint as far as it can go, but all too frequently, beyond that point, characters’ behaviour is not amenable to any analysis at all: it is not because reasons exists that are beyond our comprehension, but, rather, the workings of the mind, beyond a point, are not amenable to reasonable analysis at all.

      Dostoyevsky presented a very different world: here, human behaviour and motivations are not governed by reason at all – not even up to a point. It is a much more stylised fictional world than is Tolstoy’s, and precisely, I think, because Dostoyevsky rejects the very idea that human behaviour could possibly be subject to any sort of rational analysis. The danger of presenting such a fictional world is that it all appears utterly random and arbitrary; and, indeed, there are many readers who dislike Dostoyevsky precisely because his fictional world does appear merely random and arbitrary. For others, like myself, his extraordinary imaginative intensity somehow holds it together: not everyone, however, agrees.

      But however utterly divorced from rational concepts the human mind may be, Dostoyevsky did not hesitate to enter those minds, and to depict how the characters felt, thought, perceived. Dostoyevsky’s novels are full of, as you put it, “Damascene moments, of leaps of faith, of sudden encounters with grace, etc, that cannot be illustrated by carefully detailed psychological portraits”: and no, he does not try to analyse that which, by definition, cannot be analysed. But he does, I think, communicate something of what it feels like. When Alyosha Karamazov has a sort of mystical vision after the death of Father Zossima, Dostoyevsky miraculously conveys at least something of what Alyosha experiences.

      And this, I think, brings me on to the second point. Muriel Spark depicts wonderfully the stimulus that brings about Nicholas’ conversion; but on how the stimulus works on his mind, she is silent. I am not looking here for explanation or for analysis; but I am, I think, looking for depiction. Or even an attempt at depiction. Without this depiction, Nicholas’ conversion merely appears, to me at least, an aribitrary gesture on the author’s part. To borrow a cliché from creative writing classes, I want the author to show, not tell. Even if Nicholas’ motivation is not subject to rational analysis, should the novelist at least not try to depict what was going on in his mind?

      Reply

      • Yes, yes, I see. Thanks for clarifying. I haven’t read Slender Means yet, so this is all abstract on my end. I believe I understand what you mean though, about how Spark could have given us Nicholas’ experience of living with his conversion, even without any sort of analysis, in order to make it real for the reader rather than another fact like the color of a dress or that someone left a cupboard open. As a matter of basic craft, I think I agree with you.

        You’ll excuse, I hope, my knee-jerk response to the phrase “it is the novelist’s job.” I am still working out for myself what I think the job of the novelist is. The best answer I’ve come up with remains “That depends on the novel and the novelist.” Which does not help when I sit down to write, so I’m a bit too touchy on the subject, which was not in fact the subject of your original statement.

      • My original post was badly phrased: you were quite right to pick up on that point. It is indeed glib and meaningless to speak of “the novelist’s job”.

        In addition, my reply to you was badly typed, and even more badly proof-read. My apologies: hopefully, it is a bit easier to read now with a few corrections.

        All the best, Himadri

  3. No matter how much religion there is in a Spark novel, I never find them religious. It always strikes me as quite strange that she professed to be so herself.

    Reply

    • It is possibly because her novels are so irreverent in tone, and sparkling with wit and with high spirits; and, for some reason, we expect religious matters to be solemn and sombre.

      I would describe myself as an agnostic in religious matters, but, for reasons I do not feel sufficiently confident to analyse, I do find myself drawn to religious works – in literature, in music, in the visual arts. And I rather suspect my attraction is because of rather than despite the content.

      Reply

  4. Posted by John Henrick on April 10, 2014 at 11:36 pm

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