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Planned obsolescence has become a widespread and successful marketing ploy in our Age of Infotainment. Restored director’s cuts on DVD and digitally remastered CDs induce us to buy additional copies of movies and recordings we already own. Now, even book publishers are getting in on the act.
Only four years ago you could have dropped $25 (a bargain, to be sure) on Muriel Spark’s Open to the Public: New and Collected Stories. Now, lo and behold, New Directions has magically pulled a mere four more short stories out of its hat in the hopes that you, dear reader, will cough up another Andrew Jackson for All the Stories of Muriel Spark. Even the introduction appeared previously, in the New Yorkeralbeit “in a slightly different form”as did the newly added “A Hundred and Eleven Years Without a Chauffeur.” That means you’re looking at spending $20 for three virgin stories.
Anddamn itit’s worth it.
One doesn’t read a Spark story as much as participate in it. It’s difficult to overstate her importance to 20th-century letters. Born in Scotland in 1918, Spark maintains a well-earned reputation as one of the greatest writers of her generation. To date, she has published 20 novels in addition to biographies, poetry, and this lengthy, comprehensive collection of short stories. The American Academy of Arts and Letters has made her an honorary member, and in 1993 Spark’s ability to give voice to the changing face of Great Britain in the 20th century earned her the title Dame Muriel.
The copyright dates for All the Stories span nearly 50 years, from 1953 to 2000, and indicate Spark’s singular talent for sustained inventiveness. Attempting to read all 41 of these tales in a single sitting would be like trying to taste all the wines of, say, Tuscany in one afternoon: Even if you could do it, by the end of the day your mental palate would be too numb to fully appreciate the nuances of the artisanship. Some of the stories have sat around a little too long and turned into vinegarish period pieces, but many others have become even more distinguished and subtle with age. Spark’s combination of conversational intimacy and mastery of the niceties of upper-crust manners positions her to capture all the savage gentility of post-imperial Britain.
Of the four freshly added stories, “Christmas Fugue” is the best, managing to bring to mind both James Joyce’s “The Dead” and the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” without appearing overly dependent on its influences. A young Englishwoman named Cynthia has moved to Australia to work in a shop run by her cousin Moira, who soon runs off and gets married. As the Christmas holidays approach, Cynthia finds herself alone and restless in a foreign land: “Beautiful Sydney suddenly became empty. At twenty-four she wanted a new life. She had never really known the old life.” She decides to move back home, leaving on Christmas day. During the long flight, she becomes romantically involved with an off-duty pilot before she realizes that the emptiness she hoped to leave behind has followed at her heels. There is absolutely no distance between Cynthia’s disappointment and the reader’s.
“The Snobs” offers a simultaneously hilarious and revolting look at the lengths to which some people will go to surpass the Continental caste system. Likewise, “One Hundred and Eleven Years Without a Chauffeur” examines the behind-the-scenes struggles of those attempting to cling to an outdated social order. “The Young Man Who Discovered the Secret of Life,” a kind of ghost story, retreads a patch of old ground that Spark covered before, in one of her best-known short works, “The Portobello Road.”
Among the older stories, many are dated in one sense only. “The Black Madonna,” set well before the era of political correctness, is a study of British white guilt and hypocrisy. Raymond and Lou Parker, depicted as a culturally aspiring working-class couple, are proud of themselves because they’ve become friends with a pair of Jamaican immigrants: “The first time they turned up with Oxford and Henry they felt defiant; but there were no objections, there was no trouble at all. Soon the dark pair ceased to be a novelty.” Meanwhile, their small town of Whitney Clay is abuzz because of the introduction of a new religious statue in the local church. Unable to conceive a child, the Parkers begin praying to the ornate sculpture of the Virgin Mary, carved out of dark bog oak. The figure eventually gains an additional symbolism, and the pair are unexpectedly forced to confront their deep-rooted racist impulses.
Spark’s stories tend to open with a kind of epiphanic detail and then open up wider as they go, like sand moving the wrong direction in an hourglass. She hooks the reader at the outset with a two-fisted combination of suspense and familiarity. “Alice Long’s Dachshunds” opens: “The guns clank on the stone, one after the other, echoing against the walls outside the chapel, as the men come in for Mass before the shoot.” How could you put this down? When “Daisy Overend” begins, with “It is hardly ever that I think of her, but sometimes, if I happen to pass Clarges Street or Albemarle Street on a sunny afternoon, she comes to mind,” it feels as if the characters had simply been going about their business before the reader poked his head in to spy on them.
But not all of the stories succeed so magnificently. Many teeter on the edge of irrelevance, and a few have fallen into that abyss. Such entries, including “The Portobello Road” and “The Dragon,” are of course finely honed, but neither the style nor the tone fully withstands the test of time. They’re not bad storiesnot by a long shotbut they don’t pierce the way they once did, either.
Spark always keeps one sensible shoe in a less ironic period of literature, and some stories may simply fail to speak to younger, contemporary audiences more tuned in to postmodernism and fancy MFA-program prose. Such readers would be well-advised to skip over the occasional clunker. Like some novels by Graham Greene, for instance, these lesser tales are important more for their status as literary milestones than for an ability to grab the reader by the lapels.
Whether you’re an old fan of Spark’s intricate, atmospheric fictions or a newcomer to this remarkable body of work, you will want to make room in your library for this paperback. It’s a great way to spend 20 bucks, even if she does churn out a few more stories in the coming years and thus render this book, like its predecessor, obsolete. CP