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Several years ago, while shopping for Christmas gifts, I noticed a clerk arranging a display of miniature volumes on a checkout counter. When I asked what they were, he replied, with a sneer, “Tiny little books for tiny little minds.” I examined them, and he was right. Smaller than decks of playing cards, they contained inspirational maxims, sentimental poems, and nuggets of alleged wit and wisdom extracted from the speeches of political figures.
The clerk’s contempt—he handled the diminutive books as though they were impregnated with some deadly virus—reflects a prejudice that most of us share. To ensure that we get our money’s worth, we have a predisposition, when purchasing reading matter, to base our choices on size and weight. A thick tome promises hours, even days, of pleasure, but a slim volume, we reason, rarely offers more than a quick literary fix.
However, three estimable writers have recently published concise works proving Shakespeare’s dictum that brevity is, indeed, the soul of wit. Alan Bennett’s novella The Clothes They Stood Up In, Alison Lurie’s monograph Familiar Spirits: A Memoir of James Merrill and David Jackson, and Muriel Spark’s Aiding and Abetting, a work of speculative fiction based on the mystery of a real-life character, afford the civilized pleasure of absorbing a fully realized artistic creation in a single sitting.
Bennett, England’s finest contemporary comic dramatist, has produced peerless scripts for the theater (Forty Years On, The Madness of George III), cinema (A Private Function), and television (the BBC Talking Heads monologues), and collected his occasional essays and diary excerpts in Writing Home. Now he explores one of his signature themes—England’s stultifying class system—in a work of prose fiction. The Clothes They Stood Up In seamlessly blends subversive, laugh-out-loud humor with compassion for lives constricted by social and cultural repression.
Mr. and Mrs. Ransome, a childless, upper-middle-class couple married for 32 years, dwell in a comfortable London flat. Mr. Ransome is an uptight Conservative solicitor whose dry pleasures are limited to selfishly listening to Mozart through headphones, correcting his wife’s diction, and covertly perusing mildly erotic photographs concealed in his bookcase. Mrs. Ransome’s life, such as it is, consists of mutely obeying her stern husband’s bidding and blindly parroting his prejudices.
One evening, the Ransomes return home from a performance of Così Fan Tutti to discover that everything in their apartment has disappeared—from furniture, stereo equipment, and carpeting to tea bags and toilet paper. Two squabbling policemen summoned to investigate the crime—a no-nonsense veteran sergeant and his younger, better-educated subordinate—offer little assurance that the culprit can be found.
While Mr. Ransome awaits the insurance disbursement that will restore their existence to its previous stagnant order, Mrs. Ransome comes to view the robbery as a kind of liberation. Forced to acquire stopgap necessities until reimbursement arrives, she’s exposed to, and grows to enjoy, the hitherto unfamiliar products of proletarian culture—confrontational, sexually outspoken afternoon chat shows; inexpensive furniture and jewelry; bacon, egg, baked-bean, and fried-bread breakfasts at a working-class cafe. When the mystery of the robbery is unexpectedly solved and the Ransomes’ belongings are returned (marked by subtle vestiges of the druggy, sexually uninhibited young couple who briefly possessed them), Mrs. Ransome feels a sense of loss: She “feared that her diversions were at an end; life had returned to normal but it was a normal she no longer relished or was contented with.” Bennett celebrates her capacity for embracing change, unlike her hidebound husband, “this most unresilient of men.”
As might be expected, The Clothes They Stood Up In’s most memorable episodes are dramatic encounters (reminiscent of the sketches that Bennett wrote and performed in the 1961 satirical revue Beyond the Fringe), including Mrs. Ransome’s appointment with Dusty, an unkempt, psychobabbling grief counselor, and her carnally charged meeting with an upstairs neighbor, a muscular young playboy who holds the key to the novella’s mystery.
Bennett’s flair for comic dialogue is most evident in the uproarious police questioning of the Ransomes:
“They didn’t leave anything behind, did they?” asked
the sergeant, sniffing and reaching up to run his hand along the picture-rail.
No, said Mr. Ransom. “Not a thing. As you can see.”
“I didn’t mean something of yours,” said the sergeant. “I meant something of theirs.” He sniffed again, inquiringly. “A calling card.”
“A calling card?” said Mrs. Ransome.
“Excrement,” said the sergeant. “Burglary is a nervous business. They often feel the need to open their bowels when doing a job.”
“Which is another way of saying it, sergeant,” said the constable.
“Another way of saying what, Partridge?”
“Doing a job is another way of saying opening the bowels. In France,” said the constable, “it’s known as posting a sentry.”
“Oh, teach you that at Leatherhead, did they?” said the sergeant. “Partridge is a graduate of the police college.”
“It’s like a university,” explained the constable, “only they don’t have scarves.”
Compared with Bennett’s stage, film, and television scripts, The Clothes They Stood Up In is, admittedly, a minor work. Nevertheless, it’s an elegantly written, wickedly entertaining divertissement, affirming that, even late in life, we possess the capacity to reinvent ourselves.
Alison Lurie’s Familiar Spirits: A Memoir of James Merrill and David Jackson chronicles the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist’s 40-year friendship with poet Merrill and his lover, writer-artist Jackson. Lurie met Merrill in 1950, while honeymooning in Austria with her first husband, academic Jonathan Bishop, but really came to know him in the mid-’50s, when she was a lonely faculty wife at Amherst College—where the poet, who had begun his relationship with Jackson, was engaged as a writer in residence.
Unashamedly lovers in an era inhospitable to homosexual unions, Merrill and Jackson impressed Lurie as an ideal couple—attractive, talented, stylish, and deeply devoted. Although they lived rather modestly, neither had to worry about money: Merrill was the son of the co-founder of Wall Street’s Merrill Lynch brokerage firm, and Jackson’s father was a successful California businessman. The pair offered a welcome oasis of sophistication in Lurie’s hard-pressed existence of raising two children on a junior faculty member’s salary and encouraged her literary efforts, underwriting the private printing of her first book, a memoir of the poet-playwright V.R. Lang. Lurie moved to Los Angeles in 1957, then returned east to Ithaca, N.Y., four years later, but she sustained her friendship with the couple through correspondence and visits to their homes in Connecticut, Greece, and Key West.
By the late ’60s, Merrill had established himself as a leading American poet, but Jackson, whom Lurie regards as a gifted writer, failed to find publishers for his novels. Throughout their relationship, the pair experimented with Ouija boards, devices invented at the turn of the century and, for a time, seriously regarded as vehicles for communicating with the spirit world. In the mid-’70s, Merrill, who initially approached the contraption as an amusement, began to employ material gleaned from the Ouija board in his poetry. The result was a 560-page epic published in three volumes, compiled in 1982 as The Changing Light at Sandover—a work that perplexed and exhausted readers and reviewers. Lurie characterizes the first volume, The Book of Ephraim, as “brilliant” but judges that the trilogy declines as it continues, dissolving into metaphysical incoherence. “As I read through the last two-thirds of the book I sometimes had the feeling that my friend’s mind was intermittently being taken over by a stupid and possibly even evil alien intelligence.”
The early ’80s found Lurie, now a successful novelist, and her friends occupying winter homes in Key West. Under the pressures of disproportionate success, and increasing sexual and emotional estrangement, Merrill and Jackson’s relationship was taxed to the breaking point. Merrill took up with a sycophantic younger lover, actor Peter Hooten, and Jackson tricked with disreputable drifters, who frequently made off with his cash and household possessions. Abandoning the Ouija sessions, the last of their shared interests, the couple separated. Merrill died of AIDS in Arizona in 1995. Ill and disoriented, Jackson, Lurie relates, “is now a ghost in Key West.” Hooten, “according to reports, is living a ghostly half-life of mourning in southern Florida.”
Illuminated by compassion rarely found in Lurie’s misanthropic fiction, Familiar Spirits is a strangely affecting love story. Those familiar with Lurie’s writing will be surprised to discover how deeply Merrill and Jackson influenced her own work. In her first novel, Love and Friendship, letters written by a gay man commenting on the main narrative—the affair of a New England faculty wife—echo her friends’ voices. And Lurie’s finest novel, Imaginary Friends (1967), a satirical comedy about university sociologists who infiltrate a spiritualist group, draws on Merrill and Jackson’s Ouija board ventures into the netherworld. Although Lurie never mocks these experiments, at times she fails to conceal her detached skepticism:
Another common role of the Ouija board is to bring its users messages from famous dead persons. Apparently, celebrities from everywhere in the world and over three thousand years of history are eager to communicate with contemporary housewives and small businessmen, secretaries and schoolteachers, teenagers and senior citizens. Egyptian pharaohs and Greek philosophers, European kings and queens, and world-renowned writers and artists and musicians crowd into small-town sitting rooms to discuss art, religion, philosophy and current events.
In the two paragraphs of rhetorical questions that constitute Familiar Spirits’ cautionary ending, Lurie weighs how much one should be willing to risk for art:
If you take no chances, make no sacrifices, and reject the irrational in any form, how can you ever ‘make it new’? And if you decide to take these chances, will the end justify the means? Unfortunately, we cannot know the answer to any of these questions until long, long afterwards.
Implicitly, she concludes that, in the case of her lost friends, the demands of art and life proved ruinously incompatible.
In the “Note to Readers” that prefaces Aiding and Abetting, Muriel Spark explains that her novel was inspired by England’s notorious seventh Earl of Lucan, who “has been missing since the night of 7th November 1974 when his wife was taken to hospital, severely wounded in her head, and the body of his children’s nanny was found battered, in a mail sack, in his house.” Lucan was subsequently charged with murder and attempted murder, and found guilty in absentia by a coroner’s jury. He was declared dead in 1999, but his body has never been found. As might perhaps be expected from the writer who, in The Abbess of Crewe, transformed the Watergate conspiracy into farcical battle for control of a nunnery, Spark uses Lucan’s grisly transgressions as the basis for an ethical comedy.
Dr. Hildegard Wolf, a Bavarian psychiatrist practicing in Paris, takes on a new patient who, at the end of his first session, identifies himself as Lord Lucan. A perplexing revelation, given that she is already treating a man who claims to be Lucan. Which one is the real murderer?
Hildegarde cannot approach Interpol to solve the mystery, because she also has symbolic (as well as literal) blood on her hands. As a destitute medical student in Munich—then known by her real name, Beate Pappenheim—she transformed herself into a stigmatic and defrauded millions of marks from gullible Catholics. After being exposed, the fraudulent miracle worker disappeared. Hildegard/Beate’s quest to ascertain the true Lord Lucan involves an assortment of intriguing characters, including her adoring metal- and wood-working lover, Jean-Pierre; Lucan’s rich friend Benny, who bankrolled an operation to alter the murderer’s face; Lacey, the daughter of an aristocrat whose late father helped Lucan evade capture and who now intends to write a book about the fugitive; and Father Ambrose, a cleric whose monastery provides intermittent refuge for the runaway nobleman. The action shifts from France to England to Mexico and, finally, to Africa, where the real Lucan is exposed and receives his just deserts.
Spark’s narrative, as intricate as a set of Chinese boxes, defies summary. Each time we feel as if we have a grasp on her characters’ identities and motivations, our assumptions are deftly undermined. And the plot’s complexity is matched by the author’s wit. On
the second page, Spark describes Hildegard’s self-invented therapeutic methodology, which has made her the most sought-after psychiatrist in Paris:
What she did for the most part was talk about herself throughout the first three sessions, turning only casually on the problems of her patients; then, gradually, in an offhand way she would induce them to begin discussing themselves. Some patients, angered, did not return after the first or at least second session, conducted on these lines. Others remonstrated, “Don’t you want to hear about my problem?”
“No, quite frankly, I don’t very much.”
Throughout Aiding and Abetting, Spark explores the relative morality of her elusive protagonists. Lucan and the upper-class cronies who shielded him are clearly beyond redemption. But Hildegard’s case is more ambiguous. As Beate, whose violent menstrual hemorrhages initially inspired her to pose as a stigmatic mystic, she attracted a following of generous, hopeful believers. “Miracles did happen,” Spark slyly observes, “as in fact they sometimes do. When she was finally exposed, a great number of her followers, mainly poor people, refused to believe what the newspapers reported.” Hildegard’s transgressions, less heinous than Lucan’s, are balanced by her participation in entrapping the slippery murderer.
But the seriousness of Spark’s moral vision never overwhelms her dazzling narrative inventions and wry comedic style. At 82, she has produced the zestiest novel of her long, distinguished career. CP