20 July 2011

Book Review: The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark

    
I wish I had this edition.
Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor...[A]t least that was a general axiom, the best of the rich being poor in spirit.
It's kind of funny that Muriel Spark, from the vantage point of 1963, regarded 1945 as "long ago". I suppose it says a lot about how much the state of the nation changed from the immediate aftermath of World War II to the swinging sixties. This must have been especially true for the women who lived at the May of Teck Club. Would it even still have existed in 1963? From its rules of governance:
The May of Teck Club exists for the Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years, who are obliged to reside apart from their Families in order to follow an Occupation in London.
Many of the women who live at the club, while they may hold a job in London, are clearly biding their time (and playing the field) until they get married. Like a school or any other physically close community, the women self-segregate according to their inclinations and aspirations. At The May of Teck Club the segregation plays out floor by floor.
[On the third floor] there seemed to have congregated, by instinctive consent, most of the celibates, the old maids of settled character and various ages, those who had decided on a spinster's life, and those who would one day do so but had not yet discerned the fact for themselves.
I find the last phrase particularly humorous. It's kind of the same for young gays. Many of us sought out like-minded individuals without really knowing what we were seeking out or why.

I have a long standing penchant for the work of Muriel Spark, and the subject of this one is clearly something I appreciate, but when I first picked this up I read to about page 50 (of 141) before realizing that I hadn't really taken any of it in. For some reason I was distracted and wasn't really paying attention. When I picked it up some weeks later I was tempted to just continue on where I left off. Instead I went back and started from the beginning. All the main points of the narrative were familiar to me, but the amount of important, interesting, and funny detail that I had missed on the first go around was astonishing. One of the things that went completely over my head the first time was the frequency of the narrative shifts. There is nothing confusing about these shifts, I was just distracted.

As for the book itself. It is typical Spark. That is to say it is brilliant. Spark is the master of finding the subversive side and in many cases even the dark underbelly, of some of the most conventional characters and situations. I know there is a growing fan club of Spark fans out there. You really ought to add yourself to the ranks.
  

9 comments:

  1. This has been on my radar ever since discovering and reading the fabulous The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie on a trip to Scotland. Interesting that it's set in London.

    It's strange that only these two novels are famous, don't you think?

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  2. Why have I not read Muriel Spark yet? I am the poorer for it. Will read soon, thanks for the nudge.

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  3. I just read this one a couple of months back. The shift in narratives was something that took some time to get orientated to. Spark seems to also have a penchant for repeating the same statements at different points along the book, drumming the point into the reader's head a particular fact or statement as if the whole story is held together by the simple fact that the reader needs to remember that it is "because of this, therefore.....", and the rest of the storytelling can continue. This however, is done in such a casual and non-intrusive manner that I find it works surprisingly well. You rarely find this in the works of other writers. Not sure if I'm making sense to anyone, but that's how I feel when reading Spark.
    By the way, this book has one of my all time favourite opening lines. :)

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  4. Come to Ireland! We're still poor!

    Or is that just me?

    I love Muriel Spark. Haven't read this one, but will chuck it on the pile.

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  5. Muriel Spark is an author that I feel I am gain greater appreciation for as I get older. My first encounter with her was underwhelming, but just a few years later (reading the exact same book no less!) I was struck by just how smart and perceptive her writing was. I can't wait to experience the rest of her oeuvre, and hope to check this one out some day!

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  6. I loved, loved, loved this book and it shocked me when I read it. Then the more I thought about it aftwards the more respect I had for how cleverly it is written. You've reminded me that I want to read my Spark biography soon...

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  7. I adore Muriel Spark - you remind me to read more of her. I do believe there are several of her novellas outstanding on my TBR. I think it's easy to read Spark too quickly because she has this deceptively simple, easy style. So you do have to pay attention to get the most out of her. Not a problem, generally, but of course, anyone can be distracted from time to time. Happens.

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  8. I first read this book about 4 years ago - it was with some discomfort that I realised, thanks to the very accurate description of the road and the view from the window, that the building Spark used for the May of Teck Club was, if not itself, in exactly the same position as the old Royal College of Art annex that I spent two years in back in the late 1980's... staring out of the same window and not doing any work...

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  9. Alex: I wasn't aware that this one is famous. Most people only know Brodie. That's why it is so great to discover just how many novels Spark wrote.

    Natalie: She is well worth a look.

    Michelle: The narrative shift definitely took some getting used to.

    Overdue: That must mean that you are nice.

    Steph: It is interesting how our views of books change over time. I've recently had the other expereince, where something I really liked in the past I didn't think much of on a re-read.

    Polly: I like how she gave a kind of seedy side to all those single girls in London during the war. So many (wonderful) books make them all out to be virtuous, sex-less beings.

    Litlove: She is not an author to skim that is for sure.

    MLIR: What a great connection. I hope you enjoyed your two years of not doing any work in London...

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