Penguin Book No. 1911- Publ. 1963
Muriel Spark referred to her writing in the New York Times in the following manner,"People say my novels are cruel because cruel things happen and I keep this even tone, I'm often very deadpan, but there's a moral statement too, and what it's saying is that there's a life beyond this, and these events are not the most important things. They're not important in the long run."
I had not read a Muriel Spark book before I chose The Comforters. The Comforters was her first novel, originally written in 1957, 3 years after Ms. Spark converted to Catholicism.
As I stumbled across the characters I thought most of them, except the grandmother,were insipid, eccentric and not at all likeable as they seemed so nasty to one another in their thinking. Yet they are all bound up in an affectionate embrace that seems to overcome everything else.
There is a lot of good natured description as to what is Catholic behaviour and what is not Catholic behaviour and again the same with the character's personalities as everything can be summed up about a person simply as to whether they are Catholic or not.
The main characters are Laurence, a young man with a penchant for putting his nose into everybody’s business, having no personal boundaries regarding other people’s property yet as annoying as he could be he did have a kind streak in his thinking towards others most of the time.
His grandmother, Louisa Jepp, in her late 70’s and apparently a gang leader of a diamond smuggling ring, was an integral person in the story but rarely appearing after the beginning and then again towards the end.
Her daughter Helena Manders and husband Edwin, who is always away at vaguely defined retreats, were a consistent presence although not particularly key characters. Helena seemed quite sheltered from what goes on in her family and her son Laurence really treated her on a "needs to know" basis.
Caroline was Laurence’s girlfriend who at the beginning of the book is in the process of leaving her own retreat at a Catholic convent, as she has recently converted to Catholicism. The horrible Mrs. Hogg described as having “an angular face, cropped white hair, no eyelashes, rimless glasses, a small fat nose of which the tip was twitching as she ate, very thin neck, and a colossal bosom (who seems a jack of all trades) describes Caroline as embracing Catholicism with her head and not her heart, therefore getting it all wrong.
Caroline longs to be a successful author, however whenever things happen, she hears the typewriter ghost , a tapping of typewriter keys and then voices repeating the words of the events happening around her or her own thoughts. This results in her writing a novel that she seems to have entered by default.
It is as though, and maybe meant to be, the novel Caroline is writing is the novel the reader is experiencing.
Caroline appears to be quite upset initially when the sounds and voices occur, running off to be comforted by the local baron, who is also involved in Louisa’s diamond smuggling scheme. Yet everyone else knows this happens to Louisa and they treat it as if it is perfectly normal. "Caroline is slightly mad, that is all- Poor girl."
The diamonds are hidden in bread baked by Mr. Webster, the local baker who is also part of the small gang of 4 who meet regularly in Mrs. Jepp’s house, playing cards between doing deals. Mr. Hogarth and his son Andrew who is handicapped by a paralysis, are part of the gang and they have links to Mrs. Hogg that we can only surmise in the beginning.
Everything goes around in circles but it all makes perfect sense.
I thought this book was fun. The story was quite absurd, the characters could be absolutely boorish and tedious yet I cared enough about them, more to see how they would all end up and what their relationships were to each other rather than because they were lovely people. They aren’t. Yet Ms Sparks gives them just enough interest in a good way also that the reader does care about them, well most of the time anyway.
Descriptions of her characters are incredibly vivid, especially the evil doer Mrs. Hogg who is described at one point while eating as having an enormous mouth that opens wide, ugly jowls, bad manners and is so incredibly ugly one cannot look at her. The author also has a fun time describing Mrs. Hogg's largest bosoms ever that go in every direction, completely uncontrolled. She is a true misery guts and almost completely brings everyone down until the tide is turned against her.
The story line goes in every which direction but by the end it all becomes clear and is neatly tied up so it finally makes sense. As tedious as the book can get at times and it certainly does, I found, especially regarding Caroline and Laurence’s interactions, just as you’re wont to toss it aside, something else, unpredictable happens and yet another path must be followed as you just want to know where it is going.
It was a fun read, and I thought about it between the times I picked up the book. I would certainly look forward to reading another one of her novels.
I can only imagine if this book, as her first novel has such difficult people, such eccentric story lines and such varied schemes, her subsequent novels can only be that much more intriguing. If you like a bit of realistic whackiness. I would certainly say, “Have a crack at a Spark novel”.
Upon Muriel Spark’s death the New York Times did a wonderful obituary outlining much of her life that is most interesting. The link is as follows if interested: