Thursday, 10 January 2008

Book of the Month: The Comforters (Muriel Spark)

The Comforters, Muriel Spark’s first full-length novel, received enthusiastic encomium upon its publication in 1957—Evelyn Waugh described the novel as ‘brilliantly original and fascinating’—compelling the critics to note her down as a novelist worth watching. And Spark who embarked upon a novelistic career at a relatively late age of 39—she had published a biography of Mary Shelly and a collection of poetry a few years earlier— did not disappoint. She followed her debut novel with a string of novels including, of course, The Prime of Ms Jean Brodie, which brought her worldwide fame and, as she herself observed many years later, helped her to put her money problems behind her once and for all.

‘The Comforters’, I can’t think of any other way of describing it, is a work of breathtaking originality. It has all the hallmarks that one associates with Spark’s later work: coruscating wit, imagination, a dry, sardonic, deadpan style, and her versatility as a writer.

Caroline Rose is a young writer. A recent convert to Catholicism, she is writing a critical work on ‘Form in the Modern Novel’, which is generally going well, although she is having some difficulty with—this is very tongue in cheek of Spark seeing as how the novel unfolds—realism. She is not lacking in problems and friends—her comforters, Catholic converts themselves and most of them slightly off the wall; Baron Stock, to name just one, sells demonological books, and is hard on trail of England’s leading Satanist, besides being convinced, somewhat extraneously, that there are no intellectuals left in England—who forever are ready with their words of wisdom. Young Caroline becomes increasingly plagued by the doubt that she and her fellow ‘comforters’ are themselves being written into a novel by someone else. She begins hearing voices accompanied by the clicking of a ‘non-existent’ typewriter’s keys. This is a neat little trick Spark has pulled off, I think, as it allows her to make several metafictional jokes throughout the length of the novel about the novel itself. The voices repeat Caroline’s immediate experiences and provide a detached background commentary on her thoughts and actions. As the novel progresses and various sub-plots are resolved, Caroline is slowly cured of her voices, and, based on the notes she has jotted down throughout the hallucinatory experiences, she embarks on writing, this time, a novel which is about characters in a novel. Throughout the narrative, the reader is, at some level, made aware of Spark, the omnipresent real narrator of the novel, the ‘someone else’ whom Caroline suspects to be writing a novel about her, Caroline, and her friends. In the early part of the novel there is a deliberate obscuring of boundaries between the thought contents of Caroline and those of the author, which the voices repeat. There is a hint of this towards the end, too, when ‘a character called Laurence’ who, until then, the author has given no reason to readers to suspect is not a ‘real’ person, is snooping in Caroline’s room. And, if he is a ‘character’ in a novel, what about Caroline herself?

The Comforters is many things all at once: it is a black comedy, satirical portrayal of Roman Catholic church with Biblical allusions, and part detective story. The ease with which Spark handles the elements of different genres beggars belief, seeing as this was Spark’s debut novel. It is an incongruous yet invigorating cocktail.

Like many of Spark’s novels, The Comforters, under its sparkling wit, its author’s skill at handling, even shifting between, different genres, and deft characterizations, has oft-troubling currents of madness, destruction, and supernatural. Spark offers, deliberately, little insight into her characters’ psychology which adds to readers’ wonderment.

I was particularly struck by the vivid, almost clinical, descriptions of the heroine’s anomalous auditory experiences. Here is an excerpt: 'There, then, seemed to have been more than one voice: it was a recitative, a chanting in unison. It was something like a concurrent series of echoes. Caroline jumped up and over to the door. There was no one on the landing or on the staircase outside…The wall, from which direction, the sounds had come divided her sitting room from first floor landing…A typewriter and a chorus of voices: What on earth are they up to at this time in the night? Caroline wondered. But what worried her were the words they had used, coinciding so exactly with her own thoughts.'

Spark clarified, decades later, in her memoirs, Curriculum Vitae, that these descriptions (which constitute highlights of the novel) were based on personal experiences. Spark, in the early 1950s, would appear to have had a kind of nervous breakdown, characterized by, in the main, auditory hallucinations. The doctors felt that it was secondary to nutritional deficiencies—an impoverished Spark, a minor poet and freelance reviewer, was leading a hand-to-mouth existence in those days—but Spark herself, rightly perhaps, points the finger at the Dexedrine tablets she was taking so as not to feel hungry. Experts have also pointed out that the title of the novel alludes to the Book of Job in the Old Testament in which visitors come as spectators, and not real comforters, to Job’s illness. I am not sure whether Caroline’s inability to understand, perhaps because she can’t empathize with, fellow converts to Catholicism—a quandary also faced by Matthew from ‘The Bachelors’—is an allusion to the Book of Job or a personal dilemma faced by Spark—a daughter of Jewish father and English mother—who converted to Catholicism, like the heroine of her novel, in the 1950s.

Even if one is unaware of such theological and personal connections, it will detract not a jot from the enjoyment one will derive from this witty, elegant and satirical novel.

Remembering Oscar Peterson

The prodigiously gifted, supremely polished, and amazingly prolific (he made more than 200 albums) jazz maestro Oscar Peterson died in Totonto, Canada, at the ripe old age of 82. The man whom Duk Ellington described as the ‘maharaja of keyboard’ was not keeping good health in recent years. He was troubled by arthritis and allegedly also had a stroke a few years ago. According to a close friend, Peterson was going downhill in the past few months; when the end came it was due to kidney failure.

I got introduced to the intricate artistry of Oscar Peterson relatively late. It must be more than two decades ago that, at an evening party given by a then acquaintance, who was a jazz aficionado, I heard ‘Hymn to Freedom’. I never, alas!, saw him performing live—he was apparently very strict about the code of conduct and was known to have walked out of live performances when he felt that the audience was not paying attention—but have derived hours of pleasure listening to his inventive compositions, phrasing, and unique timing. There isn’t a mood that is not explored by Oscar Peterson and which will not be a perfect accompaniment to your frame of mind.

The man who became a legend in his lifetime for his ability to play at breakneck speed and swing at the same time started his training as a classical pianist apparently at the behest of his disciplinarian father who looked askance at his son’s jazz aspirations. But that was not to be. An admirer of Art Tatum—he later said that he was profoundly influenced by Tatum’s format—Peterson, according to many, went on to achieve the same level of virtuosity as his icon.

The pedants insinuated that the refulgent technical wizardry of Peterson was a patina, barely concealing lack of authenticity. His playing was contemptuously dismissed, at one stage, as ‘music for Pavlov’s dogs’. These views, allegedly shared by Miles Davis, have been strewn away with the passage of time as leaves in a gale. What has survived is the coruscant repertoire Peterson has left behind, which, I am sure of this, will be heard in hundred years’ time. May his soul rest in peace.

Here is a list of my some of my favourite Oscar Peterson compositions:

1. Hymn to Freedom
2. Night Train
3. Summertime
4. Georgia on My Mind
5. Someone to Watch Over Me
6. The Windmills of Your Mind
7. I Love Paris
8. It Ain’t Necessarily So
9. Diango
10. In the Still of the Night