Reading Note:
Robinson
19 September 2019

Looking back over my notes, I see that I’ve read (or re-read) seven of Muriel Spark’s novels in the last couple of months. But I don’t have to go all archival to recognize that I’ve developed a taste for her voice that is very much like what the taste for blood is said to be like in scary books.

Mary McCarthy once wrote an interesting, perhaps important essay on Ivy Compton-Burnett that begins,

A Compton-Burnett is a reliable make, as typical of British Isles workmanship as a tweed or Tiptree or an Agatha Christie. The styling does not change greatly from year to year; production is steady.

What begins like a judgment of literary damnation, however, blossoms into a genuine appreciation of Compton-Burnett as a fine moralist. Toward the end: 

In her own eccentric way, Compton-Burnett is a radical thinker, one of the rare modern heretics. It is the eccentricity that has diverted attention from the fact that these small uniform volumes are subversive packets.

I’d like to say something similar about Spark, but I’m not clever enough. McCarthy says that the contents of ICB’s “packets” boil down to necessity, which is of course a cardinal principal for any moralist to grasp. What Muriel Spark’s corresponding essence might be could not, I think, be put in one word. But the styling is certainly reliable, and production was steady. Those are moral qualities, too, nowhere more so than in the case of an artist.

I’ve just read Spark’s second novel, Robinson. This is not one of the books that people writing about Spark mention in passing. As fame goes, it is a far cry from A Far Cry From Kensington. The plot capsule does not sound promising. A woman is planewrecked on an island in the middle of nowhere; only two other passengers survive. They are taken care of by the island’s owner, an austere former seminarian, and his adopted son. Contact with the outer world will have to wait for the seasonal arrival of a fruit boat, in three months’ time. We learn about the term of the ordeal in the first sentence, so there are no worries about rescue, &c. What’s worrisome is the prospect of a short-course Robinson Crusoe. Worrisome to me: I am bored to death by adventure stories. The only way to make them supportable is to read through the last twenty or thirty pages in advance, just to see who makes it and who doesn’t. 

Nothing much happens to January Marlow and her companions for a while, but a map of the island printed opposite the beginning of the first chapter itemizes intriguing sites, such as “secret tunnels.” This gave me a second irritating does of adventure: would there even be one? So I slipped through the latter part of the book and gleaned enough verbiage to learn that, indeed, there would be, even though there seemed to be not much in the way of material to work with, the volcanic semi-desert island notwithstanding. There are the makings of a villain in a fellow-survivor, a con man whom our heroine had overheard, and come to detest, while he peddled his occult wares to an American couple, on the doomed plane. But the writer keeps him somewhat under wraps, casting a far more interested eye on the other lucky man, a creole of sorts who might or might not be related to, and the heir of, the owner of the island. (Maybe it’s the narrator whose eye is interested.) 

Someone on the back of the book is quoted as having called Spark “the Jane Austen of the Surrealists,” a notion that continues to give me pause half an hour after reading it. It’s the kind of nonsense that, nevertheless, “has something to it.” There is a faintly surreal, but mostly droll touch at the very end, which I wouldn’t spoil for the world, but there is nothing surreal about the plot, much as one would like to see Jane Austen manage such local features as the Furnace, an open molten lava pit that screams — literally! — when you throw something into it. The plot, such as it is, suggests not so much the seasoned imagination of outlandishness as the bluff of a determined beginner. What carries Spark through her thicket of implausibilities — nay, she flies through them — is the power of that voice of hers. It takes this voice only a short time to convey the not-so-subliminal message that you would be wise not to wish to be alone in the same room with it. All of Spark’s novels — all the ones narrated in the active first person, as this one decidedly is — seem designed to show what the possessor of the voice can do to those who tangle with her; the message is that the same could happen to you. You are, in short, afraid of Spark’s narrators, despite or perhaps because of their complete want of superpowers. This is the real terror of Robinson, and it does not get in the way of the many good laughs occasioned by the narrator’s barbed repartee.    

One afternoon, during the thick of the adventure, January Marlow nonchalantly goes for a swim. 

At two o’clock I was cooling myself in the lake. I had avoided the house all day and had brought food to eat by the lake. I was regretting that I had not availed myself of the salvaged bathing dress in our early days on the island. (147)

Emphasis supplied to highlight a contrast that’s explicit in the book: only with the approach of peril does the heroine overcome her “squeamishness” about making use of the items (such as a change or two of clothes) that the men have recovered from the wreckage. In a rather marvelous way — but let’s not wax Dada about it — the danger occasioned by the “outrage” that occurs roughly midway through the book reverses the finality of the plane crash. The concussion which is Jan’s direct souvenir of the disaster is not the lucky outcome that it seems to be. It’s not over until it’s over — until she’s off the island. 

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