The Boring God of Muriel Spark’s The Comforters
Fiction can often be defined by its variegated omniscience, in how prose moves along different axes of perspective and interiority, that, if not flaunting an unimpeachable knowability, at least implies the veiled potential for such. In drawing the necessary lines between literature and the cinema, Italian author Natalia Ginzburg wrote of how fiction necessitates a perpetual restituting of temporality—every verb tense must be properly handled and delivered, and thus, every documented action, thought, conversation carry with them a certain authorial preeminence. The trope of the “unreliable narrator” can even qualify, the voice at the center at least feigning the power afforded by writing. The futility of acknowledging omniscience within a text is that there exists an attendant hubris, an assumed godlike posturing requires confessing to such lofty self-aggrandizement.
But, what if God, our supreme narrator, was boring? What if God was mostly concerned with cataloguing and then stating the most mundane of occurrences, as if nothing more than a stenographer reading back the logs? Such is the issue that plagues Caroline Rose, author of work-in-progress Form In the Modern Novel, and the center of Muriel Spark’s The Comforters, who one night finds her life being narrated back to her within her own head, along to the clacking of a typewriter, as if the origin of this “story” came from an author across the hall (there isn’t one). This instance of hallucinatory religiosity was inspired by two events in Spark’s own life: her conversion to Catholicism in 1954, and fever dreams she experienced while on Dexedrine, a then over the counter diet amphetamine, resulting in something of a mental breakdown where the author was convinced of algorithmic codes laced within the poems of TS Eliot. Like much of the author’s ensuing work, The Comforters ripples outwards from this tossed pebble of narrative weight, lackadaisically scooping up subplots whose culminating intersection eschews resolution for yet another detour, steering the novel back onto its Möbius strip one last time.
Amongst The Comforters’ many subjects: Catholicism, literature, antiquity, diabolism, black market diamond smuggling, sexuality, aging, small-town gossip, and more. Although the novel catalyzes itself with Caroline’s post-breakdown conversion, Spark opts to start at one of the outer ripples, with the protagonist’s intermittent boyfriend, Laurence Manders, bantering with his grandmother Loisa Jepp, who he suspects of some shady activity, after discovering diamonds hidden in a loaf of bread in the pantry. The Manders-Jepp clan, with all its non-blood members included, is a relatively sprawling family unit that Caroline has found herself politely ensnared within, where her own day-to-day is something of a popular talking-point amongst this gossipy, intensely curious group.
English politesse smooths over much of this intrusiveness, but poor Caroline suffers from external circumstances all and sundry that the invitation to participation in her own personal matters, still, is all but explicitly stated. The voices compound insensitive discussions about her sanity, and a mid-novel automobile smashup once again extends involvement to Laurence’s relatives, particularly his mother, Helena, who visiting the young couple’s shared flat, muses:
…it was clear that Laurence and Caroline had made a sort of home of the place. The
realization did not really shock Helena, it quickly startled her, it was soon over. Years ago
she had come to a reckoning with the business between Laurence and Caroline and when
they had parted, even while she piously rejoiced, she had felt romantically sad, wished
they could be married without their incomprehensible delay. But still it was a little
startling to see the evidence of what she already knew, that Laurence had been sharing the
flat with Caroline, innocently but without the externals of innocence.
As becomes clear in this environment of competing fact and hearsay, each character possesses at least some modicum of perceived omniscience: Helena must penetrate past the façade of a platonic live-in situation (earlier in the novel it’s mentioned Laurence sleeps on a camper bed in the living room…occasionally) to settle upon the obviousness of the opposite. Much of The Comforters predicates itself on one’s knowledge—whether delusional or truthful, both of which crop up in equal measure—of another, and how it runs contrary to what’s outwardly presented.
So of course Spark writes religion into all corners of The Comforters, in its two extremities: Roman Catholicism and diabolism. But instead of ricocheting between these two poles—which provide such a generic binary of “good and evil” that the always one-step-ahead Spark has no choice but to subvert the model—the author casually drifts, finding doubled systems within doubled systems. Louisa’s diamond smuggling operation houses Mr. Hogarth and his son, who, in their far-flung trips to collect the jewels, hope to come across some natural cure for the younger Hogarth’s worsening paralysis, a possible byproduct of his father marrying his cousin, the materialist Catholic Mrs. Hogg, who herself heads the secular duties of a monastery that Caroline attends, and then swiftly takes leave from in the beginning of the novel. And instead of looking for recompense in Catholicism to at least spiritually help his son, Mr. Hogarth is one of the novel’s prime vectors for the loose strands of Satanism.
As these diversions began to encroach on valuable narrative space, Caroline’s aural hallucinations begin to exude an appealing reliability, at least in content. Although their impossible-to-place source is a discomfiting enough facet of their recurrence, Spark writes of the dispatches themselves as, “…a recitative, a chanting in unison. It was something like a concurrent series of echoes,” not far from the ceremony of churchgoing that much of the novel circles around. These echoes derive from repetition: a paragraph will have the line, “what on earth were they up to at this time of night? Caroline wondered. But what worried her were the words they had used, coinciding so exactly with her own thoughts,” and then a few sentences again, such a phrase will be written out again, italicized this time, conveying the distance between Caroline and the voice(s) she hears. Elsewhere in The Comforters, the written word runs contrary to the result. In a manner akin to the drawing-room sparring matches of Ivy Compton-Burnett, Spark codifies her characters’ dialogue, so that often, figures will talk past one another while simultaneously attempting to get a read on ulterior motives and the like. This isn’t necessarily a fruitless endeavor, but an unresolved one, as veritable diabolism never makes an appearance, and Louisa’s illicit activity, if discovered, goes unpunished. The novel’s governing intangibility is, strangely, disorientingly enough, also its great unifier, and for us readers, one of the most precise examples of the mystery that shrouds itself across nearly the entirety of The Comforters…at least beyond the diamonds found in a loaf of bread, although this is something that has taken place prior to the novel’s beginning.
There’s an abounding rumor that Spark’s copy was consistently blemish-free, and The Comforters bolsters such a propulsive and focused writing process, so much so that it can feel like the novel is barreling ahead without the reader. However, it’s plausible that this is an intentional means of obfuscation and abandonment. As Paural Sehgal writes for The New Yorker, Caroline, “…stages a mutiny… [she] realizes that Muriel Spark intends to make a fictional character and tries to leap from the frame by changing her travel plans at the last minute or missing appointments she thinks are important to the narrative.” Divine literary providence prevails, just as the dreaded Mrs. Hogg continues to ingratiate herself, just as “the typing ghost” (as Caroline comes to term the voices) continues its reign of psychological terror, just as her and Laurence continue to dance around a long term relationship. A woman of Caroline’s age in mid-century England is thus resigned to a repeating roundelay of relationships, which neither religion nor a car crash can liberate her from.
However, religion does appear to be a balm for Caroline, regardless of all the horrid activity that occasionally throttles her newfound faith. Eager to stop at mass before heading to Louisa’s for a spell of aspired relaxation, Caroline offers a pragmatic purview of Brompton Oratory which,
…oppressed her when it was full of people, such a big monster of a place. As usual, when
she entered, the line from the Book of Job came to her mind, “Behold now Behemoth
which I make thee.”
Before the Mass started, this being the Feast of All Saints, there was a great
amount of devotion going on before the fat stone statues. The things worth looking at
were the votive candles, crowds of these twinklers round every alter; Caroline added her
own candle to the nearest cluster. It occurred to her that the Oratory was the sort of place
which might become endeared in memory, after a long absence. She could not
immediately cope with this huge full-blown environment, for it antagonized the diligence
with which Caroline coped with things, bit by bit.
The reference to such agony nevertheless implies the strength of Caroline’s personal faith, which she herself refuses to ignore even in the company of all the ostentatiousness of the modern church. When Laurence later calls her bad tempered, she retorts that her resulting annoyance is, “evidence of the truth of the Mass…the flesh despairs.”
Although references to Catholicism are replete with typical Sparkian bite (when Laurence tells Louisa that Caroline has converted, she replies, “I thought she was looking thin.”), the maintenance of personal faith endures through all the narrative detritus that’d throw a lesser novel off its axis. If anything, Spark is arguing against religious omniscience, instead yoking faith and its practices to memory, as Caroline remarks in the above excerpt. She may find her own life being narrated back at her, but those within her orbit aren’t able to acquiesce to her specific brand of Catholicism; she’s too religious for the lapsed Laurence, and not intensely ascetic enough for Mrs. Hogg, nor is she curious enough for those who dabble in diabolism. The only one who truly knows her is the author, who doesn’t pretend to have the perceived, vaulted insight of god. The Comforters is an example of communion between author and creation, without ever referring to itself as such, its deference to religion still having enough of a stake in Spark’s own life that her vision perpetuates itself across this atomization of, as Caroline calls it, “form in the modern novel.” ♦
Patrick Preziosi is a Brooklyn born and based writer. He has written about film and literature for Commonweal, photogénie, Mubi Notebook, The Quietus, Screen Slate and more.