Friday, 31 January 2014

Symposium by Muriel Spark

published 1990

Margaret had filled the sitting-room with autumn leaves from the florist. She was wearing a longish green velvet dress with flapping sleeves. Hurley was wondering what she had to pose about in that pre-Raphaelite way. To his astonishment William was apparently besotted with his bride. She was the sort of girl who made Hurley very homesick for America and a touch of good sense in a woman. What is wrong with her, he wondered, looking at Margaret, that she has to drape herself in green velvet against a back ground of fall foliage? She could look wonderful in a plain civilian outfit. Why doesn’t she get her teeth fixed?...

[Hurley talking to a friend later:] ‘There’s something funny. Her get-up wasn’t natural for a young girl at 6.30 on a normal evening. She had green velvet, a wonderful green, and a massive background of red and gold leaves all arranged in pots.’

observations: In the last Muriel Spark book on the blog – The Public Image, here – it seemed you had to beware of what the male characters thought of the heroine. She was baldly criticized, clearly put down. But to this reader at least (not the blurb writer, and not some other readers such as punk star John Lydon) the men were completely unreliable in their reports of her, and Spark expected you to see that she was not the person they described – this is discussed in the blog entry.

But here it is quite different - although all the characters have their problems and unreliability, we cannot dismiss what Hurley says altogether. The woman’s husband has a splendidly slippery line about her: ‘I’m bound to put my muddy boots on the vast soft carpet of her character.’

This is an easy read, the plot goes round and round, the characters connect up, everything is leading up to the big dinner party which is the symposium of the title: there is a lot going on, it’s hard to keep it all in focus sometimes. In the end I wasn’t quite sure what kind of book or story it was meant to be. But I did enjoy it more on a second reading than the first time.

The book is set in an world where AIDS has recently come to the fore, and there is a strange Catholic trope about suspicious spouses:

It’s like that vile practice of watching to see if your wife, your husband, goes to Holy Communion. Now they watch for the contraceptive act.
No wonder she is lumped as an RC writer with Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, with a morality that is foreign to most people today. These scruples reminded me of Waugh's Guy Crouchback trying to have sex with his ex-wife, because it wouldn’t be a sin with her. There is also a splendid Catholic moment where people are staring at a mural, wondering if the figures have haloes, or are merely wearing fur hats. (That would make a good CiB entry.)

There’s a choice of two green dresses here – one very pre-Raphaelite and one not. It becomes apparent during the book that this young lady is quite precise and firm and rather cold, so perhaps an outer dress and an inner dress.

Thanks to Emma for the suggestion.

The top picture is by Boris Grigoriev, the lower one is of Maria Zambaco by Edward Burne-Jones – they had a relationship, and their story, well worth a look on Wiki, sounds rather like a Muriel Spark novel. Both pictures are from The Athenaeum website.


  1. Moira - Oh, you've hit on something so interesting! The religious influence on some of those writers really is fascinating. And of course it matters to the characters too, some of whom seem very earnest about their perspectives. And I like the use of the unreliable narrator here. And is it just my opinion or is there something, well, majestic about green velvet?

    1. One of the reasons I like Muriel Spark is that she is an easy read, and very accessible, but she raises all kinds of weird, difficult and interesting issues in her clear way. She is enjoyably disconcerting. And yes, green velvet, what could be more impressive.

  2. Not for me, I'm still on the look out for Public Image though.

    1. Big advantage of Muriel Spark is they're usually pretty short. But yes, stick out for Public Image.

  3. I know I have read a bit of Muriel Spark but I must have been very young. I will have to try some again, especially if the books are short and accessible. If I am going to step outside of my normal mystery reading, I need a little help.

    1. Don't start with this one! Girls of Slender Means, Public Image, or A Far Cry from Kensington. (In my important opinion that is....)

    2. I appreciate the suggestions. If I don't get any before the book sale in September, I can certainly find some there.

  4. clothes, one cloth actually, is almost a supporting character in another of M.Spark's novellas. The Driver's Seat begins with the accurate refusal of a stain-resistent dress.

    1. Driver's Seat is one that has hit my radar lately and I really must read it....

    2. definitely, enjoy it!

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