I first read something by Muriel Spark in my late twenties and instantly loved her writing; I had that feeling that there was something new and great in the world that grows rarer the further you are from childhood, and that I hadn’t experienced for a long time. It wasn’t just how much I liked what she did, but how different it was, how individual.
That first thing I read was The Ballad of Peckham Rye. In it social realism, tics and phrases from everyday speech, the politics, melodrama and tedium of the workplace, hints of the supernatural and a sort of fairy or folk tale character* are all woven into a weird and exotic fabric. It’s lightly told but not lightweight and also very funny.
‘My wife,’ Druce said, ‘… it’s like living a lie. We don’t even speak to each other. Haven’t spoken for nearly five years. One day, it was a Sunday, we were having lunch. I was talking away quite normally; you know, just talking away, and suddenly she said, “Quack, quack.” She said, “Quack, quack.” She said, “Quack, quack,” and her hand was opening and shutting like this—Mr Druce opened and shut his hand like a duck’s bill. Dougal likewise raised his hand and made it open and shut. “Quack, quack,’ Dougal said. ‘Like that?’
Mr Druce dropped his arm. ‘Yes, and she said, “That’s how you go on—quack, quack.”‘
‘Quack,’ Dougal said, still moving his hand, ‘quack.’
‘She said to me, my wife,’ said Mr Druce, ‘she said, “That’s how you go quacking on.” Well, from that day to this I’ve never opened my mouth to her. I can’t, Dougal, it’s psychological, I just can’t—you don’t mind me calling you Dougal?’
Muriel Spark, The Ballad of Peckham Rye
If you know me and I’ve said ‘Quack, quack’ to you, opening and shutting my hand like a duck’s bill, this is where it came from. I just can’t help it sometimes; it’s psychological.
* Spark loved the Border Ballads and presumably this influenced her choice of title.
Paul Fishman (Cumbria, January 2020)
Some further reading, i.e. my six favourite novels (out of 22), a memoir and the short stories—some of which are as enjoyable as any I’ve read. Her essays are also worth a deek.
Muriel Spark 1960 The Ballad of Peckham Rye (Harmondsworth: Penguin)
Muriel Spark 1960 The Bachelors (Edinburgh: Canongate)
Muriel Spark 1963 The Girls of Slender Means (Harmondsworth: Penguin)
Muriel Spark 1973 The Hothouse by the East River (Edinburgh: Polygon/Birlinn)
Muriel Spark 1974 The Abbess of Crewe (Edinburgh: Canongate)
Muriel Spark 1981 Loitering with Intent (London: Virago)
Muriel Spark 1992 Curriculum Vitae: A Volume of Autobiography (Manchester: Carcanet)
Muriel Spark 2001 The Complete Short Stories (Edinburgh: Canongate)
Muriel Spark 2014 The Golden Fleece: Essays (Manchester: Carcanet)