Saturday, May 16, 2015

Muriel Spark, The Only Problem, a review

Norman Mailer dismissed Muriel Spark’s writing as belonging to what he called "dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish" women's writing. The man had his problems.

Spark is perhaps now best known for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) and most likely because that was made into a successful movie, starring the young Maggie Smith. Spark herself had attended James Gillespie's High School in Edinburgh (from 1923 to 1935) which was the model for the Marcia Blaine School in the novel.

The Only Problem was published in 1984 and drew my attention because its main character, Harvey, was trying as I am to understand the Book of Job. He and another character had discussed this Book since they were fellow students in university and agreed that it was the most important part of the Bible, that the problem it presents—why suffering is visited upon a man who has been pronounced righteous—is pivotal, is in fact “the only problem.”

The two men are married to sisters and matters do get complicated. Both marriages fail, though in very different ways. Harvey left his wife after she had shop-lifted two bars of chocolate and defended this action by arguing that stealing from big corporations that exploit their customers was acceptable. Her sister agreed with Harvey that stealing only makes it worse for everyone, besides which, “it’s dishonest.” The wife, however, continues in her wayward ways, contributing to a surrealistic drama involving the French police.

Meanwhile the sister leaves her husband and winds up with Harvey, though this is not as simple as it sounds. “Her being there … astonished her to the point of vertigo.” Harvey is independently wealthy and lives in France near the painting shown above of Job’s wife visiting her distressed husband. The painting is by Georges de la Tour, possibly done in 1625. Harvey visits it for inspiration from time to time. He is convinced that Job continued to suffer even after his health and wealth have been restored for “he [Job] not only argued the problem of suffering, he suffered the problem of argument. And that is incurable.” Ultimately, he [Harvey] finds “We are back to the Inscrutable. If the answers are valid, then it is the questions that are all cock-eyed.”


In an obituary that appeared in The Weekly Standard, May 1, 2006, Kelly Jane Torrance wrote: "The world has lost a singular voice with the death of Dame Muriel. Her short, sharp novels … have something of the biting wit of Evelyn Waugh and the intellectual Catholicism of Graham Greene; but in her ability to make the absurd seem everyday, and the darkest deeds deliciously droll, Spark was in a class of her own.”

The image of Georges de la Tour' painting was downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.