Symposium – Muriel Spark

I really thought I had written about Symposium (1990) by Muriel Spark months ago, when I read it, but a quick search suggests that I, in fact, did not.  And that was foolish on three levels – (a) I’ve forgotten quite a lot about it, (b) it was a lovely gift from Karen/Kaggsy and thus part of Reading Presently, and (c) it’s one of the best Muriel Spark books I’ve read.

In some ways, it is not simply a collection of people around a table, or a series of events, but a symposium of Sparkian traits and tricks – a pantheon of Sparkisms, characteristically condensed into only 140 pages.  There are (of course) the flashbacks and flashforwards which subvert the typical ways in which authors dispense information, and moments which would be big ‘reveals’ in most novels are slipped in incidentally.  There are self-important characters who dramatise their lives when nobody is really listening.  The narrative – as always with Spark – is darkly dispassionate, showing things happening without permitting emotion to enter the tone of the narrative, even for a moment.  Selfishness, cruelty, greed, avarice, and foolishness are all present in spades.  And, oh, I loved it.

The first words are definitely dramatic:

“This is rape!” His voice was reaching a pitch it had never reached before and went higher still as he surveyed the wreckage. “This is violation!”It was not rape, it was a robbery.
This is one of the pivotal moments of the narrative, despite appearing on the first page – the narrative weaves back and forth, with Spark’s usual disregard for linear structure, with this burglary appearing repeatedly in the timelines of the various characters.  It is Lord and Lady Suzy who have been robbed, but this is not the only robbery which takes place; while the guests assemble at Hurley Reed and Chris Donovan’s dinner party, another burglary is taking place…

The dinner party (or, indeed, symposium) is depicted in the present tense, and the conversations swirl snippily in Spark’s inimitable style, conversationalists never quite on the same plane as each other, and logic never quite being followed.  And then Spark takes the reader back into the recent history of everyone at the table – and further back still, so that this slim novel encompasses Marxist nuns, a complicated case of possible insanity, and family tensions between a newlywed and his mother.

“I don’t give it a year,” said Hurley Reed.  He was referring to William Damien’s marriage.”
You might be able to tell that many of the specifics have now gone from my mind, as I read Symposium months ago, but quotations like the one above reveal why I love Spark so much.  That quirky way of expressing herself, so the reader is constantly being jolted in their expectations, and conventions of narrative being consistently disturbed.  And of all the Spark novels I’ve read (which is about a dozen, I think) this is probably my second favourite after Loitering With Intent.

Since it is an amalgam of everything that I love about Spark, and representative of so many of her characters and writing quirks, I can’t decide whether it would make a brilliant entry-point for sampling Spark, or if it can only truly be appreciated by somebody who has already developed a love for Dame Muriel… maybe the latter; for us Spark appreciators, it is a delightful treat, of her best qualities neatly parcelled up.  Karen – thank you so much!

Others who got Stuck into it:

“What I read this time was a murder mystery but the really brilliant thing about this book is that next time I read it when doubtless […] I’ll find myself reading a book about love, or obsession, or family, or friendship…” – Hayley, Desperate Reader

“Spark doesn’t play to the emotions – I was watching them all from a distance, detached.” – An Adventure in Reading

“A perfect little morsel of the macabre set against the backdrop of everyday life.” – Polly, Novel Insights

8 thoughts on “Symposium – Muriel Spark

  • November 15, 2013 at 8:01 pm

    So pleased you liked it Simon! Alas, though I've read quite a lot of Spark in the last year or so, this one hasn't made it off Mount TBR yet – I must move it nearer the current reading pile, it sounds wonderful!

    • November 27, 2013 at 4:03 pm

      Thanks again, Karen! I'd forgotten that you hadn't read it yet – hope you enjoy your copy as much as I enjoyed this!

  • November 16, 2013 at 2:35 am

    oh, cool, I got quoted! And I sound like I know what I'm talking about. It's funny, because my overall impression/memory of the book was just okay, but when I re-read my review, it seems I liked it more than I remember liking it. I guess I should try another Spark book. The last one I read was really dark though, The Driver's Seat, and I didn't enjoy it was much. I still have Memento Mori to read.

    • November 27, 2013 at 4:04 pm

      It's funny how our reviews can seem different from how we remember, isn't it? I often see that. I loved The Driver's Seat, darkness and all, but Memento Mori might be more up your street – and it is a great one.

  • November 16, 2013 at 7:39 am

    A Pantheon of Sparkisms! Wonderful! I have to have this – you know how much I love Muriel Spark, and I haven't read this one.

    • November 27, 2013 at 4:06 pm

      I was fond of that phrase! And I think you'd like this one a lot, Christine.


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