Tag Archives: Muriel Spark

Old Ladies’ Fiction

Muriel Spark: Older lady extraordinaire.

I’ve recently been working on a personal writing project that involves a number of female characters of a rather advanced age. To inspire myself, I’ve been plunging into a few books in which old ladies figure prominently, in order to see how one goes about writing about them. Old ladies may seem like a little bit bland, as far as subjects go, but I’ve found they can be really instructive, interesting characters, with lots of good stuff hidden away if you know where to look. And, of course, there’s nothing like going to the masters to see how it’s done.

It’s struck me that some authors are very good at writing about old age, while others are really good at doing children. Think of how pitch-perfect Briony is in the first part of Ian McEwan’s  Atonement, as the little girl who sees things and interprets them in her fantasizing, childish mind. The scenes in which Briony interacts with her cousins, the flirty Lola and the twins Pierrot and Jackson, are particularly sharp and witty. A writer who consistently inserts children, usually little girls, in her stories is Elizabeth Bowen. There’s nothing adorable, or even vaguely witty, about her children however; they’re usually eerily quite and observant, and lie on the fringe of the action. With their budding, confused reactions to the world around them, they serve as foils of innocence to the adult characters and their deceits and manipulations.

As for the writers who are good at depicting old age, Alice Munro comes to mind, probably because she’s become a charming old lady herself. Another one is Margaret Atwood, whose careful descriptions of the narrator’s failing, aging body in The Blind Assassin feel so painfully real. The main advantage of writing about an older character is having all these layers to access, because the character has lived through so much. The writer can then delve into the past, these memories and experiences, peeling away the layers in order to reveal meaning. The Blind Assassin, with its layered, russian-doll style storytelling, works in exactly that way. Another book I love about an aging woman is Love, Again by Doris Lessing, which tells the story of a widow in her sixties who falls in love (and the deep, sensual stirrings that involves) all over again. It’s a very beautiful, intense book, which depicts the emotional strain of infatuation and longing vividly, although the story fell away a bit at the end. Lessing is, of course, a fascinating old lady herself, unassuming and frank to the point of bluntness. You’ve only got to see this video of her being told she’s just won the Nobel Prize for literature, in 2008, to see just how charmingly honest she can be. “One can only get as excited as one can get.”

Love, Again's cover has an elegant simplicity and frankness which mirrors both the book, it's author.

One of the old lady novels I read recently is a British classic: Memento Mori, but Muriel Spark. The novel begins most wonderfully with a group of elderly people in London receiving mysterious phone calls. “Remember you must die,” says the voice, and then hangs up. It doesn’t take much else to get the elders fussing and plotting, blackmailing each other and toying with their testaments. What makes the novel interesting is how they all remember or find out about old secrets that had better remain in their dusty cupboards. The novel’s action revolves around the phone calls themselves, but all the reading pleasure comes out of this gossip passed over and picked at by all the characters.  Memento Mori provides a fast-paced, hilarious read, full of insane characters that come to life on the page in all their flawed glory. There are no mild, sweet old ladies letting themselves quietly crumble away here. These women are fighters: “Being over seventy,” one of them remarks, “is like being engaged in a war. All our friends are going or gone and we survive amongst the dead and the dying as one a battlefield.” 

I love this vintage cover for Memento Mori. It's just as elegant and fun as the novel itself.

The second book I turned to was Reading in Bed, by Sue Gee, which isn’t really about old women so much as about older women — bright, modern, well-read professionals somewhere in that healthy, comfortable place between middle and old age. Except lots of not so good things are happening to Georgia and Dido, the two friends at the center of the book. One copes with the death of a husband, her narcissistic 20 year old daughter, and a demented old relative out in Sussex; the other with possibly fatal health problems, a husband showing dangerous signs of infidelity, and a daughter in law who refuses to fit in with her “perfect” family. Lots of drama here. So much drama you never really get attached to the characters because so many terrible, moral-quaking things are being thrown at them from all sides. Sue Gee’s prose could saved the book from being disappointing — it’s loud and full of voice, the narrator oddly present and carefully colloquial — except the intrusions become a little bit annoying halfway through, as if the narrator is constantly trying to convince the reader to sympathize for the characters by constantly pitying them. Poor Georgia. Poor Dido. All in all, I think the whole thing didn’t hold together properly because it sounded too soft and desperate. In the end, the story blew away rather uninterestedly. Just like so many things in real life, actually — except novel can’t be too much like real life, or else they wouldn’t be interesting.

Even with a crafted style and a nice title, Reading in Bed wasn't all I thought it would be. Too bad. The cover is pretty feminine, however; maybe I wasn't the target audience.

The Craft of First Lines

Is it as easy to judge a book by its first line as it is to judge it by its cover? Speaking of covers, this is a really beautiful one: simple and stunning.

David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King will shortly be coming out. I won’t be reading it, at least not soon, but I remain greatly intrigued by the author. David Foster Wallace suffered from severe clinical depression for most of his life, and hanged himself in 2008. He is widely recognized as one of the most original and prominent American writers of his generation. If you’re interested, there’s a very good Charlie Rose interview with Wallace, dating from 1997, which showcases Wallace’s intelligence quite vividly. Watch it here.

The opening sentence of The Pale King was released online a couple of weeks ago in The Millions. It looks like this:

Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-​brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the a.m. heat: shattercane, lamb’s‑quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-​print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek.

Now, I haven’t read much of Wallace’s work, but it seems quite clear to me that these opening lines are almost perfect. The first word creates a movement and a direction, as the reader is immediately drawn into what the protagonist sees. The following descriptions have an uncertain beauty to them (“blacktop graphs”, “canted rust”, “tobacco-brown” and so on) which mirrors the imperfect beauty of the landscape being described. But the language is still luscious; take the “weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water”, which is such a gorgeous image, bursting with truth and life. The details root the vision in the moment and place, and yet the movement introduced with the first word continues throughout with the introduction of “the place beyond the windbreak”, a destination, of sorts, or maybe just a kind of mirage, “shimmer[ing] shrilly in the a.m. heat”, a place you’d like to get to but cannot. I just used a “you” there on purpose — the inclusion of the “you” at the end of the sentence is brilliant, throwing the reader’s gaze, which had been wandering past all those weeds and into the distance, right back to him/her and his/her personal, sensuous experience. It all ends with the simile of “a mother’s soft hand on your cheek”, which is at once modest and universal. Of course, there’s also that long enumeration, which may put off some readers (I know I sometimes unconsciously skip over lists when I read) but which, I think, really brings this piece of writing to life. Lists are a strange literary tool, with a kind of hypnotic power, relevant in this case since The Pale King is supposed to have boredom as one of its themes. I am reminded, for instance, of the catalogue of ships in the Iliad, which is so potent at conjuring what it enumerates. Lists offer the most perfect form of realism, because they can’t leave anything out.

Lists can be really interesting and poetic, I swear. Even Umberto Eco says so.

Looking at the first sentence of Wallace (especially in isolation, without everything that follows) has got me thinking about the first lines in books and how tricky they are. Many people will tell you first lines are an essential part of books, and you can often tell a good book by the quality of its first sentence. There are loads of examples of fine first sentences, but I think the incontestable master is Gabriel García Márquez, who consistently begins his novels with elegant, thoughtful, fascinating, and memorable lines. Take the famous first sentence of One Hundred Years of Solitude: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” Here’s the first sentence of Memories of My Melancholy Whores, equally delicious, although I found the novel itself a little disappointing: “The year I turned ninety, I wanted to give myself the gift of a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin.” Or have a look at the first sentence of Love in the Time of Cholera, which is so contemplative, full of quiet potential: “It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.” A master of the craft of first lines, there is no doubt.

As the examples above illustrate, good first sentences must, I think, must bring the reader in media res, that is, in the middle of things — and here, we return to Homer, who begins his Iliad and Odyssey in a similar fashion. Beginning your story this way ignites curiosity in the reader, who will naturally jump to the next sentence to answer the questions which arise out of the first. Ian McEwan usually writes unremarkable first sentences, but I think his opening for On Chesil Beach was an exception. It’s pitch perfect, albeit a tad tortuous: “They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible.” Makes you want to read more? I certainly do. Other fine examples can be found in The Golden Bowl, by Henry James (“The Prince had always liked his London, when it had come to him…”) and Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (“One thing was certain, that the white kitten had had nothing to do with it: — it was the black kitten’s fault entirely.”)


When the sentence is that good, why not wear it as jewelry?

Then there’s that very strange kind of first sentence which can act independently as a kind of proverb. Two examples of this are still very well known: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” and “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Although these stand very well on their own, I don’t like them too much in the context of the book (despite the biting irony which emerges from the Pride and Prejudice example) because they feel disconnected from what follows. They’re so good and they reveal so much information and truth from the start, that you feel like you’re starting the story all over again with the second sentence. Henry James begins The Portrait of a Lady in a similar way: “Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.” Wonderful, but not altogether intriguing, I find.

There are also some first lines which are really only decent, but fit so well within the works they begin that they act as a kind of microcosm of these works, and have become famous in and of themselves. I think the first line of James Joyce’s Ulysses is definitely one of these: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.” I really love the opening pages of the novel, they have a quick pace, they’re full of life and wit and the prose is dazzling, but is the first sentence particularly good? Does it stand very well on its own? Does it compel the reader to keep on reading? Well, not really. I’m not so sure “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan” would be so remarkable if it didn’t introduce one of the greatest and most influential novels of the 20th century. The first sentence of Out of Africa — “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of Ngong Hills.” — is elegant and simple, like much of the book, but it strikes me as being similar to the first sentence of Ulysses in that it only bears interest in light of the entire book. It’s still a fine sentence though, and very well used in the movie adaption (I can hear Meryl Streep’s voice when I read it now, in that low-pitched Swedish accent she gave herself for the movie).

Whenever I start reading a new book, I always hope I’ll be pleased by the first sentence. It’s hit or miss. The first sentence of The Old Man and the Sea still gives me shivers: “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” Stunning. A last favourite of mine is the opening page of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which I find so rhythmic and engrossing: “I am always drawn back to the places where I have lived, the houses and their neighbourhoods…” Sometimes I get really disappointed if the beginning of a book could’ve had a really fantastic first sentence, but the author put something plain and not particularly attractive instead — for instance, I can’t understand why Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori doesn’t begin from the very first line with the alarming phone call: “Remember you must die.” It’s a little bit frustrating, a kind of missed opportunity.

I’m bound, of course, to find loads more fine first sentences as time passes; it’s something I like to keep an eye out for. If you know of any other good ones, by all means, please share them!


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