Three Spark Novels Covered

We all know we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, and we all do it nevertheless. Of course we do. So much so, in fact, that the cover design is now recognised as part of the narratology of a book: the ‘layout and illustration of a book’s cover and the design of its title page strongly influence consumer behaviour when the reader is able to choose from a number of editions from a range of newly published books’ (Monika Fludernik, An Introduction to Narratology, p. 19). The picture on the cover begins to draw us into the text before we’ve glanced at the first page, and in some cases can even contain spoilers, or can provide a reading, or interpretation, of the text that will influence the reader right from the start.

Personally speaking, I avoided Terry Pratchett novels for years because of those awful Josh Kirby covers. Be-thonged maidens with unfeasibly large boobs? No thanks. Kirby’s illustrations gave me the impression that the novels would be representative of the fantasy genre at its most ridiculous, when in fact this is not true at all. A friend urged me to ignore the covers and give Pratchett a try, and when I did, I enjoyed his Discworld books hugely and read them all one after the other. If it hadn’t been for those ghastly covers, I would have read them years ago. My apologies to those who like Kirby’s work – I know there are many who do – but I’m firmly in the Paul Kidby camp.

Anyway, this term I’ve been writing about Muriel Spark’s The Bachelors, The Ballad of Peckham Rye and The Public Image, and I thought I’d put together a little blog about the covers for these books. The Bachelors was first published in 1960, and its central figure is a spiritualist medium by the name of Patrick Seton. Seton is a criminal – of that there is no doubt – but there is textual evidence to suggest that his powers as a medium may be genuine, especially in the episode concerning Dr Lyte. Most of the evidence points to Seton being a fake, but he seems to be genuinely unaware of what it was that he said to Dr Lyte when in his trance. Of course, you never really know where you are with Spark, and her narrators often keep the reader guessing just for the hell of it – you’re never told for sure whether Seton is able to contact the spirit world or not. Let’s have a look at the covers.


(left) This is Patrick during a séance, mouth open, delivering messages from the other side, with his audience gathered around him. This next one, however (below), goes beyond simple illustration and provides the reader with an interpretation:








Here (right) we have Patrick, tied to his chair as he is during his trances, but this time, coins, not words, are cascading from his open mouth. The impression given is that Patrick makes money from his spiritualist performances, so the further implication is that Patrick is not genuine. This reading will colour the reader’s perception of the text right from the start.




The final cover for this book, however, is more likely to simply confuse the reader:


(left) I mean – what’s this about? It’s just a man of a certain age in a suit and a hat. It’s as if someone just searched for ‘bachelor’ in the Clip Art library and came up with this one. Not wrong, because the book is entitled The Bachelors, but not really right either. And the blurb on the back cover is weird too (see below):

Bachelors_back cover




Just who is supposed to be talking here? ‘He’s that dear little, sinister little medium’? Is it supposed to be the voice of one of the members of the Wider Infinity, Patrick’s spiritualist group? I suppose it could be, but clearly the last sentence is a narratorial voice rather than the voice of a character, which doesn’t help matters and makes the whole thing look a bit cock-eyed and cobbled together at the last minute. And what’s a ‘VHF of a flutter’ when it’s at home? Really, this is rubbish.

On to the next novel, The Ballad of Peckham Rye, also published in 1960. This story features a character called Dougal Douglas (or Douglas Dougal), who arrives in Peckham Rye and causes mayhem before departing. He has two lumps on his head which he claims to be the remains of horns removed by a plastic surgeon, but we don’t have to believe this. The designer of this cover, however, wants the novel’s readers to believe that Dougal really is an instrument of the Devil (below left):


Here Dougal’s ‘horns’ are two miniature versions of himself, each with their own set of horns – which in turn will have horns, and so on and so on. Dougal is looking at us and grinning, as he is here (below right):


The grin is not so obvious, but can be inferred perhaps from the raised eyebrow and cheek muscle. This cover goes some way towards depicting the canteen scene in the novel, in which Dougal attracts a great deal of female attention by bursting into tears. A third cover does not depict Dougal at all, but focuses on Peckham itself:


Here, Peckham Rye has been made to look a bit like Las Vegas – which it doesn’t – but the artist has picked up on the dancing. There’s an awful lot of dancing in this novel, and of course the Devil loves to dance! But dancing is part of social behaviour and it comes with a whole set of rules and regulations of its own, to which the Peckham inhabitants add their own little rituals. In Peckham Rye, dancing is never very far from fighting (and vice versa, in fact), both of which activities are undertaken by savage and civilised societies. And dancing, of course, is so often a prelude to sex. William Boyd argues that this is a novel about sex in his perceptive introduction, and I’m inclined to agree with him. Sex, fighting and dancing. The inhabitants of Peckham Rye don’t really need a devilish figure running around to cause trouble, because it’s all happening already. Dougal, for all his funny ways, is merely a catalyst.

So now we come to my last novel for today, The Public Image, published later than the other two, in 1968. This story is about a second-rate actress, who has somehow become very successful, fighting to save her public image when her husband commits suicide.


The first cover (left) shows a diminutive woman struggling under the weight of a huge star bearing a wide toothy grin. The woman herself is frowning fiercely: she looks off-balance and is obviously unhappy with her position. This picture always reminds me of Atlas trying to bear the weight of the world on his shoulders, but Atlas, of course, had no choice. The idea that the public image is something from which the actress would like to escape is another example of a reading that is given to the reader in the cover image. A second cover looks like this (below right):


It’s very similar in some ways: a large smiling face, eyes hidden by sunglasses as is so often the case, and the shell appears in Frederick’s suicide note to Annabel: ‘You are a beautiful shell, like something washed up on the sea-shore, a collector’s item, perfectly formed, a pearly shell – but empty, devoid of the life it once held.’ (p. 92). The shell image reappears at the end, but I can’t say more without spoiling it. Finally, this third cover is very different:


This image (left) focuses not on the public image, but on the ruptured marriage – an image in negative of two people kissing is torn across the centre. This cover design incorporates Frederick’s role in Annabel’s public image, which the other two do not.

I’ll end with an image of Muriel Spark herself (below). Isn’t it fabulous?


Marinated and battered administrator with chips and mushy peas

I’ve been reading Peter Stockwell’s Cognitive Poetics, and one of the suggested exercises was to write your life story as a cookery recipe, which sounded like fun, so I’ve given it a go. One thing I noticed straight away as soon as I started to write was just how many very violent verbs there are in cookery books: batter, smash, grind, pound, and so on. It occurs to me that it would be possible to write an excellent murder scene in the form of a recipe. I might try that next, using the scene in Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye when Mr Druce murders poor Miss Coverdale of the long neck.

Here’s the life-story recipe. I’ve not included everything, because that would be tedious.

Marinated and battered administrator with chips and mushy peas


  • Teenage angst
  • Various qualifications of different sizes
  • Cider
  • Work experience in varying degrees of awfulness
  • Several useless boyfriends
  • Two husbands
  • Sedatives
  • Counselling in measured amounts
  • A fistful of lovely friends
  • Chips
  • Mushy peas
  • Wine



Take a pear-shaped casserole dish and line with plenty of teenage angst. Turn the heat right up until the dish is red-hot, then add some of the smaller qualifications and mix well. Transfer to a university and soak in cider for three years. Spoon in another, larger qualification, turn the heat down and simmer in a solution of tepid retail experience until tender but not quite on the point of collapse. Toss into a large library then dunk in a publishing house. Sprinkle in a useless boyfriend along with another of the smaller qualifications and let the mixture bubble and froth until boiling point is reached. Pour into a marmite and remove to France. Let the mixture stand for a year, by the end of which time it will be coated in fat. At this point, return the mixture to the UK.

Batter with another useless boyfriend and then leave to stew in teaching for eight years, or until thoroughly browned off. During this stage of preparation, add the first husband. Stir until dissolved then remove the empty shell.

The mixture will now be very pale and flat, so keep adding sedatives and measured amounts of counselling until it begins to rise. Sweeten with lovely friends and allow to settle. After a month or two, warm the mixture in university administration. Drain and drop in the second husband. After three years, scrape away the remains of the husband’s parrot.

Season to taste. Serve with chips, mushy peas and as much wine as you can get down your neck without being hospitalised.

Asterix in translation: the genius of Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge

As promised in a previous blog entry, what follows is a discussion of the translation of some of my favourite Asterix gags. The translators’ modus operandi was to include as many jokes in the English translation as existed in the original French text, and on occasions, this task required a great deal of ingenuity on the part of the incomparable Bell and Hockridge.

I’ve included scans of the original illustrations – I’m not sure where I stand as far as image copyright is concerned, but I’m happy to remove the pics if requested to do so.

I.          The Raft of the Medusa


First and foremost, the visual joke is in the artistic parody of Géricault’s famous painting, The Raft of the Medusa, shown above. The French text draws attention to this parody through the pirate chief’s use of the word médusé, in its phonological resemblance to the word ‘Medusa’. This resemblance is lost when the pirate chief’s words are rendered in English, however: médusé(e) translates approximately as ‘dumbfounded’. So, if the chief’s words are to carry out the same function in the English version of the joke, they must be changed, and the altered version reads: ‘We’ve been framed by Jericho!’

There are two references to Géricault’s painting here: (i) the chief speaks of having been ‘framed’, to mean ‘duped’ or ‘set up’, but the reference here is also to the physical frame of a painting, (ii) Jericho/Géricault: the ingenious translators have even managed to retain the joke based on phonological resemblance. The caption, ‘Ancient Gaulish artist’, alerts the reader unfamiliar with Géricault’s work to the parody of the painting.

The words had to be completely changed in order to retain the joke, but the translated version entirely captures the spirit of the original.

II.        The melon gag from Asterix in Britain

The joke in the French version centres on the word melon. In French, ‘melon’ means both the fruit and a bowler hat. A half-melon is similar in shape to a bowler hat, as you can see in the picture. In this frame, the French are mocking the English way of dressing, or at least, the French idea of the English way of dressing: the chap to the left of the frame carries an umbrella, a fact which is discussed by Asterix and his English cousin; the grocer and his customer to the right of the frame are discussing the inflated price of a melon, thus adding the bowler hat to the umbrella, and – voilà! – we have an English businessman.


In English, the melon/bowler hat joke is lost. To keep a joke of some kind in the frame, the melon is no longer too expensive, this time it is rotten: ‘Oh, so this melon’s bad is it?’ This allows the customer to respond to the grocer’s outburst with the words ‘Rather, old fruit!’, thus creating a joke about rotten fruit and the refined speech of the English, as perceived by the French. The elegant and cultured ‘Rather, old fruit!’ is a rendering of the polished response in the French version – instead of ‘Oui,’ or even worse, ‘Ouai,’ the customer replies ‘Il est.’


Unfortunately, the tidy picture of the English businessman is lost. In addition, the coherency of the frame is also lost: in the French version, both sides of the frame work together to produce the joke (umbrella + bowler hat), but in the translated version, the man carrying the umbrella no longer has anything to do with the irate grocer and his customer. Nevertheless, ‘Rather, old fruit,’ still makes me laugh every time.

III.       The godwottery joke: Asterix in Britain     

The joke in the French version takes the form of a parody of English syntax. In English, the adjective is placed before the noun to which it refers, ‘the white house’, but in French the adjective usually comes after the noun, ‘la maison blanche’. The Jolitorax/Anticlimax character – Asterix’s English cousin – routinely places the adjective before the noun: la magique potion, les romaines armées, a practice which invites Obelix to ask ‘Pourquoi parlez-vous á l’envers?’ Obelix wants to know why this Englishman keeps putting words the wrong way round. In the third frame following this exchange, Obelix mischievously makes fun of Jolitorax by reversing his own word order: ‘Vous avez vu mon chien petit?’ (‘Have you seen my little dog?’) Two things to note here: firstly, petit(e) is one of a small number of adjectives that come before the noun in French (‘mon petit chien’ is the correct phrase). Secondly, Obelix uses the formal vous form, when Asterix characters habitually use the informal tu to address all and sundry, including Julius Caesar himself. Therefore, Obelix is mocking both the syntax of English through his reversal of word-order, and the formality of the English in his use of the vous form. (Click on the image to enlarge.) Godwottery_French_FINAL


Obviously, this joke is not going to work in English. We do not have an equivalent to the tu/vous distinction, and it would not make sense to the English reader if the usual noun/adjective order were to be reversed. To preserve the joke about the way in which English people speak, Anticlimax expresses himself in an excessively formal way, peppering his speech with interjections such as ‘I say,’ and ‘What’. Obelix is led to ask ‘What do you keep on saying what for?’ to which Anticlimax replies, ‘I say, sir, don’t you know what’s what, what?’ (Click on the image to enlarge.)godwottery_english_final.jpg


To pave the way for a magnificent joke a little later, Asterix’s invitation to Anticlimax is subtly and more specifically reworded: ‘viens chez moi’ becomes ‘Come and see round my house and garden’. The French authors poke fun at the English obsession with gardening at several points in Asterix in Britain, and the exchange we see here is the first example of this. Anticlimax replies, ‘A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot!’ to which Obelix’s rejoinder is ‘What’s wot, what?’ Of note here are the following points:

i) Godwottery – not a word in common use! – means excessively elaborate speech or writing, especially regarding gardens. Hence the use of ‘lovesome’, noted in the COD as adj. literary, and therefore not a word commonly used in everyday speech.

ii) God wot: ‘wot’ is an archaic form of ‘know’, so Anticlimax’s comment could be paraphrased as ‘God knows”.

iii) ‘What’s wot, what?’: an echo of Anticlimax’s ‘what’s what, what?’ in the third frame at the top of the page. This is a joke which works on both a phonological level, because it is an echo, and on a graphological level: Obelix could not possibly hear Anticlimax’s alternative spelling of ‘wot’.

It’s all very clever stuff, and certainly rewards the extra bit of investigation necessary to rootle out everything that’s going on here.

IV.       The beer gag: Asterix in Switzerland

This joke is both an elaborate pun and a visual gag. It works slightly better in English because the translators got a little bit more mileage out of it.

In French, Abraracourcix/Vitalstatistix complains ‘J’aurais l’impression de n’être qu’un demi-chef si…’; Astérix picks up on the idea of ‘demi-chef’ for ‘Il est en train de servir un demi.’ This refers to a half-litre of beer, served under the metric system in France. (Click on the image to enlarge.)Half-pint_French_FINAL


In English, Vitalstatistix complains that with only one warrior to carry him, he feels like a ‘half-pint chief’. A sentence is added to his outburst in the next frame, ‘I’m a mild man but this makes me feel very bitter!’ which later allows Asterix to quip, ‘He’s just serving a half-pint of mild and bitter.’ (Click on the image to enlarge.)half-pint_english_final.jpg


The visual gag is of course Obelix holding the chief aloft on his shield as a waiter would carry a tray of drinks, the most elegant touch being the cloth draped over Obelix’s arm: he was going to use this cloth to polish his menhirs but now the cloth completes the picture of Obelix as a waiter. Vitalstatistix, the half-pint of mild and bitter, retains an expression of nobility befitting a Gaulish chief, even though his subjects are quite literally rolling on the floor laughing.

I love it. I love it all. I love it all now as much as I ever did.

Book review: Mary McCarthy’s ‘The Group’

(Beware: *spoilers*)

I buy my books and most of my clothes from charity shops these days, and I picked up Mary McCarthy’s The Group from the Oxfam bookshop in Reading. It came complete with a handwritten letter, which I read with absolutely no compunction whatsoever and then used as a bookmark. The letter was written by a girl, using silly turquoise ink and a proliferation of exclamation marks, to thank the recipients for their wonderful house-warming party. McCarthy’s book was returned with the letter, because apparently the boyfriend of the letter-writer had already read it. The letter is interesting for the following reasons:

  • The writer doesn’t really have much to say, so keeps returning to the subject of the party: ‘I have told so many people about the party…all their parties sounded extremely dull in comparison’. But this is a thank-you letter after all, and it amply fulfils its function.
  • The writer has recently moved and now occupies a room in a terraced Edwardian house in Hereford. The house is not very sanitary because the two other occupants both have ME, so don’t do any cleaning. (The letter is dated 1995, and I remember ME being the debilitating condition du jour back then.)
  • The writer’s boyfriend is ‘very keen’ at the moment, which seems to be rather more than one can say for the writer. Boyfriend is shelling out his hard-earned to take Ms Turquoise Ink skiing in Cyprus in February, and she happily invites the recipients of the letter to come along too, presumably so as not to be left alone with Boyfriend.
  • The writer wants her own house and openly admits to being jealous of the house-warming pair.

It seems a very fitting letter to be supplied – albeit accidentally – with a copy of The Group. The writer is clearly quite young and still finding her feet. She needs to communicate her anxieties about the pushy boyfriend. She wants a home of her own. She doesn’t want to wash in a bathtub that has a ring of grease around it. All very similar to the protagonists of McCarthy’s story, who have just graduated from Vassar – which was still a women-only college in 1933, when the story begins – and they too are about to begin making their own way in the world.

The book tells you about the United States as it was back then. In following the group members as they set about building their lives, McCarthy explores various issues along the way: mental illness and its treatment (sadly very relevant at the time of putting this blog together), psychoanalysis, sex education, female sexuality and contraception, careers available to women at the time, financial hardship and how those less well-off were perceived, and parenthood. It’s quite a long book, and accustomed as I am to the shorter novels of Muriel Spark, it took me a little while to get used to the feel of a longer narrative again. I did enjoy it though, in spite of its story-that’s-not-really-a-story set-up: the book is actually a mixture of autobiographical material, fictional group biography, and socio-historical data mixed with political commentary. The end result is that I learnt quite a lot about the States in the pre-war years. An English equivalent in terms of the novel’s form is Margaret Drabble’s The Radiant Way, in which the central figures are a group of female Cambridge graduates: these young women are fictional vehicles through which the narrator can discuss and explore 1980s England.

In McCarthy’s novel, the rotten marriage of Kay Strong and Harald forms the larger framing narrative for the rest of the group’s stories: the book begins with one ceremony, the marriage, and ends with another, Kay’s funeral. Harald, unfortunately, turns out to be A Bad Lot, and he is the key figure in one of the most frightening episodes in the book: after a nasty domestic fight, he succeeds in persuading Kay that she needs to go to hospital for ‘a rest’ and, without her knowledge, he has her committed. If he hadn’t regretted his actions the next day, Kay might have been stuck in a mental institution for good.

Pokey Protheroe is fairly incidental to the novel. She is plump and stupid, and cushioned by wealth. Other members of the group get a chapter or two to themselves, but when it is Pokey’s turn, it is the family’s butler, Hatton, who takes centre stage.

Dottie Renfrew’s function in the novel is to show us that the Vassar girls have learned what they know of sex and sexuality from Kraft-Ebbing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, the saucier parts of which were written in Latin. Kraft-Ebbing died in 1902 and his theories had already been superseded by those of Sigmund Freud by the time of Kay’s marriage; in a later chapter, Norine Schmittlapp declares Freud also to be out of date (but we have to be slightly wary of Norine’s view, because a few paragraphs later she claims that Kay suffers from penis-envy). The point is that Dottie has learnt about sex from a text-book written partly in the language of the educated few by a man who believed that women were essentially passive sexually and that masturbation led to homosexuality in men. Dottie herself turns out to be highly sexed, and is roused to orgasm the very first time she sleeps with a man. Dottie’s adventures in procuring a ‘pessary’ (or diaphragm) are recounted in detail, so the reader is made aware of the etiquette and social pitfalls surrounding the whole area of contraception in the States at this time.

Libby MacAusland is the character we can’t really warm to, even before Elinor Eastlake condemns her as a ‘mauvaise fille’. Another member of the group, Polly Andrews, categorises Kay and Libby together as ‘assured, aggressive girls’: Polly deals with her instinctive dislike by feeling sorry for them. Libby is a writer who tries to make a career in publishing, but her education has not equipped her for the job: she works hard, but inefficiently. She is told to marry a man in publishing and be his hostess instead, which is more or less what she does.

Polly Andrews is the kindest member of the group, although she has the stigma of being a poor scholarship girl: at one point in the narrative, Polly is reduced to selling her own blood in order to support her father, whose mental condition is rather unstable. She has an affair with Libby’s publishing acquaintance Gus LeRoy, who is undergoing analysis. Polly is dubious of the value of this exercise, especially given its cost – every week, Gus spends the equivalent of Kay’s weekly wage from Macy’s on his visits to the analyst, and we later learn that he does not even say anything during these visits. On one occasion, he falls asleep, but still faithfully pays his $5 at the end of the session. Gus leaves Polly because he considers himself ‘blocked’ by their relationship, and he returns to his unfaithful wife instead.

Helena Davison’s mother, fixated as she is on not having been college-educated, seems to be more of a character than the androgynous Helena. Helena’s role is in providing an opportunity for Norine, the girl who was never accepted into the group, to spill the beans about her affair with Harald.

Priss Hartshorn is also given a scene with Norine in which Norine does most of the talking, but this time the subject is child-rearing. Priss marries Sloan, a paediatrician. After a series of miscarriages, she finally goes full-term and becomes a mother, a role for which she is essentially unsuited, because prissy Priss shies away in terror from the physical side of human existence. She doesn’t like sex. She won’t clean her son’s penis properly for fear that he should become aroused. She doesn’t like her husband to touch her breasts, but allows herself to be bullied into breastfeeding her child because she hopes to conquer this aversion. It doesn’t work. Priss fears that her child will suffer because his father is a paediatrician and he views Stephen, the baby, as an ideal means of testing his theories of parenthood. As a baby, Stephen is left to cry in a cold room in the hospital – often for two or more hours straight – because the nurses are not allowed to pick him up and Priss has been given instructions not to do so. We meet Stephen again when he is two-and-a-half and although he is generally well-behaved, Priss has not managed to toilet-train him and she considers Stephen’s crap-filled pants to be a sign of rebellion. What’s more, it is clear to the reader that Stephen will end up being enormously overweight, because on both occasions when he makes a grab for something Priss doesn’t want him to touch – a dummy, or ‘pacifier’ in the first instance and Norine’s maid’s breasts in the second  – she distracts him by giving him something sweet to eat.

Finally, there is Lakey, Elinor Eastlake, who is largely absent from the narrative, yet presides over it: she reminds me of Geraldine in Muriel Spark’s The Abbess of Crewe, absent and yet somehow present. Lakey spends most of the novel in Europe, but she returns to the States when WWII breaks out, with her titled lesbian lover in tow. Lakey and Harald share the final scene…and Lakey emerges triumphant.

Just one final reference to Muriel Spark before I turn this in…to a Spark reader, McCarthy’s novel can’t help but bring to mind the Brodie set: a group of girls who are singled out for special attention, and whose education, extensive though it is, proves to be more of a hindrance than a help. Dottie is ludicrously unprepared for her first sexual encounter; Kay works in Macy’s to support the hopeless theatrical career of Hopeless Harald, a career Kay had once wanted for herself; Priss is made to give up her work with the National Recovery Administration to focus on child-rearing and her paediatrician husband dictates her every move even in this; Helena’s father doesn’t want her to take a job because she is over-qualified for it; Libby’s high ideals make her unsuited for publishing as a profession; Pokey’s education doesn’t matter because she’s rich and she never really took an awful lot of notice of it anyway; as a nurse, Polly seems to be pursuing a career acceptable for women in 1933, but she can’t make enough money to support herself and her father. The beautiful and inscrutable Lakey is the one who takes her education further by studying art history – and her own sexuality – in Europe.

I wonder which member of the group Ms Turquoise Ink, the letter-writer whose letter I so shamelessly read, most identified with? If I were in a catty mood, my guess would be Libby.


Muriel Spark’s ‘A Member of the Family’: observations on the opening scene

Spoiler plot summary for those who haven’t read the story:

Trudy meets Richard Seeton while holidaying in Southern Austria with Gwen, and she embarks on a love affair with him. Trudy is very keen to meet Richard’s mother, because for her, this will signify that Richard’s intentions are serious. The invitation is not forthcoming, however, and Trudy becomes steadily more obsessed with the idea. It seems as if Richard is losing interest in the relationship, but finally, Trudy is invited to meet Lucy Seeton. The meeting does not go as Trudy had envisaged: Richard doesn’t stay, but leaves Trudy to dine with Lucy and Gwen. The following Sunday, Trudy has dinner with Lucy again, and this time there are two other women present as well as Gwen. The five of them spend the whole evening discussing Richard. Trudy finally realises that all these women – there are at least another three she has yet to meet – are Richard’s ex-girlfriends, as, indeed, is she. Trudy, as one of Richard’s exes who dines with his mother every Sunday, has become a ‘member of the family’.

 The opening scene:

‘You must,’ said Richard, suddenly, one day in November, ‘come and meet my mother.’

Trudy, who had been waiting for a long time for this invitation, after all was amazed.

‘I should like you,’ said Richard, ‘to meet my mother. She’s looking forward to it.’

‘Oh, does she know about me?’

‘Rather,’ Richard said.


‘No need to be nervous,’ Richard said. ‘She’s awfully sweet.’

‘Oh, I’m sure she is. Yes, of course, I’d love – ‘

‘Come to tea on Sunday,’ he said.


Spark’s short story opens in media res, at the defining moment when Richard invites Trudy to meet his mother – a moment which signals the end of the relationship, rather than its beginning, as Trudy is to discover later. All the usual love-affair scenarios – meeting the mother and becoming one of the family – take on a very different meaning in this story. Meeting the mother signifies the end of the relationship. Becoming a member of the family means that Trudy won’t see Richard any more, but will be condemned instead to discuss him every Sunday night with his mother and ex-girlfriends. The phrase ‘a member of the family’, which crops up on a regular basis, becomes more and more sinister as the story wears on and in fact, the story closes with these words, by which time both Trudy and the reader are aware of their true meaning.

The opening scene (reproduced above) is repeated almost in its entirety about half-way through the story: partial or full repetition of scenes and snippets of dialogue is one of Spark’s more distinctive narrative tricks. The trick works particularly well in this instance, because when we see the opening scene for the second time, we already have the feeling that something is wrong.

Richard’s invitation itself is heard twice in the opening scene, but the wording is slightly different each time: ‘You must…come and meet my mother’/’I should like you…to meet my mother’. The difference between the two versions of the invitation is one of modality, and it is an important difference. In relating the conversation to Gwen, Trudy may prefer the second version to the first, for example, depending on how she wishes to depict her relationship with Richard. The first invitation – ‘You must…come and meet my mother’ – has a casual, throwaway air about it, whereas the second, ‘I should like you…to meet my mother’, is more formal and considered, and it expresses a direct wish on Richard’s part, which the first invitation does not – compare, for example, ‘You must read my blog,’ to ‘I should like you to read my blog’. The second of these two statements is expressive of a desire on the speaker’s part to gain the addressee’s approval of either Richard’s mother, or my blog. In fact, when she does relate the conversation to Gwen, Trudy opts for a modified version of her own: ‘He said, “I want you to meet Mother. I’ve told her all about you’, a version which places an even greater emphasis on Richard’s imagined commitment to the relationship: ‘should like’ has become ‘want’ and ‘I’ve told her all about you’ is a more fanciful rendition of Richard’s ‘Rather,’ in response to Trudy’s question, ‘Oh, does she know about me?’ Trudy clearly wishes Gwen to believe – and is also perhaps trying to convince herself – that Richard has spent many hours regaling his mother with tales of Trudy and her delightful ‘young way’.

So, we see three different versions of Richard’s invitation. One is clearly Trudy’s voice because it is rendered in direct speech and addressed to Gwen. That is Trudy’s version of events. But we see two versions of the invitation in the opening scene, both in direct speech, and both uttered by Richard. If this were not a recognisable ‘Sparkian’ technique, it would be tempting to imagine that Richard simply repeated his invitation in the belief that Trudy had not heard or understood him the first time: one could argue that she is too ‘amazed’ to respond initially. But Spark does this sort of thing all the time. The narrator will repeat a character’s words either verbatim, or in a slightly revised version, within the space of one paragraph, but it is not to be supposed that the character has actually made the utterance in question twice. It is a narratorial trick, altering the tale slightly in the telling. The character’s words are heard by the reader again after a brief interlude in which the reader is supplied with a little more information, so that on hearing the words a second time, the reader’s reaction to the utterance is modified in response to the narratorial intervention. There is something else going on here too, something perhaps even more interesting. When telling stories, as we all do all the time, we don’t necessarily remember verbatim what someone said, and will give instead a modified version of the original utterance which simply captures the gist. The narrator’s trick here is to mimic that process, but in a written form – a form that usually purports to record events exactly as they occurred. What is truly fascinating about this technique is that it calls into question the omniscience of the narrator: the narrator is supposed to know exactly what was said and to record it faithfully. The two versions of the invitation seen here give a sense of the vague woolliness one would expect from a story told verbally.

There are just two more points I’d like to make, this time around at least – I’ll more than likely come back to this story again in a later blog, because it is one of my favourites.  

Lucy shows Trudy around once Richard has departed, and Lucy’s room, with its mirrors and reflected photographs of Richard and his father remind me of Cold Comfort Farm and Judith’s disturbing obsession with her son Seth. On Trudy’s second visit, Lucy shows Trudy a photograph album and tells her about how she met Richard’s father and what she was wearing at the time. This last detail is a killer touch – Trudy herself, and Richard’s other ‘friends’ – will be spending a succession of Sunday evenings re-living details such as what they were wearing when they first met Richard. We know, because the narrator told us, although it didn’t seem important at the time, that Trudy was wearing a ‘puffy sunsuit’ when she and Richard met in Austria.

As is the case with many of Spark’s victims, we do not sympathise with Trudy. Trudy is ridiculed for our amusement. In fact, we have warmer feelings toward the sadistic Gwen, because, along with the narrator, she is the source of much of the story’s humour. The narrator’s character is very similar to that of Gwen’s, and in fact, the same could be said of the implied reader because we laugh too. There is an undoubted element of satisfaction in seeing Trudy get her comeuppance at the end, because she has been a constant source of annoyance with her silly fibs, her calculatedly stylised behaviour and her dull conversation.

If you want to read the story – and it’s a corker – Penguin have published an edition of the complete short stories of Muriel Spark. The cover’s horrible, but so it goes.