Repetition and narrative time in Muriel Spark’s ‘The Bachelors’, ‘The Ballad of Peckham Rye’ and ‘A Member of the Family’

This essay is not far short of 11,000 words, so I’ve posted the opening section here as a taster, followed by a pdf for download.

‘Story time’ is not the same thing as ‘narrative time’.  The Russian Formalists, active during the early years of the twentieth century, used the terms ‘fabula’ and ‘sjuzhet’ to refer respectively to the ‘chronological sequence of events’ and the ‘order and manner in which [these events] are actually presented in the narrative’ (Jefferson and Robey, 1986: 39). Scenes which occur once in story time, the fabula, can be repeated many times in the narrative, or the sjuzhet, and any such scene will be brought into prominence, or foregrounded, thereby inviting the reader to assign significance to it. Genette’s work on ‘frequency’ in the second half of the twentieth century is built on the foundations established by the Formalists. In his Narrative Discourse, first published in French as Figures III in 1972, Genette distinguishes three possible methods available to the writer for recounting events: the singulative, repetitive and iterative.

More recent work among narratologists has pinpointed the difficulties inherent in the fabula/sjuzhet distinction, briefly summarised as follows. The fabula is essentially a construct, put together by the reader at the time of reading and revised to create a final version once the text has been read. It has no external existence unless the fabula and sjuzhet can be seen to be absolutely identical. A ‘primary’ narrative must be identified to enable the construction of a fabula: this is not always straightforward and disagreements cannot easily be resolved. In his 2012 article ‘Experiencing meanings in Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’, Andrew Caink demonstrates how Teresa Bridgeman’s analysis of the structure of this novel can be questioned, but there is no standard against which to measure the two readings and no reason why one should be considered correct as opposed to the other. Mieke Bal suggests that this is not necessarily a huge obstacle to analysis because it suffices merely to be able ‘to place the various time units in relation to each other’ (1997: 88), but what does present a problem is when the ‘anachronous are embedded in each other, intertwined to such an extent that it becomes just too difficult to analyse them’. Textual events themselves can also be difficult to categorise. Bal notes that false anachronies arise where the event has taken place in the consciousness of one of the characters (1997: 87), and similar anachronies can be found in direct discourse because the ‘moment of speech is simply part of the (chronological) story’. In postmodern texts which lean towards the anti-narrative, it can often be impossible to judge whether an event took place at all. It should not be supposed that it is a simple matter to extract the fabula from the sjuzhet: some texts will lend themselves easily to this task, but others – particularly more modern texts – will prove far more resistant; for example, in Robbe-Grillet’s postmodernist novel Le Voyeur, it is very difficult for the reader to work out what actually happened, or indeed, if any of the events depicted took place at all. Given that the title of Robbe-Grillet’s novel refers to an essentially passive activity, it is possible that the ‘events’ of the novel all take place in Mathias’ consciousness and have no place anywhere else.

Repetition and Narrative Time in Muriel Spark’s ‘The Bachelors’, ‘The Ballad of Peckham Rye’ and ‘A Member of the Family’

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King Gary and his court: repetition and prolepsis in ‘The World’s End’


The World’s End is the final film in Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy and what binds the films together, apart from the Cornetto references, is that all three are about attempted takeovers in which human beings are assimilated and homogenised. In Shaun of the Dead, those affected by a zombie plague turn other people into zombies; in Hot Fuzz, the attempt to build a utopian village means that those who don’t fit in are murdered; in The World’s End, the utopian theme is present again when an alien force known as ‘The Network’ (voiced by Bill Nighy) turns people into robot versions of themselves when they refuse to comply. As the character of Basil says,

“It’s not an invasion, it’s a merger. They don’t want to get rid of us, not if they can help it. They just want to make us more like them. Change the way we think. Bring us into line with all the others. Become another link in their chain. Which is fine – unless you say no.”

Given the underlying theme of the trilogy – that of assimilation – visual and verbal repetition is naturally a strong feature in all three films and repetition takes both spatial and temporal forms in The World’s End. Spatially, repetition is seen in the ‘Starbucking’ of Newton Haven: chains such as Starbucks have taken over and the pubs are identically furnished, right down to the same fake chalk handwritten signage. Basil refers to The Network’s wish to incorporate humanity as another link in the ‘chain’, and this wish is metaphorically embodied in the homogenisation of the spaces in the film. In the final scene, Gary and Andy confront The Network with its ‘Starbucking’ of human beings: each identical pub has a robot landlord who, in an identical movement to all his robot counterparts, slaps a bar-towel over his shoulder.

Temporally speaking, Gary (Simon Pegg) is an ideal hero, because he is hopelessly stuck in the past: he wears the same clothes, drives the same car, listens to the same music (on the same cassette tape!) and still possesses the same map as that which was consulted when the five friends didn’t quite finish the Golden Mile over twenty years ago. Gary persuades his friends to join him in the ill-fated recreation of 22nd June 1990 and the short vignette into the past which accompanies Gary’s voiceover at the beginning of the film more or less provides the reader with the entire storyline (minus the robots). This vignette is a kind of proleptic annonce, as described by structuralist and narratologist Gérard Genette: it’s a narrative flashforward, containing information about the characters’ future. As the film progresses, the viewer watches the characters re-enact the events of that night, and although the presence of the robots means that everything is essentially different while only appearing to be the same, the narrative structure of the vignette is broadly identical to the larger storyline of the film. And beyond the confines of the film’s story, there is even more repetition on a grand historical scale: The Network tells Gary and Andy that mankind endlessly repeats the same cycles of self-destruction.

“You are children and you require guidance. There is no room for imperfection.”

Here’s Gary’s opening monologue in full, courtesy of IMDB:

[opening monologue] “Ever have one of those nights that starts out like any other but ends up being the best night of your life? It was June the 22nd, 1990. Our final day of school. There was Oliver Chamberlain, Peter Page, Steven Prince, Andy Knightley, and me. They called me “The King”. Because that’s my name – Gary King. Ollie fancied himself as a bit of a player but really he was old man. We called him “O Man” because he had a birth mark on his face that was shaped like a six. He loved it. Pete was the baby of the group. He wasn’t the kind of kid we would usually hang out with, but he was good for a laugh. And he was absolutely minted. Steve was a pretty cool guy, we jammed together. Chased the girls. I think he saw us as rivals. Sweet really. And Andy. Andy was my wingman. The one guy I could rely on to back me up. He loved me, and I’m not being funny, but I loved him too. There was nothing we were going to miss about school. Maybe Mr. Shepherd, he was one of the good guys. He used to ask me what I wanted to do with my life. I told him I just wanted to have a good time. He thought that was funny. It wasn’t meant to be, not that night. Newton Haven was our home town, our playground. Our universe. And that night was the site of a heroic quest. Our aim? To conquer the Golden Mile – 12 pubs along the legendary path of alcoholic indulgence. There was the First Post, the Old Familiar, the Famous Cock, the Cross Hands, the Good Companions, the Trusty Servant, the Two Headed Dog, the Mermaid, the Beehive, the King’s Head, the Hole In The Wall, all before reaching our destiny – The World’s End. We took my car into town that night. We called her “The Beast” because she was pretty hairy. And so our journey into manhood began. We were off. We didn’t waste any time, we hit pub one and we hit it hard. There was drinking, there were laughs, there was controversy, there were ladies, there were shots, there was drama, and of course there was drinking. By pub 5 we were feeling invincible, and decide to purchase some herbal refreshment from a man we called “The Reverend Green”. Pint 6 put O Man out of commission, so we carried on without him. Good thing, I bumped into his sister at the next pub and we went into the disableds, and then I bumped into her again. Sam tagged along for a while, but then I had to let her go, I had another date that night. And her name was Amber. Nine pints in and it was us against the world. Things got mental in the Beehive so we tailed it to the Bowls Club, or as we called it “The Smoke House”, which is where it all went fuck up. Everyone got paranoid and Pete chucked a whitey so we had to bench him. In the end we blew off the last three pubs and headed for the hills. As I sat up there, blood on my knuckles, beer down my shirt, sick on my shoes, knowing in my heart life would never feel this good again.

[shows Gary in a group therapy setting]

And you know what? It never did.”


In this speech and its accompanying visual sequence, we are introduced to the friends as they existed in the past; during the opening credits, we see them as their adult selves more than twenty years after the events of that night.

Gary is a king with his court. In conversation with Peter, he makes reference to The Once and Future King, who, of course, is King Arthur in T. H. White’s novel of the same name. Gary’s attempt to conquer the Golden Mile is elevated to the level of a quest and many of Gary’s speeches have an epic tinge to them:

“Tonight, we will be partaking of a liquid repast as we wind our way up the Golden Mile. Commencing with an inaugural tankard in The First Post, then on to The Old Familiar, The Famous Cock, The Cross Hands, The Good Companions, The Trusty Servant, The Two-Headed Dog, The Mermaid, The Beehive, The King’s Head, and The Hole in the Wall for a measure of the same, all before the last bittersweet pint in that most fateful terminus, The World’s End. Leave a light on good lady, for though we may return with a twinkle in our eyes, we will in truth be blind – drunk!”

In the final confrontation, The Network refers to Gary as King of the Humans, and as previously suggested, Gary is the perfect leader and hero of this tale because he hasn’t grown up or moved on, and he doesn’t want things to have changed since 1990. He embraces the biggest change when it comes because it takes him backwards in time, not forwards, and he ends by recreating his court with the robot versions of his friends when they were young.


King Gary’s Court

A page is a young male servant, an apprentice to a knight, and Peter Page (played by Eddie Marsan) is the baby of the group. His death is foretold in the opening vignette: everyone gets paranoid in The Smoke House as before, but on this occasion it’s because they can’t be sure that everyone present is still human. Peter gets benched at this stage of the Golden Mile as he did twenty years ago when he is entrapped by his childhood bully in robot form and distracted for long enough to enable the robots to close in. His friends can only look on in horror. Earlier in the film, Pete predicts his own demise in a proleptic announcement: “We could end up dead in a field. I hate fields.” But it’s not quite all bad: the adult Peter is seen in the opening credits looking very uncomfortable in the company of his offspring and hiding behind a newspaper to avoid his parenting responsibilities, but the robot Peter is seen having fun entertaining these children with his detachable hand at the end.

A chamberlain is an officer in charge of managing the household of a sovereign, and the adult Oliver Chamberlain (Martin Freeman) has become an estate agent and works, therefore, with property. His trademark mobile phone is first a brick-like device and then an in-ear piece. Oliver’s death is also signposted for the attentive viewer: it was the sixth pint which put young Oliver out of action, and, twenty years later, after pint six in The Trusty Servant, it isn’t Oliver who returns from the toilet. Robot Oliver is seen showing a couple around a property at the end of the film, and in fact this is the same young couple who couldn’t afford the house priced at £1.2 million during one of the film’s opening sequences.

A knight is a vassal who serves as a fighter for a lord, and Andrew Knightley (Nick Frost) is the most ferocious brawler of the five friends. Andy fights bravely in the toilet when five robots line up western-style facing the five humans; things get ‘mental’ in The Beehive as they did before, and it is Andy who begins the fight. He and his wife ‘go organic’ at the end, a reference to an earlier conversation, and this is what allows the fleeting Cornetto reference when a discarded wrapper of the same sweeps past Andy’s nose. Gary narrates the story for us at the opening, but it is Andy who is our closing narrator.

“A man of your legendary prowess drinking fucking…rain! It’s like a lion eating houmous.”

The prince is one who will eventually take over from the king, as Steven Prince (Paddy Considine) does when he wins the heart of Oliver’s sister Samantha (Rosamund Pike) in an echo of the Lancelot and Guinevere narrative. Both the young and adult Gary repeatedly shove Steve out of the way to get to Sam, but Steve wins in the end. Steve is shown with his 26-year-old fitness instructor in the opening credits and in his shack with Sam at the close.


Repetition and prolepsis

Everything in the film is a repetition of something that has gone before, even down to its framing Arthurian narrative: we already know this story. The pub names are repeated in sequence over and over again, like a verbal map of the quest as recited during an oral narrative. The five friends have their spoken catchphrases and almost every conversation is a repetition of something previously said: Steve repeatedly mentions his 26-year-old fitness instructor; Oliver has his WTF?; Andy with his references to selective memory and his rebuff, ‘It’s pointless arguing with you’; Gary keeps telling Steve to write down potential band names. Numerous visual images are repetitions of something that has gone before: the landlords with their bar-towels have already been mentioned; Gary ringing the doorbell and running away; Gary jumping over objects and obstacles (not always successfully, and in fact, this is a running gag throughout the trilogy); the ‘Starbucked’ pubs, the view of Newton Haven from the road…and in fact, it is a repeated visual image that tells you something is very wrong. The sequence of pedestrians who walk past the five friends is identical in two separate instances: it’s not just that the woman with the pram is still out walking her baby after dark that gives the viewer the shivers, it is the fact that she is seen in the same position in the sequence of passers-by. This is not normal. This is Uncanny Valley. Something is Going On.

“I still think nothing that has been suggested in the last 10 minutes beats ‘smashy smashy egg men’.”

There are other proleptic annonces signposting the deaths of Oliver and Peter outside of the opening vignette. The Beast herself, Gary’s car from the 1990s, is a metaphorical annonce: more or less everything on this car has been replaced, so although it looks like the same car, it isn’t. The car, therefore, is a metaphor for the robots: they look the same as the human they replaced, but the likeness is only superficial. The Oliver and Peter we see after they have been replaced look more or less the same as they always did, but they are nothing more than mechanical facsimiles of their human selves.

In addition, the two deaths are foretold in the many and various references to The Three Musketeers which are voiced throughout the film:

Gary King: And here we go! Just like the Five Musketeers!

Steven Prince: Three musketeers, wasn’t it?

Peter Page: Four, if you count d’Artagnan.

Gary King: Well, nobody knows how many there were, really, do they?

Oliver Chamberlain: You do know that The Three Musketeers was a fiction, right? Written by Alexandre Dumas?

Gary King: A lot of people are saying that about the Bible these days.

Steven Prince: What, that it was written by Alexandre Dumas?

Gary King: Don’t be daft, Steve! It was written by Jesus!

Gary then goes on to say that five musketeers would have been preferable to three because ‘Two could’ve died and they’d still have three left’, and, of course, this is exactly what happens. The film ends with the most famous quotation from Dumas’ novel when Gary, surrounded by his new court of the robot versions of his friends, insists that the landlord in The Rising Sun serve all five of them with pints of water because it’s ‘All for one and one for all’.

“Gary thinks we should keep up with the crawl because they know what they’re doing, but they don’t know that we know what they’re doing, and basically no one else has a better idea so, fuck it.”

The last point I’d like to make (for today, anyway) is just about a nice little bit of scriptwriting. The friends drunkenly discuss pronouns in one of the pubs – I forget which – and later on, one pronoun becomes very important.

Steven Prince: We need to be able to differentiate between them, them and us.

Peter Page: Yeah, I think the pronouns are really confusing.

Gary King: I don’t even know what a pronoun is.

Oliver Chamberlain: Well, it’s a word that can function by itself as a noun which refers to something else in the discourse.

Gary King: I don’t get it.

Andrew Knightley: You just used one.

Gary King: Did I?

Andrew Knightley: “It” is a pronoun.

Gary King: What is?

Andrew Knightley: It!

Gary King: Is it?

Andrew Knightley: Christ!

A change in pronoun features in a later conversation and provides a clue as to the events to follow. In The Mermaid, the robots have been able to access the DNA of Gary, Peter and Andy. All the pub names in The World’s End carry some significance, and here the mermaids are of course the two blondes and a redhead which make up the Marmalade Sandwich, but their role is really that of the Sirens: the robots knew that these three would not be able to resist a school uniform. (Point of note: mermaids and Sirens are not the same thing, but they have long been conflated in the collective consciousness. Sirens are in fact bird-like creatures and not mermaids at all.) When the friends exit The Mermaid, Gary challenges Oliver with not having lasted this long on the previous pub crawl. Oliver is of course Robot Oliver by now, and Gary has hit on the truth without realising it – he has given the viewer the clue that he can’t quite work out for himself.

In fact, Oliver is just about to be outed as a robot version so this is an annonce of a sort: if the viewer hasn’t already spotted the switch, it will become obvious during this exchange. Outside the next pub, Oliver says to Andy ‘It can’t start without you,’ which he changes to ‘We can’t start without you,’ when Andy asks him to repeat his remark. The change in the pronoun is significant – the friends are about to be directly ‘invited’ to join the robot community by a robot version of Mr Shepherd – and Andy knows what a pronoun is, even if Gary doesn’t. ‘It’ is more likely to refer to something outside of the group of friends, in this case, the issuing of the invitation, whereas ‘we’ conceivably refers to the five friends partaking of their next round. Andy has all the clues he needs now to put two and two together: Steve’s information from Basil about how the robots collect human DNA in order to create robotic clones, Gary’s challenge to Oliver and Oliver’s curious response, then Oliver’s slip over that pronoun. That’s why it’s Andy who spots that Oliver’s birthmark has returned. Then he knocks Oliver’s robot head off.

‘Outside,’ said the barmaid: repetition as a temporal location marker


If a word, phrase, or passage is repeated in a literary text, the reader’s natural response will be to assume that that which is repeated must be significant in some way. The very fact that a particular cluster of words has been included in the text more than once invites the reader to assign a degree of importance to it, and from that point on, the reader constructs an interpretation of the text based on his or her understanding of the potential meaning of the repeated words in the context of the novel, short story, or whatever. So we can see that repetition guides the reader towards a ‘reading’ of the text. But repetition can serve a very practical purpose as well as an aesthetic one: as demonstrated below, repetition may alert the reader that a temporal shift in the narrative (a flashback or a flashforward) has occurred and it can also help the reader to locate the end of a time shift. Literary texts very rarely have an absolutely linear timeline, and right from the off, the reader is attempting to reconstruct the beginning-middle-end of the story from what s/he learns while reading the narrative (the way in which the story is told) with all its temporal anomalies. When repetition provides temporal location markers as described above, it aids the reader in his/her construction of a global time frame.

What follows is a brief description of how the repetition of a brief snatch of dialogue guides the reader through the temporal shifts in the first chapter of Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye. Spark, as usual, manages to wring an enormous amount of meaning out of a very simple device: the repetition here serves both a practical and an aesthetic end, as we shall see.

For those who haven’t read the novel, here’s a quick summary of the first chapter:

Humphrey Place has returned after jilting Dixie Morse at the altar. He tries to visit Dixie, but Mavis, Dixie’s mother, slams the door in his face. Humphrey then goes on a pub crawl where he runs into Trevor Lomas, a local thug, who hits him, and they are both ordered out of the pub. In flashback, we see Humphrey jilting Dixie at the altar. Back in the ‘present’ (such as it is in Spark’s novels!), Humphrey and Trevor fight in the car park until they are eventually parted by onlookers. We ‘cut’ to Dixie’s house, where she is discussing Humphrey with her mother. The doorbell rings, but this time it is Trevor. Dixie enquires after Humphrey while reiterating that she doesn’t want to see him again. The reader is filled in on more of the background by overhearing the gossip of Peckham inhabitants and we learn the names and current situations of many of the characters. The chapter closes with a ballad-like speculation of what became of the bride and groom.


In the first chapter of The Ballad of Peckham Rye, the barmaid of The Harbinger is twice heard to order the two men outside when Trevor punches Humphrey. It is not to be supposed that the barmaid actually utters her words twice*; instead, the reader understands that the narrative has jumped forward in time from the jilting scene and Humphrey’s subsequent departure to the moment when the analepsis (flashback) begins, after Trevor and Humphrey have been ordered out of the pub.

What is notable here is that we are given two pieces of information when we only need one – it would have been enough merely to hear the barmaid say ‘Outside’, and yet we are shown the female bystander’s comment twice as well: ‘ “It wouldn’t have happened if Dougal Douglas hadn’t come here” ’ (The Ballad of Peckham Rye, pp. 7 and 9).

In fact, the bystander’s comment is foregrounded in two ways: firstly, in that it is repeated, and secondly, in that the speech adverbial ‘remarked’ breaks the pattern established prior to this moment. Until this point, every spoken comment is marked simply as ‘said’ (he said, she said). The change calls attention to the woman’s remark, which is an important one because it refers to Dougal Douglas for the first time. The responsibility for the events of the narrative to follow is placed squarely on Dougal’s misshapen shoulders at this early stage. The ‘remark’ is also understood as an observation rather than a conversational turn. We do not know the identity of the woman’s interlocutor, and she receives no reply. The narrative switches to the aborted wedding scene immediately after we hear the remark for the first time, so the woman’s words are left hanging in the air in the moment before the reader sees the scene of the jilting for which Dougal is being blamed. The indefinite article – ‘a woman’ – spotlights the remark itself, not the speaker, as does the positioning of the remark in the sentence, which comes before we know who is speaking and to whom. The woman is not important. Her comment is, because it introduces our hero Dougal as a mischief-maker, and it sets up what is arguably the primary narrative (Dougal’s arrival in Peckham Rye and how much trouble he managed to cause before his departure). In addition, the repetition we see here has an aesthetic purpose in that the repeated dialogue serves as the equivalent of a ballad’s refrain – and The Ballad of Peckham Rye is a novel that is both thematically and structurally influenced by the border ballads of which Muriel Spark was so fond.


* ‘It is not to be supposed that the barmaid actually utters her words twice’ – in the context of the novel, that is. What I mean here is that the utterance is made only once in story time, but twice in narrative time. In real life, of course, the utterance was never made at all…

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.