Marking a centenary of Muriel Spark, one hundred years of her birth, Polygon published all twenty-two of her novels in a stunning centenary hardback edition. This includes The Comforters, which was her debut novel, first published in 1957 by Macmillan, but in this instance has an introduction by Allan Massie. There are a whole host of events and exhibitions that surrounds the centenary of one of the Twentieth Century’s great Scottish writers but these republished novels are particularly special.
The Comforters is somewhat semi-biographical, as the central character does convert to Roman Catholicism in the novel, something Spark herself did just prior. Drawing also upon her experiences of using a dieting drug, Dexedrine, which caused her to hallucinate, Caroline Rose suffers from hearing voices and the sound of a typewriter, the words correlate with those in her thoughts. Her boyfriend Laurence stays with his grandmother, Louisa Jepp, and seems to believe she might be running “a gang … maybe Communist spies”. It’s pensive and pondering in style, typical of Spark, contemplative of the drugs and religion, with prose that is playful and yet with so much meaning it cannot be taken lightly.
Renting in Kensington, Caroline Rose is working on a book, but it is her however, that seems to fit within a plot, synopsis and story which is pulling them in a direction they wish not to go. Central to this book is this notion of free will, which is clearly what Caroline is striving to achieve within this yarn. Intellectually informing us about the work of fiction, through her fiction, Spark has displayed her wit and philosophical traits with this novel, which Evelyn Waugh had a part in seeing that it was published.
Meta-fictional, stunningly witty, experimental, and autobiographical, there is much to gain from reading The Comforters. It might not be her finest work to date, but it’s a fabulous introduction to her work, with the quirks and intent, meaning and tight prose. Considering books and language, The Comforters mocks bad literary style, particularly if we look at the narration. You certainly need to be in a thinking frame of mind to read one of Spark’s novels, and this one is no different. A compelling read, and certainly surprising that it be her debut.
The Comforters was re-published in November 2017 by Polygon.