Symposium by Muriel Spark.
Introduction by Ian Rankin.
Virago Modern Classics 2006 (1990)
When I say this is a delicious story I mean this: that there are several figurative flavours to savour as well as it being centred on a dinner party held in a London residence at the end of the Thatcher years.
The first flavour consists of the main characters, nominally ten but drawing in many acquaintances so that a mental sociogram is required to relate them all to each other. The second flavour — sharper, more piquant — is made up of undertones of violence and criminality, and menace and death.
But the strongest flavour the author serves us is down to the sauce, laced of wry humour and mordant commentary, which permeates every page of this longish novella and which had me virtually smacking my lips. What a feast she has prepared for the reader, one she prefigures in her epitaphs from Lucian and Plato which refer to certain symposia that either ended up in the shedding of blood or acknowledged that the genius of comedy was the same as that for tragedy.
We start with a burglary at the home of Lord and Lady Suzy, when the otherwise outraged Brian Suzy is almost as incensed that the thieves didn’t realise the value of a Francis Bacon canvas as he is that their privacy has been violated. Bookending the novella is an attempt to steal another canvas, a Monet painting of the Thames, a caper which really doesn’t end well for all concerned.
The dinner party has been organised by American artist Hurley Reed and his rich Australian partner Chris Donovan. Superficially the four other couples are conventional middle to upper middle class guests: the Suzys, a Eurocrat and his wife who’s a teacher, a newly married couple, plus a pair of kissing cousins, one a TV producer and the other a genealogist. But appearances can deceive: marriage doesn’t rule out homosexuality or life as a novitiate nun, for example, or hide suspicions of witchcraft or involvement in murder.
Muriel Spark marshals her story with consummate skill, weaving backwards and forward in time, letting us be a fly on the wall in Edinburgh, or London, or Venice, or stealing through characters’ thoughts and reactions. But we mustn’t forget that a symposium, nowadays a conference or talking shop, was originally a drinking party following a meal; and so not only are we treated to the London dinner party but also to a series of vignettes where conviviality is heightened by alcohol, from which more details of interrelationships can be gleaned.
The pages are littered with Spark’s dry humour, usually inadvertently expressed by the characters themselves, but also in the commedia dell’arte characters themselves: we have for instance a mad uncle, an order of nuns with a communist conscience, always thinking about les autres — the poor, the disenfranchised, the sick. Then there are the relatives who blow hot and cold, and the cook, the butler and the waiter, who all add to the hubbub of voices from which we try to pick out threads of story.
The introduction by fellow Scot Ian Rankin, originally written as a valediction (Spark died in 2006), talks about “the edgy, experimental side of Spark’s craft” which could still pose “tough moral questions” within fiction “as tightly constructed as poems”. What are those tough questions in this novella? The hint comes primarily via quotes from traditional Scottish Border ballads about, say, “vile” women, or a Walter de la Mare poem about looking one’s last on all things lovely, or an all-too-late premonition by the final murder victim:
Destiny, my destiny, thought Hilda. Is she going to poison me? What is she plotting? She is plotting something. This is a nightmare.Chapter 14
Can the Evil Eye predestine one’s fate, the manner of departing this life, the time when one’s sun sets? Spark seems to demand that the reader make up their own mind in this wicked comedy of terror.