Friday, November 12, 2010

the last book I read

The Ballad Of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark.

Into the humdrum late-1950s lives of the inhabitants of Peckham comes Dougal Douglas, hired by the textile firm of Meadows, Meade & Grindley to bring a bit of artistic vision into the lives of the firm's employees. Whether he achieves this particular objective or not is a bit of a moot point, but he certainly livens things up in a number of ways, few of them good.

For starters there are the various affairs being conducted in stereotypical closeted 1950s style by the boss Mr. Druce and Merle Coverdale, and also by Humphrey Place and his girlfriend Dixie. Not content with spreading mischief here Dougal also crosses paths with local heavy Trevor Lomas, as well as getting another job at rival firm Drover Willis. Despite overseeing an increase in absenteeism by a significant margin, and barely ever deigning to actually turn up to work himself at either of his employers' premises, Dougal manages to convince both employers that he's doing vital work.

So it appears that Dougal is some sort of minor imp or demon - an impression reinforced by the revelation that he has a couple of mysterious lumps on his head, remnants of some vestigial horns that he had removed at birth, according to Dougal, but if we've learnt anything by this stage it's never to trust what Dougal tells us. Eventually his corrosive influence spills over into provoking an actual real-life murder, and he decides it's time to move on.

Given what I've just described it's perhaps superfluous to say that The Ballad Of Peckham Rye is rather a strange book, but it is. You'll recall I alluded to Muriel Spark's work with reference to a few earlier books in this series by other authors (specifically William Trevor, Penelope Fitzgerald, Alice Thomas Ellis and Beryl Bainbridge); well, I think that while all these authors share a lot of characteristics, Spark is the oddest of them all. There's no sense in which any of the characters display any genuine affection for each other, nor inspire any in the reader; similarly while Dougal spreads a certain amount of mischief among the female employees there's never any suggestion of him getting his end away with any of them, nor indeed having any desire to.

I think of all the authors listed above Spark is the driest and most difficult to engage with, for all that her novels have a certain bone-dry black humour; by way of full disclosure I should also point out that the only other Spark novel I've read is Memento Mori which explores a lot of similar ground. This one is very easy to read, and very short (143 pages) and has a sort of devilish charm, but I just struggled to see what it was for. And being the arch-rationalist that I am, I wanted an explanation for Dougal's behaviour, i.e. was he just a troublemaker or the real honest-to-goodness spawn of Satan, a question that is deliberately left unanswered. And since Muriel Spark died in 2006 I can't even go and ask her. Bollocks.

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