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Muriel Spark - The Mandelbaum Gate
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Evie
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PostPosted: Thu Feb 11, 2010 8:03 am    Post subject: Muriel Spark - The Mandelbaum Gate  Reply with quote

The Mandelbaum Gate was my first introduction to Muriel Spark, given to me by a friend about six years ago, and thus the introduction to one of my favourite novelists.  I have not yet read all of her novels, but have read eight or nine, and am certainly intending to read the rest.  Of course I had heard of Miss Jean Brodie before I read this, but had not read it, and frankly felt Spark's name was uninspiring.  How wrong I was - Spark is the most appropriate name for a writer whose work is full of wit, energy, vitality!

The Mandelbaum Gate is in some ways not typical, though her books do cover a variety of geographical locations and types of character.  It is longer than most, if not all, of her other books (I have not checked - but it's the longest of the ones I have read!).  She tends to write quite short novels, and the economy of her prose must in part account for that.  What is typical is the style in which she writes - more of that in bit.

The book is set in 1961 in Jerusalem (my copy describes it as a 'historical novel', but it is not - it was published in 1965, so Spark is writing only shortly after the events take place); the Mandelbaum Gate divides Israel, or Occupied Palestine, depending on your political viewpoint, from Jordan.  The political divide takes no account of the sites holy to Christians, and so pilgrims - such as Barbara Vaughan, one of the chief protagonists of the book - are hampered by having to pass through the gate (and needing proof of baptism to do so) if they are to see some of the locations associated with the life and miracles of Christ.  Barbara's situation is complicated by the fact that she is half Roman Catholic and half Jewish - the latter being reason enough not to mean that she would be in danger of being arrested as an Israeli spy should she be found on the Jordanian side of the Gate.

Barbara is staying on the Israeli side, in a hotel which is also the residence of a British diplomat Freddy Hamilton.  Precisely what Freddy does at the Embassy is unclear, though he does describe himself at one point as a filing clerk - he is clearly more than this, but he doesn't seem to do very much work at all in fact, and for a diplomat is remarkably naive and ineffective in his understanding of the difficulties Barbara will face if she pursues her desire to see the holy sites on the other side of the Gate.  (Or is he...is his naivete an act?)

Alongside these two main characters are a number of dependent players on both sides of the Gate, including  the Cartwrights, Freddy's British friends on the Jordan side with whom he regularly stays; the Ramdez family - ostensibly running a travel agency, but using this as a cover for various other activities - Abdul, the son, teaching Freddy Arabic on the Israeli side, Joe, the father, a rather uninviting character running a brothel on the Jordanian side, where Suzi, his daughter, eventually takes Barbara when they smuggle her through to Jordan.  Freddy seems at first attracted to Abdul, but transfers his affection to Suzi, who resembles her brother closely - they are described as beautiful, dark skinned but blue-eyed.  It is Suzi's resemblance to Abdul that seems at first to attract Freddy to her.  There is also Alexandros, lover of Suzi and owner of a gift shop; Saul Ephraim, archaeologist and unofficial tour guide for Barbara; Rupert Gardnor, colleague of Freddy, and his wife Ruth; and hardly appearing and yet important to the whole thing, Ricky (Miss Rickward), headmistress of the school in which Barbara teaches in England, and Harry Clegg, Barbara's fiance, and archaeologist working in the Dead Sea area.

The story is basically about Barbara's attempt to gain access to the biblical sites on the other side - the Arab side - of the Mandelbaum Gate, but of course it is really about religion, politics, faith and the complexity of life.  No character is entirely clear to us, no one's motivations are entirely certain, no one is entirely virtuous or unvirtuous, with the possible exception of Joe Ramdez.

What is typical of Spark in this book is her style of writing, which always astonishes me.  Such wit amid the very serious issues, and her wonderful use of repetition and of moving the narrative backwards and forwards in time, a sort of helix effect of strands spiralling around each other, with the author in complete control - this is often enough to make me laugh out loud with its cleverness, as well as because of the witty elements in the writing.  Her writing always seems to me like a long piece of elastic, taut but containing so much energy - were she to let go of one end, the whole thing would lose its vigour and tension and the book would unravel, but she never does, and the whole thing is held in a gloriously animated, springy, interconnected ecosystem.

The opening paragraph expresses well the style and the economy of that style:

Quote:
Sometimes, instead of a letter to thank his hostess, Freddy Hamilton would compose a set of formal verses - rondeaux, redoubles, villanelles, rondels or Sicilian octaves - to express his thanks neatly.  It was part of his modest nature to do this.  He always felt he had perhaps been boring during his stay, and it was one's duty in life to be agreeable.  Not so much at the time as afterwards, he felt it keenly on his conscience that he had said no word between the soup and the fish when the bright talk began; he felt at fault in retrospect of the cocktail hours when he had contributed nothing but the smile for which he had been renowned in his pram and, in the following fifty years, elsewhere.


That smile becomes a refrain through the book, as do other sayings and attributes - particularly the biblical phrase from the Book of Revelation - 'Being what thou art, lukewarm, neither cold nor hot, thou wilt make me vomit thee out of my mouth.'  Both Freddy and Barbara independently decide that people should really not quote the Scriptures at one, and yet that phrase keeps coming back.  It is really, I think, what the novel is all about -  the clash of British culture, where one's religion is no one else's business and yet of vital importance in various ways, with Middle Eastern culture, where it is a matter of life and death, and one cannot afford to be lukewarm.  One moment that summed this up for me is when Freddy and Suzi are taking Barbara, wrapped in the clothes of an Arab servant and lying low in the car, through part of Jordan, and Freddy thinks they will all feel better if they stop for a pink gin before lunch.

One other point, among very many that I intended to highlight, is that it is not until right at the end - literally the last line - that we get a description of the Mandelbaum Gate itself.  It has been such a potent symbol throughout the novel, and from the description of crowds passing through, we might imagine an impressive stone structure, medieval or older; but it is in fact 'a piece of street between Jerusalem and Jerusalem, flanked by two huts, and called by that name because a house at the other end once belonged to a Mr Mandelbaum.'  This is hugely significant, of course, both the way things get puffed up and out of perspective, as well as leaving us to the end before realising that what we have thought of as something imposing and grand is in fact unimpressive and simply functional - surely a metaphor for what has gone before.  She is a genius as a writer, I think!

I am doing all this very badly, and should rethink and edit what I am saying, but if I do, I will never get this out, so it will have to do as a starting point!  I will copy out a few bits that particularly delighted me or that sum up what I think is the brilliant way Spark unfolds her novel, but won't go on about it any more here.  I have not mentioned the Eichmann trial, Nasser's Post Office, the Jewish cousins in Golders Green, Freddy's amnesia, and a dozen other things...I know a couple of others, apart from Gareth, have read this, so I hope you will share your thoughts.  I loved re-reading this book, certainly got more out of it this time around in terms of details of Spark's writing, now that I am more familiar with her style generally, and hope that whether or not the rest of you enjoyed it as much as I did, it will provide some - er - sparky discussion!


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TheRejectAmidHair



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PostPosted: Thu Feb 11, 2010 9:31 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Thanks for that, Evie. I have finished this book, but I'm afraid I'm too tied up for the next few days to write anything that will come close to doing justice to this work which, despite enjoying, I found puzzling in many ways. (I think, though, that Spark intended the readers to be puzzled.) But I'll certainly get back to this.


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Evie
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PostPosted: Thu Feb 11, 2010 9:38 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I think it is deliberately puzzling, though I do have some questions too, but will get back to those another time.  I think my questions are more to do with me being puzzled than with things that don't work or are M.Spark's fault, but we'll see!  Looking forward to hearing your thoughts, H, and Gareth's too, whenever there is time.


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Chibiabos83
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PostPosted: Thu Feb 11, 2010 11:22 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I'm loath to let you both down, but I'm not sure how much I will be able to contribute myself. I enjoyed the book a lot, and by the end I felt a real connection with some of the characters, particularly Freddy, who seems something of a relic of a bygone age even at the time the book is set, and Barbara; but it's a tricky book to get a handle on, if that's the phrase, certainly in one reading. I'll go back to it and have another browse through at some point to see if I can think of anything interesting to contribute.

Your own post, E/V, brings up some good points. I think the moving back and forward in time is masterfully achieved, and feels entirely natural. It's something I have a vague recollection that you personally are generally resistant to in fiction - I think we may have discussed this in relation to Stephen Fry's The Liar, which I can't remember if you've read or not, a book where there may be no good reason for the chronological jumbling up of events, though it's so long since I read it that I can't remember. Your notion of a long piece of elastic is spot-on.

A common Spark device is apparent here, that of revealing plot developments before they happen. There is a point about halfway through where reference is made to Barbara discussing a particular event in the future, which utterly defuses any tension there might have been about whether Barbara makes it out alive or not. Some authors would seem incompetent doing this, but with Spark it's all part of her grand plan (though exactly what the plan is I'm not always sure).

When reading a book for a group read I'd normally make notes as I went along, but in this case I couldn't think of anything particular to write, I just let myself be carried along by the story, feeling gradually more involved. I think it's a very impressive achievement, albeit one I don't feel I can appreciate after a single reading, and I'll try and contribute more as the discussion develops.


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Evie
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PostPosted: Thu Feb 11, 2010 1:35 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Thanks G - I will post a few more points of interest (to me!) and quote a few more bits when I have a bit more energy - am in bit of a dip at the moment!

But I love that way she gives away the future  - it is particularly effective (and surprising) in Miss Jean Brodie, but also used to good effect here.  I love the way it removes the sense of a linear, 'what happened next' sense of plot.  As you say, it is her skill with it that makes it work.  I find her an extremely skilful writer, on a technical level, which is partly what makes me love her books so much.

You are right, I do sometimes find time shifts a bit clunky and irritating, but Spark weaves the narrative so well that the seams don't show, and I can see both the purpose of what she is doing and the skill with which she does it.  I am caught up in her helix of plot and character development, rather than having constantly to shift my own viewpoint.

She leaves quite a bit for the author to work out, which is another reason to love her.  For example, when Barbara Vaughan appears to be missing, we are not told that - the first hint is that Freddy has her geraniums, and then it is obliquely revealed.  I love that.

Ah, posted more than I thought!  Delicious quotes will have to wait, though.


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TheRejectAmidHair



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PostPosted: Mon Feb 15, 2010 3:04 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

While I did enjoy The Mandelbaum Gate immensely, it’s hard to think of a novel that is more puzzling. The first thing one can’t help noticing is the size of the novel. True, the themes broached seem to demand an epic scale – and although three hundred or so pages hardly count as “epic” in a Tolstoyan sense, they do in the context of the rest of Spark’s output: she had never written a novel on this scale before, and I don’t think she has tried this scale since. The themes are big: religion, the quest for spirituality, a sense of personal identity, the weight of history, divided loyalties, and so on. And yet, the first character introduced seems a very unlikely person to be inhabiting so deadly serious a work. He is a well-meaning chap from a privileged background who has had all the education that family wealth can buy, and who has walked into the diplomatic services because that is the sort of thing one does; but he hasn’t risen too high in the diplomatic services for obvious reasons: he is not too bright, and seems more interested in and knowledgeable about metres and scansion in poetry than he does about the very complex politics of the Middle East. (We are given some examples of his poetry: the scansion is all corect, but it's terrible stuff.) He seems to be a character who has wondered in from a PG Wodehouse novel. Indeed, as I read on, I kept picturing him as Hugh Laurie in his Bertie Wooster mode.

Other characters are introduced, the most important of them, perhaps, being Barbara, an Englishwoman who is half-Jewish and half-Anglican by birth, but who has turned back on both sides of her religious heritage by converting to Catholicism. Setting her now in the Holy Land – the land sacred to Judaism, Christianity, and to Islam – we are led to believe that the novel will deal with Barbara’s identity. Indeed, one chapter is actually entitled “Barbara’s Identity”. But this, like so much else in the novel, turns out to be a bit of a tease: if Barbara does have an identity crisis, we get very little of it in the novel, which, instead, develops into an outrageous plot involving spying, disguises, knockabout comedy, and even bedroom farce. Maddeningly, we aren’t even told why it is Barbara had converted to Catholicism. Is it because it’s a convenient way to avoid having to choose one side of her heritage over another? It’s hard to say As far as I could see, Spark gives us no clues, although Barbara’s eventual resolution to marry Harry whether or not the Vatican annuls his former marriage does seem to suggest that her allegiance to the Catholic Church may be less than wholehearted. And her violent fury with the anti-Semitic Ruth rather seems to indicate that however much she may wish to escape from identity politics, however silly it may appear to speak of “Jewish blood” (as if blood had a religion), insults to one’s background cannot be taken as anything other than an insult to one’s individual self.

Throughout the novel, there is evidence of Spark’s mastery. In the section dealing with Barbara’s early life, for instance, Spark captures superbly in just a few pages the uneasy relationship between the two halves of her family, and how each half considers her “one of us” rather than as “one of them”. When characters appear, the essence of their personalities is captured unerringly and with the utmost economy: the ebullient Suzi Ramdez, her rather seedy father, the ex-pat Cartwright family – they are all captured with the skill of a master novelist. A sense of place is captured as well without the aid of long passages of description. On every page, there is something to admire. But where exactly is the centre of the novel? I got a sense of new strands developing and flying off in the most unexpected directions, but I struggled to get a sense of where the centre of gravity lay. For instance, in a rather impressive chapter called “Abdul’s Orange Groves”, Spark presents the hopes and dreams of the young Palestinian Abdul, with the orange groves explicitly symbolising a dream of a glorious past that never quite was. But then, after all that, Abdul virtually disappears from the novel. To quote (from memory) from the song “If I Were a Rich Man” – there’s one long flight of stairs leading up, another even longer leading down, and a third flight leading nowhere just for show.

But clearly, it isn’t just for show. It is clear from every page that Spark is a master novelist, and a master builder doesn’t put up flights of stairs leading nowhere just for show. But this is what makes the novel so very puzzling, and I don’t pretend to know the solution to the puzzle. Why does Spark set us up to expect a big, serious novel about big, serious things, only to fill it with all sorts of absurdities? Could this, I wonder, be the real theme of the novel? – the discrepancy between grandeur and loftiness of our spiritual aspirations, and the absurdities that embroil us when we attempt to aspire? The part of the world in which the novel is set has given rise to some of the major religions of the world, all embedded with mighty spiritual concepts and with lofty grandeur. But in practice, what do they really amount to? Two nations living cheek by jowl and hating each other’s guts. Barbara may have turned to Catholicism to satisfy some spiritual need, but what does that amount to? Silly arcane rules on whether a marriage may or may not be annulled (it eventually is annulled, but for the silliest of reasons). Barbara undertakes a pilgrimage through the holiest of Christian sites – the sites of various miracles, the site of the Crucifixion and of the Resurrection; yet she does so absurdly disguised as a mute Palestinian woman wrapped head to toe in veils. All that should be sacred, all that should represent our most profound spiritual aspirations, turn here into the banal and the most downright silly. And in the very last pages, even the Mandelbaum Gate that separates the two nations, that gate with the sonorous name, is shown to be nothing very much in reality: just a very ordinary gate next to a house in which a Mr Mandelbaum used to live.

I do not know. I honestly do not know what the novel is about, or where, amidst all the seriousness and all the horseplay, its centre of gravity lies. Despite its uncharacteristic length, we have all the trademarks of Spark – the mischievous wit, the elegant phrasing, radical jumps backwards and forwards in time, the sheer delightful silliness of it all … But I remain puzzled as to what it all amounts to. I feel about the book much as I feel about a difficult chess problem: I enjoyed thinking about it, and I enjoyed trying to work out its various intriguing possibilities and combinations; but I still don’t know what the winning move is.


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Evie
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PostPosted: Mon Feb 15, 2010 7:40 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Oh, thanks for that Himadri - I have some things to say in response (and your views do overlap with mine, in my earlier post, at some points), but am too tired this evening.  I don't feel we are discussing it much...but I suppose all discussion starts with people simply posting their responses!  Anyway, will certainly respond to yours in due course.  Thanks again - was feeling a bit damp squibbish about it (we did lose one of our contributors, so it was inevitable we would struggle a bit), but it's good to have the spark (!) rekindled.  (Can a spark be rekindled...?  That's beyond me to decide just now!)


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TheRejectAmidHair



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PostPosted: Mon Feb 15, 2010 7:51 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Actually, I made a point of writing my post before I read yours, and I do see that there is - inevitably, perhaps - some overlap. I had meant to post earlier, but I have had an incredibly busy time at work; then I spent all Saturday preparing for a party, and all Sunday recovering from it...


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Evie
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PostPosted: Mon Feb 15, 2010 7:57 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Oh, I didn't mean anything - sorry - though I didn't realise you would write your post without reading the others.  That makes it even more interesting!

I hope the Hammerfest was great, and that you had a fab weekend generally.  Just back from a long day in Bristol (well, a short day in Bristol with lots of travelling!), so won't attempt coherence this evening.


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TheRejectAmidHair



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PostPosted: Mon Feb 15, 2010 8:10 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

What are you apologising for?  Very Happy

Yes, the Hammerfest went on till 5.30, and there were 6 of us (not including me and my daughter) who stayed on for it. (For those of you wondering what this is all about, we had an all-night Hammer horror show last Friday!)

Anyway, back to Muriel Spark. I've found a review of it by Malcolm Bradbury, and I get the impression he didn't like it much:

http://www.nytimes.com/books/97/05/11/reviews/spark-mandelbaum.html



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