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Muriel Spark - The Mandelbaum Gate

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 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:

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!)

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...

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.

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:

I'm always running late with books so now I have just managed a chapter and a half of the Mandelbaum Gate, but have been interested in the comments about style - haven't read fully Evie's summary of the action, as I prefer to find these out for myself.  I studied this at university around 1970, not at long after it was written.  It seems to me now that I wouldn't have understood anything of the setting.

Though that is not quite accurate - I wouldn't have understood the modern situation, but some of the Jewish history would have been very familiar to me.  It seems odd now that we were taught nothing of NZ history really - neither the Maori arrival or the Pakeha (European) settlement or the relationships between the two, or war history.  Nor did I know much until I was in my last year of school of British (well, English, of course - our Scottish ancestry wasn't the subject of education) history.

But the parting of the Red Sea, Jacob and his sons, Abram becoming Abraham, etc were all part of my upbringing, being repeated to us constanttly at church and at school.  Not with a context, though, except as it affected Christianity.  More as story.  (My father's 'teaching' of English history was the same - he quizzed me (who was rabidly interested in such testing) on things like the dates of the battles of Waterloo, Crecy, Bannochburn, etc.  Again with absolutely no context at all, nothing beyond the date and name.  And nothing about WWII battles that he had taken part in.)

I have been taken by the repetition that you have both mentioned - phrases on one page repeated again on the next.  And the question of identity when one has two cultures to fit into.  My memory of our study of this was that Barbara's naivity was at the heart of it and her insistence of her journey showed a pigheadedness and stupidity that are relevant to the themes of the novel.  But I haven't got to that yet, and may have been mistaken anyway.  It's good to have a reason to revisit this book and to be able to share it with people who will consider it so thoughtfully.  

Cheers, Caro.

I have finished The Mandelbaum Gate and thought I would put ideas about it here.  I haven’t read the other comments recently or greatly at all, so this may have all been covered or all be totally off the wall.  But here they are.  I found it not at all easy reading and it took me most of my week away to finish it (I did vary it with a Ngaio March whodunnit) – the words and style weren’t hard but there was a need for concentration which meant I could only read it under circumstances which allowed that.  The way she went back and forth and repeated words and phrases meant it wasn’t a book to be rushed.  I feel I missed some of the plot construction as it was.  

I felt this was a book about spying in all its manifestations.  How identity is not always what it seems.  How people are continually checking on others.  How countries keep an eye on their citizens and the citizens of other places.  How people don’t know each other or even perhaps themselves.  On page 152 of my Penguin edition Barbara says, “What right have they to take me at my face value?  Every spinster should be assumed guilty before she is proved innocent, it is only common civility.  People, she thought, believe what they want to believe; anything rather than shake up their ideas.”  There are frequent allusions to people not being what they seem throughout this novel. Perhaps not even being what they are, if that can be possible.  Freddy’s illness and his attitude leading up to it are out of character, or at least out of the character Freddy thought he had and portrayed.  Even the country, Israel, is not to be called that – it is Occupied Palestine.  It is itself all things to all people, and the whole area is a divided one.
It’s a world where spying and suspicion are consistent, endemic even.  Abdul and his father, Benny and Freddy’s mother, Freddy’s work, the Gardnors,  Suzi’s businesses are all concerned with spying and knowing what everyone else is doing, though not usually about what they are being.  Suzi talking about the Bible being obscure says, “That is not so much a fault when you can read two or three times, and you can find different opinions as to meaning.” And Harry’s marriage annulment seems to me to be a sort of denial of reality.  (I had some difficulty with the Roman Catholic parts of this, as I did with Brideshead Revisited. If it is a mortal sin to intend to marry the divorced Harry, as Barbara wonders on page 188, why is it not a mortal sin to have an affair with him?) It seems to me that every person and every relationship is not as it first appears, or becomes something that is different from what it was.  Dressing-up is a constant theme with Barbara ‘becoming’ Kyra or later a nun, Suzi changing her appearance to fool people.  

I had trouble with one or two examples of what had actually happened and when.  At one stage near the end Suzi tells Freddy that she is convinced her father had ‘unflowered and nearly killed’ poor Miss Rickward, when she thought she heard cats.  But earlier she had told Freddy that Joe and Miss Rickward were in bed at that very moment.  I noticed a couple of bits like that which confused me.

The other thing that confused me was the trip by Barbara itself.  Barbara set off on it happily enough not concerned much with the dangers, but the rest of the book she seemed easily convinced she had been in high peril.  I was never quite convinced she was.  It all seemed very dramatic and not quite real.  In fact at times I felt the whole book veered towards magic realism (not that I read much of this genre, but I just felt there was an unreality to some of the events).   Barbara allows herself to be taken from the convent in secretive ways, but later continues than seeking safety at the Embassy.
I suppose the killing of Freddy’s mother by her companion/servant is partly there to bring about trauma for Freddy to explain his memory loss, but I am not sure of its other purposes.  It does also add to the suspicious nature of life but I wasn’t totally convinced by this part of the book.  
The odd ending with all the loose ends tied up is something I rather like, but presume here there is an ironic tone to it.  Or some purpose other than just satisfying the reader’s curiosity, but I am not sure what it is.  
Probably imagination or shallowness on my part but I thought I could feel some similarities with Iris Murdoch.  Especially the unusual sexual couplings that are part of the novels.  Is this just a 60s thing, perhaps?

I had quite a lot of trouble with this book being such a highly ‘placed’ book.  The pilgrimage means many areas of Israel and Jordan are talked about very specifically and with their significance for Jews and Christians especially.  I wasn’t able or prepared to check these all out with my Bible atlas but probably should have.  That often just holds up your reading or makes it rather a duty.  But not doing so means I didn’t get the full impact of this part of the book.  (I don’t suppose I got the full impact of any of it really!)  

But I an very pleased to have re-read this.  I enjoyed it quite a lot, though it was slow reading for me, and other books did not make the progress I thought they might while I was away.

Cheers, Caro.

Hello Caro, I agree with you that one of the major themes of this book is the elusive nature of identity, and of the impossibility of pinning it down.

To be honest, I was hoping that over a few weeks, my view of the book would settle a bit. I often find that it’s difficult to form an opinion immediately after reading – that one has to give the work some time to settle in the mind. But this hasn’t really happened with this book: it doesn’t (for me, at any rate) leave behind a particularly vivid impression. It intrigues, but doesn’t quite satisfy.

I get the feeling that Muriel Spark was experimenting here with a different kind of novel, and that the experiment didn’t quite work out. It is significant that she never attempted a novel of this length again, but instead, went back to the scale she seemed happier with. In retrospect, this seems to me a very interesting work in many respects, but one that doesn’t quite come off. I’m glad I read it, but is it on a par with Te Ballad of Peckham Rye or The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie? I really don’t think so.

I have tried three or four times to write more on this thread, after Himadri's response, but have given up each time.  It is partly that I am still completely nonplussed as to why in a group discussion people would not read and respond to what had gone before, and post their comments in a vacuum.  I know I didn't write much of note, but every time I tried to respond to others, it kept coming back to me being cheesed off that people just wanted to post their own thoughts without engaging in discussion; in the end I have just decided to admit it openly, and now maybe I can move on!

It's also that I am slightly perplexed as to why the novel has caused such confusion.  Yes, it's confusing on one level, certainly complex in its structure and in getting to the heart of what it is about, but I didn't find it as puzzling as others.  I loved the fact that it was a bit puzzling, but it wasn't as perplexing to me as it seems to have been to others.

Surely place is *essential* to this novel; she was writing it at a time with the Palestine/Israel situation was even more worrying to the rest of the world than it is now - not that it *is* any less worrying now, it's just that people have learned to live with it more, and underestimate, I think, how troubling it all is.  What Spark is writing about is almost prescient in that sense - the clash of a culture where religion is more of a social attribute than anything else, and one where it is a matter of life and death to most people.  She is making a comment about the volatility of the political situation in the Middle East through poking fun at the way the British respond to religion.  The fact that Freddy, as a diplomat, has not a clue about the danger Barbara is putting herself in, the fact that Barbara is foolish enough not to care about the real issues in order to see the biblical sites in touristy way, albeit veiled in a sense of religiosity.  The things that religion - especially Catholicism - holds dear are shown to be superficial in relation to the kind of activity that people are forced to live with on the borders of Israel, Palestine and Jordan.

Abdul's Orange Groves goes to the heart of this - Abdul is not lamenting something that never was, the chapter is referring to the very real, and still very painful, issue of land - the fact that Israel was given land that is still considered by the Palestinians to be theirs.

I am interested in the fact that you think it doesn't quite work, Himadri, as I think it's a brilliant achievement - a truly complex novel about an indecipherably complex political problem that is both sobering and funny.  Her other novels seem slight in comparison in some ways, because I am not sure she ever really tackled such a serious contemporary political situation in any of her other books - that is not to say they are not about serious subjects, but this is a huge subject.  She never truly makes Catholic belief out to be silly - but she puts things like the minutiae of whether or not the marriage can be dissolved, whether Barbara can in all conscience marry her fiance, into a deeper and wider context.  

All the religions represented - Christianity, Judaism and Islam - have their roots in the same belief system, with some of the same historical background and historical figures in their makeup, and this borderline meeting of the three is hugely poignant but also ripe for satire.  Spark does this *brilliantly*, I think, and never puts a word wrong, for me.  So carefully and cleverly constructed, she has mesmerising control of her material and of her linguistic ability.

I don't know what her direct experience of the Middle East was, but the book seems wholly convincing to me.

In the first place, may I apologise for not having responded to your post. I had intended my first post to convey my immediate reactions on reading the book, and had fully intended to return to this discussion to respond to you & to Gareth; but I'm sorry to say, what with one thing and another, I never got round to it. All I have manged so far was the hastily written reply to Caro; and yes, I do realise that a discussion requires a bit more than that. Whether I can provide more than that in this post is doubtful, given that I returned home late from work today and am almost falling asleep. But here goes, anyway.

I don't actually disagree with what you say: all that you say is brilliant about the novel is, indeed, brilliant. But it's the other bits that puzzle me. It puzzles me that, having introduced themes of such vital importance and gravity, Spark involves us in a farcical plot. Sometimes, unexpected juxtapositions - such as, in this case, serious themes with a farcical plot - are effective; but here, for me at any rate, they did not seem to gel together. In the review by Malcolm Bradbury to which I had given a link in an earlier post, he says this:

She can, as this book shows, deal gravely with religious problems in a context that seems not to invite such gravity. ... But its dependence on the implausible, its evident whimsy, its very excess of substance makes it unsatisfying and even irritating.

I certainly wouldn't go as far as to say that - at least, speaking for myself, I wasn't irritated: but I was puzzled. I could not see in what way that farcical sense of whimsy was consistent with the gravity of the themes. It's like going to a steakhouse expecting a big juicy steak, and being served a souffle instead.

I was puzzled by the big vacuum that Spark seemed deliberately to put into the characterisation of Barbara. One of her most salient features is her conversion to Catholicism, but at no point did I get an indication of what it was about Catholicism that had attracted her. Given the themes of the novel (identity, religious belief, etc.), this is surely a moot point, and I am puzzled why it is that Spark gives us not even a clue.

I am puzzled about the extent to which Barbara takes her Catholicism seriously: she is willing to run grave dangers to go on a pilgrimage, and at the same time, she is prepared to marry her fiance regardless of what the church decides.

I am puzzled why it is that, having dealt with Abdul at such length in an early chapter ("Abdul's Orange Groves"), Spark allows Adbul effectively to disappear from the novel. (And while the Palestinian people certainly have been dispossessed, I think Spark does say at one point that neither Abdul personally, nor his immediate family, had ever owned the orange groves he now dreams about.)

I am puzzled by what Miss Rickwood is doing in all this, and what relevance her unlikely sexual adventure with Joe Ramdiz has to the central themes. Is it something just put there for a laugh? I am puzzled also by the part played in the overall pattern by the murder in Harrogate.

I am puzzled by the spy story that is incorporated in there. It never forms the centre of the reader's attention, so the reader doen't really care who the mole is, or what information is being passed to the enemy, or what it spolitical and military ramifications may be. What is the relevance of this strand? Why introduce it in the first place?

This is what I mean by being puzzled by it all. What Spark achieves, she achieves, I agree, brilliantly. But she introduces into the novel many more strands, and, for me at any rate, these diverse strands do not seem to gel into a satisfying unity. And it seems to me also that length of this novel (greater than usual for Spark) blunts the cutting edge of her wit somewhat: when things move a bit faster (as they do in the two other Spark novels I've read), the wit is sharper, and more biting. (And I don't think, incidentally, that either The Ballad of Peckham Rye or The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is slight: that she could achieve such seriousness despite so playful a tone is, I think, her triumph as an artist.)

I am by no means dismissing this novel: far from it. On every page, there is the mark of a master. But when I read it, the different strands all seemed to detract from each other rather than enhance each other: the whimsical nature of much of the content weakens the seriousness of the central themes (or, at least, appears irrelevant to the central themes); and the very serious central themes, stated so clearly, seems to blunt the humour somewhat. I was hoping that once I'd allowed the novel to settle a bit more in my mind, I'd be able to see it as more of a unified whole, but that, sadly, hasn't happened.

But I'd like to emphasise that I'm far from having arrived at any settled conclusion about this novel. I am not, I think, being critical: I am merely puzzled.

Oh, please don't apologise for not replying to me - I'm fully aware I haven't written anything yet! I am still thinking about it, but like you I feel as if I'm still waiting for things to settle and wonder if I need to read it again. I really am sorry for not contributing more - I'm getting bogged down in various things at the moment and am not having much time to read - or think, if it comes to that. My mind is in disarray...

Yes, sorry, Evie.  With these serious books that I am not very familiar with I don't like to read too much of other people's thoughts before I formulate my own.  I would be very easily influenced by others, not being very confident in my own opinions.

And in some ways I have felt differently about this than you.  I didn't see it so much as a clash of cultures but more as a study of identity and falsity and confusion.  I did wonder sometimes why Harry didn't form a stronger part of the book - as was said Barbara's motivations for her Catholicism isn't made clear but nor are her reasons for being so keen on Harry.  (Though that may be part of the point of course - love and faith aren't always subject to analytical thought.)

My reaction to the orange grove part was that they formed a basis of satire for Spark through Abdul's comments about people finding they had owned a lot more than was actually there.  The beginnings of a victim mentality.  But I suspect I missed much of the humour and sly sardonic tone of the book.  I didn't really consider the possibility that some of the puzzling non-sequitors of the book (like Miss Rickward) might be just there for comedy.  

I didn't really see that the Catholicism was meant to be shown as rather insignificant in the situation of the Jewish/Palestine area.  Mostly because Spark herself had converted to the RC religion which must mean she saw it as important and relevant.  I didn't see in her biographical notes that she had spent time in the area and was very impressed that she could write so convincingly about many aspects of life there.  Whether the plot was whimsical or not, the characters in general seemed to me to fit.  To have the concerns and personalities that would be likely in such an environment.  

How did you read the summing up at the ending, Evie and Himadri?  Or anyone else.  Why was it done in that way?  There must have been a point but I didn't get it.  It felt sort of mocking to me.  A pastiche of other lesser works.  Almost as if she was saying, "This isn't real, you know."  I had that feeling at times throughout the book, I think.  But strongly in that last couple of pages.  Maybe it just fitted with the ideas of identity and reality and secrecy and truth I found all through the book.

Cheers, Caro.

My mind is in disarray...

I completely understand that, Chibiabos - at least, I mean that I am sorry about your mind, and can sympathise because my mind is in the same state.
It took me *forever* to compose what I wrote at the start of the thread, and last night's effort was at least as exhausting.  Life is grim these days.  I think group reads are just not for me - they used to be, but I seem to be on a different wavelength from anyone else.  It just seems weird to me that people would make a point of not reading what had already been written on a group read thread before posting their own thoughts - but I expect it's me being out of sorts!  

But no one needs to write anything late in the evening after a long day!  Thanks for the post, though, Himadri - I will read it again and respond, though it seems such a long time now since I read the book, and already the details are a bit hazy again.

I think you were quite right - we can't have a discussion if we don't read & respond to each other's posts. My first post was intended, as I say, to be a record of my immediate reactions to the book uninfluenced by others' opinions, but I had intended to come back to others' posts afterwards; however, for various reasons (mainly deferring it till I was more alert: I never am, of course!) I didn't get round to it, and that, of course is my fault entirely. (And it doesn't help that this is a very intricate work.) But never mind all that now - now is as good a time as any to pick this up again.

Commenting on a work some time after one has read it does mean, inevitably, that one forgets a few details; but to compensate, we do, I think, get a chance to step back, as it were, and see the whole thing as a unity. And as I said in my last night's post, it is here I am having problems: the details were all wonderful, but, for me, they are not merging into a satisfying whole. I still can't see the wood for the trees.

Personally I do avoid reading other people's comments before making a first post - simply because I know I'm easily influenced (either to agree or disagree!), and prefer to put down my own impressions first. But I do try to pick up on other people's comments afterwards (though I'm such a slow reader people have generally lost interest in the thread by that point!).

I must say The Mandelbaum Gate sounds fascinating - sadly I haven't had the time to tackle it, but I certainly plan to in the future.

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