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Muriel Spark - The Mandelbaum Gate
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Caro



Joined: 22 Nov 2008
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Location: Owaka, New Zealand

PostPosted: Wed Feb 24, 2010 4:59 am    Post subject:  Reply with quote

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.


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Caro



Joined: 22 Nov 2008
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Location: Owaka, New Zealand

PostPosted: Mon Mar 15, 2010 4:18 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

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.


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TheRejectAmidHair



Joined: 19 Nov 2008
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 15, 2010 7:05 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

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.


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Evie
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 15, 2010 7:50 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

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.


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TheRejectAmidHair



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PostPosted: Mon Mar 15, 2010 10:24 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

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.


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Chibiabos83
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 15, 2010 10:52 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

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...


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Caro



Joined: 22 Nov 2008
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Location: Owaka, New Zealand

PostPosted: Tue Mar 16, 2010 8:11 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

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.


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Evie
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PostPosted: Tue Mar 16, 2010 8:21 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Quote:
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.


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TheRejectAmidHair



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PostPosted: Tue Mar 16, 2010 9:15 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

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.


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MikeAlx



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PostPosted: Tue Mar 16, 2010 10:45 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

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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