Book Review: The Public Image by Muriel Spark

“He was one of the last remnants of a past life she had not known at the time had been as good as it already seemed in retrospect”

I have had this book on my shelf for about a year. I have been wanting to read Muriel Spark for a while now, after all I am always excited to try a new Scottish author. Spark is one of those writers that I’ve always been meaning to read so I was almost surprised it took me so long to actually read one of her books.

I have to admit though, my reason for reading this when I did was primarily that it was the slimmest book in my bookcase. I’ve been reading the rather chunky non-fiction The Victorians by A. N. Wilson, and I was craving some fiction.

I might have chosen it for a stupid reason, but I am very glad I did read it.

This very short novel, it is only 124 pages, is the story of young husband and wife Annabel and Frederick Christopher. Essentially, it is about two rather unpleasant people who really dislike each other and have a pretty hateful marriage. I normally can’t stand books where I don’t like any of the characters.

Somehow Spark really makes it work, it’s darkly comic, and I was compelled to keep reading. Annabel is an actress, to start with it would seem more by luck than anything else. Her husband, Frederick, is much less successful and resents her success- although he is more than happy to take her money. He feels that he is genuinely talented but that Annabel is more successful because she cares so much for and cultivates her public image.

It is clear to the reader however that Frederick is also creating a public image of a tortured, intellectual. Spark’s biting, acerbic tone is brilliant at depicting this couple’s life together.

Frederick, however, held to a theory that a random collision of the natal genes had determined in him a bent for acting only substantial parts in plays by Strindberg, Ibsen, Marlowe and Chekhov (but not Shakespeare); and so far as that went he was right, everything being drably right in the sphere of hypotheses, nothing being measurably or redeemably wrong. In fact, his decision about what parts he was suited to perform on the stage of the theatre did not matter; he was never considered for any parts in the plays he wanted to act in.

By the time he was twenty-nine years of age his undoubted talent had been tested only a few times in small productions and then no more. His mind took the inward turns of a spiral staircase, viewing from every altitude and point of contortions the unblemished, untried, fact of his talent.”

When they have a baby, a decision made by Annabel in order to improve the couple’s public image, Annabel finds herself genuinely loving her child even if this does not lead her to stop her machinations.

However, it certainly does not bring the couple closer together and Frederick carries out a final, spiteful act that Annabel spends the second half of the novel trying to spin the way she wants it to be seen.

This was published in 1968, fifty years ago, but in an era of fake news and click bait headlines the subject matter seemed very relevant to today’s world.

I loved the way that Spark’s clear contempt for all of her characters comes through in a very readable and sometimes amusing way and I read this in a single morning. Her characters have no real depth or layers… But that’s rather the point here.

I have definitely been convinced that I need to look out for more of Spark’s work. I know that The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is probably her most famous work, but I would love to hear if anyone has any recommendations of what Spark to try next.

This is my read for 1968 in the A Century of Books challenge, and I have to admit it has been a bit of a relief to enjoy this read so much as I had a lukewarm response to my two reads previous to this, which were both by authors I am exceptionally fond of. Interestingly, I found this to be much less dated when I read it than Don’t Look Now by Daphne du Maurier which was published three years later in 1971.

Overall, I am very glad to have been introduced to Muriel Spark and I look forward to reading more of her books in the future.

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Author: Gilt and Dust

Self confessed bibliophile. I enjoy collecting books almost as much as reading them resulting in a to-read pile that would undoubtedly be several times my height if I was suicidal enough to stack them. I like reading whodunnits, lesser known (and some well known) female writers, old children's novels, urban fantasy, fairytales and memoirs.

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