Reviewed by Simon Thomas
The vagaries of reputation are curious. If you ask a hundred people to name a novel by Muriel Spark, then most – well, most might cross the road looking scared, but I’m sure at least a dozen would mention The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. That is the (excellent) novel which has secured Spark lasting recognition, no doubt aided by a youthful Maggie Smith playing the role on film, but it cannot truly be called a representative Sparkian novel. Not one of her twenty-one other novels is set in Scotland, and her other works are often darker, more surreal, and perhaps even more complex. Virago have been republishing her work in their Modern Classics editions, with Territorial Rights and The Public Image being the latest additions, and hopefully bringing a more rounded understanding of Spark to her waiting audience.
There are many elements in Territorial Rights (1979) which are typical of Spark. There is blackmail, there are confusing sexual triangles, there is a mystery told callously, there is an Italian setting… what there is not is many manipulations with time. Often Spark gives away the ending in the first chapter, or casually reveals what will happen to all the characters in ten years’ time before getting on with the matter in hand. Territorial Rights is less experimental than Spark at her best – indeed, I don’t think anybody would consider Territorial Rights to be Spark at her best – but it is also far from Spark at her worst, and even Spark at her worst is well worth reading.
Robert Leaver has fled to Venice and is staying at the eccentric Pensione Sofia. It’s not quite clear why he’s gone there, and Spark never quite spells out whether or not he has had an ill-fated fling with Mark Curran… but Mark Curran (known as ‘Curran’ to everyone) has followed him there. And whom should they bump into in the Pensione Sofia foyer but Robert’s father Arnold, there with his mistress? Throw into the mix Lina (a Bulgarian bohemian seeking her father’s grave), the people Robert’s mother Anthea has hired to spy on Arnold, and a few friends of Curran’s, and you have a typically interweaving cast of Sparkian characters, all more or less unapologetically selfish and conniving. Almost the only attractive personality belongs to Arnold Leaver’s mistress, Mary Tiller, once a cook at the school Arnold ran (“Cookery is chemistry”, as he is fond of saying in her defence).
This is the author who managed to turn a novel about nuns into a Watergate spoof, so she is unsurprisingly adept at depicting the underhand. Anthea hires GESS to follow her husband – unsure quite why she feels strongly enough to do so – and Violet is sent to Venice. But they have their own motives…
Everything about GESS was strict, especially her instructions within the territory. Violet’s job was to:
- locate the subjects (two or more, as may be);
- find out as quickly as possible their financial status;
- exercise persuasion on any rich or susceptible party;
- if none of the subjects was really rich, drop the enquiry and report back to GESS.
For ‘persuasion’ read blackmail. In this way, GESS was able to pursue its policy of dealing only on a strictly commercial basis. For the most part, they regretfully told their clients that ‘after prolonged investigations nothing of importance has emerged relating to your esteemed enquiry. Yours sincerely, [squiggle for signature] Global-Enquiry Security Services.
With so much going on, you’d expect a long novel. That is, unless you’ve read your fair share of Spark before. Brevity and sparseness are her keywords throughout – both in individual sentences and as a novel overall. The reader is seldom taken into the characters’ minds; their thoughts are demonstrated ably by their actions and their words, since subtly is not a characteristic Spark offers often. It is all an engaging jumble of desires, actions, and lies. I haven’t even mentioned the fake kidnapping yet. And, oh, it is funny. Sometimes Spark can’t resist the aphorism (“I don’t know why the RC church doesn’t stick to politics and keep its nose out of morals”) but more frequently the humour comes through the bizarre characters, slightly surreal situations, and Spark’s inimitably brilliant writing.
If you’ve only ever visited Spark at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls, then there is a world out there for you to discover. Territorial Rights isn’t quite the best of the rest, but it’s as good a place to start as any.
Simon Thomas is one of the Shiny New Books editors, and used to want to go to Venice.
Muriel Spark, Territorial Rights (Virago: London, 1979 repr.2014), 978-1844089659, 224pp., paperback