Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Spark, The Only Problem

For Christmas, Cheryl sent me adorable baby clothes, and, in order not to "neglect [Goomba's] mind," also included a copy of The Only Problem. As it happened, this intention was carried out rather literally, since I ended up reading most of the book out loud to the baby.

See, here's the thing: people are always telling you to stimulate babies from birth by reading to them. That sounds great in theory, but when you have an actual newborn in front of you, you will quickly see that reading is about the last thing it is interested in. It wants to be fed and changed and rocked and bounced and swung and and talked to and shown bright, noisy objects. And it wants these things all the time, except for the few minutes when it accidentally and very much against its will manages to fall asleep. Also, books for babies are extremely short and stupid. They're basically, "This is a dog. A dog is fuzzy. Fuzzy fuzzy fuzzy. The end." Even my five-month old has a longer attention span than that. Writing baby books seems to be a job that could be done more efficiently by robots than most of the things for which robots are actually used to replace people.

If you are trying to finish up your dissertation at the same time as having this baby in front of you, you will also find that, between dissertating and doing all the things the baby wants, you don't have much time to read anymore. So you might think that since you're supposed to read to the baby, but the baby's books are extremely lame, you may as well read her your own books. So that is what I did with The Only Problem. She seemed to enjoy it, in 20-minute increments, so it took a couple weeks this past winter to get through, but we managed.*

So, about the book. I found this one only slightly less puzzling than The Driver's Seat, which is by far the weirdest Spark novel I've read. In The Only Problem, you can see what is happening: the main character, who is writing a study of the Book of Job, is also simultaneously becoming a modern Job. But there, things become vague. In the first place, Job's losses are very dramatic - all his children and all his flocks, plus the boils, which Spark harps on. By contrast, Harvey, the modern Job, only loses his wife, and it is he who leaves her. She then goes on to become a violent but facile terrorist of the Symbionese Liberation Army variety, and he is caught up in the media and police circus that ensues. Maybe the public humiliation he suffers is the equivalent of Job's boils. But is his wife the equivalent of all of Job's children and flocks?

I've always read the Book of Job (and all the rest of the Bible) unimaginatively and straightforwardlyas depicting a very dramatic personal cataclysm, the worst things that can happen to a man, but Harvey's cataclysm seems more absurd than tragic, and his suffering does not seem especially great either.** On the contrary, he seems bemused and detached throughout the police investigation and publicity scandal. So is Spark's point that, being small people, our tragedies are necessarily small, and the real responses of good-natured people like Job who are well-disposed toward God would indeed resemble Harvey's slightly indignant confusion? Or is she mocking Job and challenging God herself?

In the service of the latter reading, Harvey's study of Job leads him to wonder in the end, when his own ordeal is done and he receives a kind of doubling of his previous good fortune (minus his original wife), "if in real life Job would be satisfied with this plump reward, and [he] doubted it. His tragedy was that of the happy ending." There is something Greek about this objection - it resembles Homer's veiled protest in Book I of the Iliad that the gods are blinded by their immortality to the gravity of human tragedies. To immortals, everything appears replaceable and interchangeable - flocks, children, wives - so that nothing is properly worth grieving. The happy ending is itself an illusion from the perspective of immortality (which is also the perspective of the author of fiction, since fiction takes place out of time). The happy ending is, sorry I took your sons and daughters, but here, I gave you this new set, one of whom, as Spark repeatedly points out, is literally named "Box of Eye-Paint," as if to underscore how petty this reimbursement is. Is Spark accusing God of heartlessness in his treatment of Job akin to the wantonness of the Homeric gods?

*When my husband walked in and discovered that personal reading and baby entertaining could be combined in this way, he proposed to start her on Is Administrative Law Unlawful? next.
** And by "I've always read," I just mean the one or two times I've cursorily considered it. I did take a summer course on representations of Job in Jewish literature though, but those also depicted recognizable suffering.


arethusa said...

I really like Muriel Spark but haven't read anything by her in 15 years after reading the whole oeuvre (and then she died). She always intended to write "minor" novels and it was often completely unclear (to me anyway) what her message in any given book was or what her answer to its central question was.

Miss Self-Important said...

I don't know, I thought The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Memento Mori and The Girls of Slender Means had relatively clear messages. I never know whether I understand the truly central point of any novel (or if it even has one), but if I can grasp onto any one of the auxiliary arguments and ride it out, I feel like this book = sensical. That was true with the others. This one, less. The Driver's Seat was even weirder.

JD Bell said...

I read the girls (three daughters) Shakespeare's Comedies and Kipling and the Witches of Karres when I was rocking them to sleep. They were staircase kids, one at 82, one at 84 and one at 86. Oldest daughter remembers Shakespeare and Kipling-vaguely. She got copies of both writer's works for her kids to hear. Middle and youngest daughters not so much. All three got the reading bug, but overlaid with TV-Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. Sigh.