Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Review by Robert Richardson of “Symposium” by Muriel Spark

Muriel Spark’s novel Symposium begins with a dinner party organised at the London home of the wealthy Chris Donovan and her companion Hurley Reed, a successful painter. The guests, four couples, are well heeled, and include an EU Commissioner, which will contribute, post Brexit, to making this novel something of a period piece.

This initial setting is followed by earlier events showing connections between some of the characters. In the final pages, we are returned to the dinner party. The pleasure Chris and Hurley derive from their meticulous planning of the evening might be seen as echoing Spark’s careful structuring of the novel.

Eventually, the story of one of the guests, the recently married Margaret, becomes central. As readers, we are taken from London to Scotland (the native country of both Margaret and Spark) to meet Margaret’s eccentric family, including the grotesque and insane uncle Magnus. On those days he is permitted to leave the asylum, Magnus is treated by Margaret’s gullible father as a sage, and she has a particular affinity with him. Although innocent, she has been associated with more than one murder, and her own family look on her with suspicion.  Prompted by uncle Magnus, she decides to begin acting duplicitously and in ways that would make the suspicion justified.

Spark is very much a stylist, and her control of expression and tone is impressive, although her short sentences, even in a brief novel such as this, can at times be monotonous. Nevertheless they suit her forensic satire.

The entertainment leaves plenty of room for serious reflections, and at the end we are confronted with planned violence superseded by violence existing spontaneously. Spark shows the fault line of mortality cannot be avoided by privilege and the complacency it assumes.

Spark was a Catholic convert, and there is a tendency to trace those beliefs in her novels. They are no doubt lurking behind all her work, but her lightness of touch means she only occasionally seems to crowbar in Catholicism, and less so than those other converts, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene.
Published in 1990, in a milieu contemporary to that time, Symposium is a world not too far away from our own, but in an important way it now appears distant, since the same characters today, or at least some of them, would, I suspect, be searching each other on Google, tweeting and posting on Facebook. If Spark were still alive, I think she might be having a lot of fun with the many absurdities of social media.

About the reviewer
Robert Richardson is a visual artist and writer. His work is included in Artists’ Postcards: A Compendium (edited by Jeremy Cooper, published by Reaktion Books, London), and he is a member of the Biennale Austria artists’ association. He is also the co-editor, with William Pratt, of Homage to Imagism (AMS Press, New York). In 2014, his solo exhibition TextSpaces was exhibited at Eugen Gomringer’s Kunsthaus Rehau in Germany.

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