Symposium by Muriel Spark

I’ve been working my way through a little VMC set of Spark’s novels, slowly but surely over the past few years, trying to read them in order of publication – you can find my other posts here.

Symposium is the last of the bunch, and I’m a little sad to have finished it as there are no more left on the shelves for me to read. Maybe I’ll go back and revisit The Comforters at some point, a novel I didn’t quite connect with on the first reading, hence the lack of a review. Anyway, returning to the main subject of this post, Symposium, this is a clever and provocative novel, shot through with a devilish streak of dark humour – I enjoyed it very much indeed.

The novel revolves around a dinner party hosted by a sophisticated, well-connected couple, Hurley Reed and his partner, Chris Donovan, at their home in Islington. Hurley, an American painter in his early fifties, and Chris, a rich Australian widow in her late forties, have been together for seventeen years. They are not married, and happily so, never having felt the need to cement their relationship by formal ties. Very quickly, we are introduced to the other four couples attending the party which takes place during the course of the novel.

Based mainly in Brussels, Ernst Untzinger represents the EU on an international commission for finance, while his wife, Ella – a geographer and cartologist by training – has just landed a role teaching at a London University. The Untzingers are in the early forties, and their marriage seems quite relaxed, possibly open, as there are hints of other relationships in the mix.

The Suzys are an interesting couple, fairly recently married. While Lord Brian Suzy is approaching fifty, his current wife, Helen, is just twenty-two, possibly viewing her partner as a kind of surrogate father figure. Seizing the opportunity of a captive audience, Lord Suzy is intent on telling everyone about the recent burglary at his home which happened while the Suzys were asleep – an incident that only came to light when a passing policeman discovered the front door wide open in the middle of the night. Lord Suzy considers the whole episode to be a violation of his privacy, especially as the thieves peed all over the internal walls of the house.

Also in attendance are two cousins, Roland Sykes and Annabel Treece, both in their late twenties/early thirties. Roland is a genealogist who specialises in tracing ancestry, while Annabel works as a TV producer – her interests lie in psychology and philosophy. While Roland and Annabel are not a couple as such, they are very close, almost akin to a brother and sister.

Finally, we have William and Margaret Damien, a young couple who have just returned from their honeymoon in Italy. William’s mother, the very wealthy Hilda Damien, is a close friend of Chris Donovan’s, hence the connection between the Damiens and their hosts. Margaret, with her striking dark red hair and pre-Raphaelite looks, is the source of much speculation throughout the novel. In this scene – a flashback to a time well before the party – Hurley is telling Chris about his early impressions of Margaret.

He told her what he thought she really wanted to know. ‘Quite nice looking, but terrible teeth, they quite spoil her. I think she’s shy or something. There’s something funny. Her get-up wasn’t natural for a young girl at six-thirty on a normal evening. She had green velvet, a wonderful green, and a massive background of red and gold leaves all arranged in pots.’

‘Maybe, knowing you’re an artist, she thought you might want to paint her?’

‘Do you think so?’ Hurley pondered this seriously for a while. People do have crazy ideas about artists. But surely not… (p.25)

As the novel unfolds, alternating between the party itself and a series of carefully constructed flashbacks, we learn more about these couples, particularly the Damiens who had met in the fruit section of Marks & Spencer’s just four months before their marriage took place. Hilda – William Damien’s mother – is particularly suspicious about Margaret’s motives, sensing something sinister afoot. What in heavens name was William doing in the fruit section of M&S, and how did Margaret just happen to encounter him? Something about the whole episode really doesn’t feel right.

She [Hilda] had met Margaret in London. She didn’t think the marriage would last. That goody-goody type of girl, how could she be real?

Hilda had sat good-humouredly in their too-small flat and chatted as she noticed.

‘Marks & Spencer‘s fruit section. What on earth were you doing there, William?’

‘Buying fruit,’ he said ‘I always went there, it was convenient.’

‘And you,’ she said to Margaret in her best Sandringham-type manner, ‘was that your favourite fruit shop?’

‘No, I was just there by chance.’ She gave a little smile, put her head on one side. ‘Lucky chance,’ she said.

William sat there goggling at his bride-to-be as if she were a Miss Universe who had taken a double first at Cambridge, or some such marvel. (pp. 39-40)

Hilda’s suspicions are further aroused when she meets Margaret’s family, the Murchies, in advance of the wedding. During a visit to the Murchie residence – a strange, turreted edifice near St Andrews – Hilda is convinced that something is decidedly off. In some respects, everything appears normal on the surface, almost too normal, so much so that she struggles to put her finger on what feels wrong. In spite of these doubts, the marriage goes ahead as planned, and Hilda gives the young couple a Hampstead flat to mark the occasion. As an extra surprise, she has also purchased a Monet for their home, a piece she plans to install while the newlyweds are out at the dinner party.

In addition to Hilda, some of the other characters have also been speculating about Margaret’s past – most notably Chris and Roland. The name ‘Murchie’ rings a bell with these two, both of whom have vague recollections of there being a scandal in the family’s history. Rumours of various suspicious deaths, contested claims on an inheritance, and the taint of madness in the blood all surround Margaret and the Murchies, elements that are gradually revealed and slotted into place as the story unfolds.

As ever, Spark manages to pack so much into such a slim novel, and in this instance, it never feels crowded or cramped. During the course of the narrative, there are burglaries, murders, family feuds, and all manner of other underhand behaviours. We meet suspicious servants, mad uncles, and a convent of eclectic nuns, one of whom is very sweary. Everything is handled with an assurance characteristic of a writer in full control of her material.

This is a typically sharp and spiky novel from Muriel Spark, one that highlights how people may not be quite as innocent as they appear at first sight. A delicious, multilayered delight.

Symposium is published by Virago Modern Classics; personal copy.

31 thoughts on “Symposium by Muriel Spark

  1. madamebibilophile

    Great review as always Jacqui. I really enjoyed this novel, like you, I’m astounded at how much Spark packs into such a small space. And she is so deliciously spiky!

    I’m going to start reading The Mandelbaum Gate today in preparation for the 1965 Club, so your post was perfectly timed to put me in the Spark mood :-)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, very sharp and spiky. I love that aspect of her work, the fact that there’s no pussyfooting about or sweetening the pill – she just gets straight down to it. There are times when I think she is danger of trying to pack too many ideas or threads into her novels, but not here. This is really nicely judged with just enough conjecture to intrigue the reader.

      Have fun with The Mandelbaum Gate – I look forward to seeing what you think of it!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Hurrah, that’s very nice to hear! Yes, it does feel like one of her best – short, sharp, subtle and spiky. I hope you mange to find your copy amongst all your belongings, not always an easy thing to do when you’ve moved house. :)

      Reply
  2. A Life in Books

    I have several Sparks on the shelves but I think I may have read them when I was too young to appreciate her acerbic perceptions. You’ve made me think I should dig them out.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      With the possible exception of Brodie, I do think her books are better appreciated with a bit of life experience under your belt. As you say, maybe it’s worth digging one or two of them out, just to see what you think. They’re certainly short enough to knock off in the course of a day!

      Reply
  3. Brian Joseph

    This sounds like it is very entertaining. Events such as dinner parties can be the basis for such good fiction. I suppose the title is based upon the work by Plato.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s a great premise for fiction, with plenty of opportunities for interesting interactions between the various characters. I’m not very familiar with Plato, so the title reference is somewhat lost on me – I’ll take your word for it though!

      Reply
  4. kimbofo

    Oh, this does sound good! I do like her spiky sense of humour and the way she makes seemingly ordinary situations appear to be ridiculous. A bit like those early William Trevor novels I’ve been reading actually…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, you’re right! Spark has a wonderful knack for making the everyday seem quite absurd, just by setting something slightly off-kilter. In this case it’s Margaret with her shadowy past and mysterious nature – she’s just a little too perfect to be true.

      Reply
  5. heavenali

    I thought this was a brilliant novel, as you say it’s very clever. I loved this one. I am planning on reading more Spark soon, I have at least 4 tbr and more to buy after that.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s very well constructed, particularly in terms of how the Murchies’ backstory is revealed, alternating between the dinner party and the earlier scenes. The more I read Spark, the more I’m growing to appreciate how carefully she constructs these novels. This seems to be the case with Loitering and Symposium in particular.

      Reply
  6. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Oh, lovely review Jacqui! Spark is so funny and wonderful and although I read a lot of her books pre-blog I don’t think I got to this one. Which means I have treats in store…. I love the surrealness of her books!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, the surreal side of her nature is definitely in evidence here. I think I’m beginning to enjoy her rather skewed way of looking at the world. :)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! I’m never quite sure how to end these blog posts without them feeling too abrupt, so it’s nice to hear that my summary of this book strikes a chord with you. I’m glad you liked it too!

      Reply
  7. Izzy

    Lovely review ! There are so many nods and allusions to her previous books in Symposium, I think you can appreciate it better if you read it *after* earlier novels like The Abbess of Crewe, The Driver’s Seat, etc…don’t you think ?
    What’s your favourite Spark ? ( if you have one)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ooh…I haven’t actually read either of those two, so I’m probably missing out on some of those playful references! Something to remedy in the future, I suspect…

      If I had to pick a favourite it would probably be Memento Mori, although Kensington and Loitering are up there too. I also loved the certain elements in The Girls of Slender Means, particularly the setting and interactions between residents, but the Nicholas Farringdon thread didn’t quite work for me. I pretty sure I missed something vital there!

      What about you? Do you have a favourite or two?

      Reply
    2. Izzy

      I took my time to reply but I don’t know. I guess I’d probably choose the same as you. I haven’t read them all yet ! But I would certainly add TPOMJB to my list of favourites.

      Reply
      1. JacquiWine Post author

        Ah, interesting! I loved the new production of Brodie at the Donmar last year. Lia Williams was outstanding in the lead role, capturing that blend of magnetism and destruction so brilliantly.

        Reply
  8. bookbii

    Ah, this sounds fun. Typically cutting and sharp. I need to read more by Spark, she’s a brilliant writer. Lovely review, Jacqui. I love that line: “as if she were a Miss Universe who had taken a double first at Cambridge, or some such marvel” that made me giggle.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Belinda. Yes, Hilda’s impressions of Margaret are brilliantly scathing and cutting. She really doesn’t trust her an inch. The more I read Spark, the more I’m growing to appreciate the somewhat skewed nature of her world, where seemingly normal situations are just a little off-kilter. She seems to have that knack for making the everyday seem rather surreal and yet thoroughly recognisable too.

      Reply
  9. gertloveday

    This is the only one of Spark’s books that I thought was just a bit too set-up. Normally you never see the machinery behind the surface, but I remember thinking I did this time and it was a bit disconcerting- I expect perfection from her! But It’s a while since I read it so you’ve got me thinking I should read it again.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, that’s interesting. I think I know what you mean as it’s not difficult to see where the storyline is going, especially with Margaret and the Murchies. Oddly enough, I really liked the fact that it was a bit more focused and predictable than some of her other novels which can seem a little too full ideas – for me at least. While I love Spark’s flair for creativity and imaginative thinking, there are times when I feel there’s just a little too much going on in her novels, almost as though they’re trying to be too clever for their own good. That’s probably one of the reasons why I enjoyed this one so much. It’s sharp and tight, and yet there’s also enough Sparkian sophistication to maintain interest!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you. I think you’re in for a treat with this in spite of your familiarity with the story. Part of the fun is seeing how Spark gets there – it’s the journey as much as the destination which makes it so appealing!

      Reply
  10. Caroline

    I can’t say I liked all of her books so far. Maybe she’s an acquired taste. I’m not sure about this one. It’s the spiky elements I don’t always get along with. But I’ll return to her sooner or later.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re right, she is an acquired taste as it’s certainly taken me a while to fall into step with her style. The Comforters didn’t fly with me, possibly because I read it ‘cold’ without any real appreciation of Spark’s rather skewed way of viewing the world. I suspect my response to it might be very different now as I’m more used to her characteristic quirks and twists. She can be quite cutting towards some her characters, homing in on their weak spots and limitations…so I appreciate that style might not appeal to every reader.

      Reply
  11. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

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