Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Not to DisturbNot to Disturb by Muriel Spark
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"'Here they come,' says Lister to his troop, 'Klopstock and barrel.'"

Muriel Spark's outrageously funny novella Not to Disturb (1971) demonstrates the immense power of prose: the power to create alternate realities. While Ms. Spark's reality is not entirely compatible with what we are accustomed to, it is internally consistent and believable. The novella reminds me of René Magritte's surrealistic paintings that challenge our traditional - not to say cliché - perceptions of reality.

The story takes place in a huge mansion of Baron and Baroness Klopstock near Geneva in Switzerland. The servants - who have been explicitly told Not to Disturb - are preparing for the death of three people locked in the library: in the heat of an argument the Baron will kill the Baroness and Victor, their mutual lover, and then he will shoot himself. Press people and movie producers are waiting and the servants are working on selling their memoirs and the reports of the grisly events to the highest bidders. Ms. Spark offers a wide range of finely drawn characters, including Lister, the butler, who is the servants' leader, and unforgettably pregnant Heloise. The servants' preparations for the event that will assure their future affluence are meticulous: they dictate the memoirs, take posed pictures, and work on movie scenarios about the Klopstock tragedy. They are concerned about the tiniest details, for example, Lister worries: "The wind is high tonight, [...] We might not hear the shots."

In one of my favorite paintings by Magritte La Durée poignardée (Time Transfixed) a small steam-puffing locomotive emerges from the fireplace wall in an otherwise empty dining room. The incongruousness of the locomotive within the dining room setting provides the surrealistic disturbance of reality. In Ms. Spark's novella the reality, as we know it, is disturbed - perhaps one should say rearranged - by several interventions/inversions. First of all, the temporal uncertainty is suspended: the servants do not just expect the grim events, they *know* that the events will happen. The future is preordained, and the cause-effect relationship is inverted: effects may well occur before the event that causes them. Furthermore, the master-servant relationship is inverted. While "the butler did it" is the motif of many novels that are set in rich people's mansions, the focus here is completely on the affairs of the servants, with the masters' affairs in the background of the story. The only reason for upper classes to exist is to provide motives for actions of servants.

The novella offers demented fun and a hilarious ending. And then there is him in the attic - probably my favorite theme in the book. Let me quote Ms. Spark: "Hadrian and Sister Barton edge into the drawing room, supporting between them him from the attic [...] 'What a noise he's making,' says Heloise."

Three and three quarter stars.

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