The Comforters, Muriel Spark, J B Lippincott & Co, 1957, 228 pp
This is Muriel Spark's first novel. I have only read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which I found fascinating, but I really know nothing about Spark except that she is considered eccentric when it comes to writing novels. Indeed, this is an unusual story.
The characters are great. Caroline is a writer, recently converted to Catholicism, who has unstable nerves and hears voices accompanied by the clacking of typewriter keys. Her on and off boyfriend Laurence is a television actor, not super high on intelligence but hyper-observant of details around him to the point of thinking of himself as an amateur sleuth.
Laurence's grandmother, who is half gypsy, appears to be part of a smuggling ring which adds a mystery to the tale but in this highly English group of characters, that is just silly. Laurence's mother, a very proper Catholic wife, is constantly trying to help a woman who is clearly the evil character in the story.
It goes on, it is almost too much and not until half way through this short novel was I at all sure what was going on. To her credit, Spark ties up all loose ends in closing but it was touch and go for a good while. Then, by making sense of it all, she secured my trust.
The most incredible aspect though was that in 1957 comes this novel which is a piece of metafiction, in the sense of writing that draws attention to the relationship between fiction and reality; in the sense of exposing the illusion of fiction. The voices Caroline hears convince her she is a character in a novel that the voices are writing. The term metafiction was not even coined until 1970, another confirmation of my growing sense that 1957 was a year of major change in literature, even though the changes were creeping in quietly.
(The Comforters is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)