Lizzy's Literary Life

Robinson – Muriel Spark #readingmuriel2018


I started celebrating Muriel Spark’s centenary with a wonderful documentary which was shown on BBC Two recently.  It’s available on iplayer for another 19 days (at the time of writing). Do check it out, if you are in the licensing area. It offers truly wonderful insights into the author’s life and the inspiration behind her novels.

Now I’m not going to claim that I’m the greatest Spark fan in the world, even if I have read 4 of her most famous works, only one of which bowled me over, none of which I have reviewed.  I think you have to be in the mood for, at least, prepared for Spark’s sometimes scalpel-sharp vivisections of humanity and I probably wasn’t in the past.  But I am now forewarned, and I may revisit 1 or 2 of the previously-read during the course of this year.

However, I wanted to start my #readingmuriel2018 effort with a novel I hadn’t heard of before. Robinson fit that bill from the list of Spark’s early novels from the 1950’s; the literary echoes in the title a powerful magnet. We also share a common vintage (1958). 😘 What were my expectations going into the novel?

Desert island ✔️  although the island, Robinson, is not a desert island as such but a fertile, if uncultivated, island in the North Atlantic.

Adult male castaway with helper ✔️ although Robinson, the eponymous protagonist, is a rich man, who has chosen to retreat from society to live, in some comfort, on the island with his adopted son, Miguel.

Shipwreck ✔️ allowing poetic licence to substitute a plane crash. The castaways being the three survivors ….

First-person narrative ✔️ although the narrator is not Spark’s Crusoe but the female plane-crash survivor.

You can see how Spark is playing with the elements of Defoe’s original here.   She’s also got one eye on the Swiss Family Robinson: Robinson, Miguel and the three survivors forming a new modern family of sorts.  All I know about the Swiss Family Robinson is that they were an idealised family, who got along.  Spark’s configuration is thrown together by circumstance and must wait 12 weeks before the next delivery of provisions and any hope of rescue, The question is, will they bond?

Firstly, Robinson is not happy with the invasion of his privacy.  He has chosen to live here with his adopted son and his extensive library. A trained Catholic priest, he has eschewed the priesthood because of his concerns over the prevalence of Marian doctrine.  He spends his time writing against it. However, it must be said, he makes quite a display of (albrit begrudging) Christian charity, nursing the three survivors back to health as best he can; sharing his provisions, mostly tinned foods, because his interest is not in the island itself, but in his spiritual ruminations.

The three castaways are a different proposition altogether.  The narrator, January Marlowe, a widowed mother of one, is a journalist on a commission to write about islands, although Robinson wasn’t on her original list.  She forms a bond with Jimmie Waterford, who turns out to be a cousin of Robinson. And his heir, sent by the family to coax Robinson back into taking up his family responsibilities. The third castaway – sorry, aircrash survivor – is the sleazebag, the one fulfilling the role of the outsider, sent to stir eveything and everyone up.  Tom Wells pedals good luck charms and a dodgy magazine – anathema to Robinson, who confiscates his belongings. January is also uneasy in his presence ….

They sort of rub along, but when Robinson goes missing, leaving behind a trail of blood-splattered clothing, let the psychological games commence. Both men have motive. How is January, who has been documenting events in a journal, to keep herself safe?  Has Spark moved us into Lord of the Flies territory?

I’m saying nothing, save that I love a good homage novel. Spark’s Robinson isn’t good, it is excellent.  Although not perfect.  There are too many conflicts regarding Catholic doctrine for me.  But given that Spark had just converted to Catholicism at the time of writing, I suppose it’s understandable (if frustrating). Still this was a really enjoyable read.  In fact, so enjoyable that I may well sign-up to read at least one title for each stage of Ali’s #readingmuriel2018 journey.  It’s about time I made a full conversion.