If you were thinking that I'd had enough of Muriel Spark during Muriel Spark Reading Week, then think again! One of the final books I've read in 2012 is her last of the 20th century, and third last overall - Reality and Dreams (1996).
Tom Richards - presumably a deliberately bland name - is a famous film director. The first line of the novel, and thus the line which kicks off our impression of him, is archetypical Spark: 'He often wondered if we were all characters in one of God's dreams.' And, with Spark's panache for combining surreality with restraint, she goes no further with that paragraph. It hangs, so strangely, and we are shepherded straight to the second paragraph - where we learn that Tom Richards is recovering in hospital, having fallen out of a crane whilst directing a scene. He broke nearly all his bones, but is lucky to be alive.
For the first few pages, reality and dreams swirl, as Tom fades in and out of lucidity. I often have problems with the ways in which authors try to convey any mental distortion - whether disorientation or illness - as it usually seems clumsy and heavy-handed, or simply unreadable. Spark, reliably, does it brilliantly. Even something as simple as this conveys the disjointedness of time:
She poured out some milky tea. He opened his eyes. The tray had disappeared.And then the complicated family arrive. His wife Claire is patient and unshockable - and has affairs as often as he does, quite casually. There is his angelically beautiful, but unvivid, daughter from his first marriage (Cora), and stolid, moaning, unattractive daughter from his current marriage (Marigold). And there is the squabbling, self-absorbed cast of his film, originally called The Hamburger Girl - inspired by a brief sighting of a young woman at a campsite, who captivated Tom.
The various marriages in the family (some disintegrating), the cancelled and re-commissioned film production, the disappearance of one of his daughters and ensuing police search - all come together and interweave, creating a curiously mixed structure. I think one of the most distinctive qualities in Muriel Spark's writing is that everything is always on the same level. She refuses to get overly-dramatic about anything - possible kidnap and murder is treated in the same matter-of-fact way as Tom's physiotherapy, or the workings of the film shoot. For it is, of course, the sphere of cinema which influences Spark's title:
that world of dreams and reality which he was at home in, the world of filming scenes, casting people in parts, piecing together types and shadows, facts and illusionsApart from the mental disorientation at the beginning of the novel, there is never any wider suggestion that reality and dream might have been exchanged - but there is the possibility that fictitious events are starting, in a distorted way, to become true. It's never overdone, but is a clever thread through a clever novel. It's all quintessential Spark, and a perfect reminder of why she's one of my favourite authors.