31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 4: “The House of the Famous Poet” by Muriel Spark

May 4, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Penguin Book of Scottish Short Stories

Penguin_Book_of_Scottish_Short_StoriesSome stories are straightforward and easily comprehended. Others are more challenging, demanding from the reader a greater degree of attention and interpretive capability. Then there are stories that are frankly confounding, that seem to actively resist understanding in a manner that appears to be part of the author’s very intention.

“The House of the Famous Poet” is the last kind of story. I don’t know whether I like it. And I don’t know whether the problem resides in some limitation of my critical abilities, or is the fault of the story itself. Spark – author of, among many others, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Driver’s Seat; Dame of the British Empire; winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize; and number eight on the Times‘ list of the fifty greatest postwar British writers – is clearly a formidable talent, and “The House of the Famous Poet” first appeared in 1966 in no less august a publication than The New Yorker. According to The New York Observer, Spark’s editor, Robert Henderson, “pronounced himself ‘a little baffled as well as fascinated’ by the wartime story … but he had the wisdom to help get it into the magazine.”

The problem with the story lies in its final third. For the first two-thirds, the narrative is actually quite accessible and recognizable. During a trip from Edinburgh to London by train, an unnamed, first-person narrator encounters a soldier and a woman. The year is 1944. Having bummed a couple of cigarettes from the soldier, the narrator and the woman, Elise, fall into a conversation and, upon arrival at King’s Cross railway station, Elise invites the narrator to return with her to the house where she is employed as a servant. The narrator agrees and, once installed in the house, discovers that its absent owner is a world-famous poet.

So far, so good. Spark employs a naturalistic style and careful descriptions of physical appearances. Elise, we are told, “looked as if she had come from a country district – her very blonde hair, red face and large bones gave her the impression of power, as if she was used to carrying heavy things, perhaps great scuttles of coal, or two children at a time.” The house is described in similar detail:

The garden was growing all over the place. Elise opened the front door, and we entered a darkish room almost wholly taken up with a long, plain wooden work-table. On this, were a half-empty marmalade jar, a pile of papers, and a dried-up ink bottle. There was a steel-canopied bed, known as a Morrison shelter, in one corner and some photographs on the mantlepiece, one of a schoolboy wearing glasses. Everything was tainted with Elise’s weariness and my own distaste.

Spark employs the narrator’s initial reactions to the apparent decrepitude of the manor for wry comedy; upon discovery of the owner’s identity, the overgrown garden suddenly begins to take on an underlying order in the narrator’s mind, and the scattered objects in the front room adopt a deeper meaning. How different things can appear in context, Spark seems to insinuate. “I began to think about the house itself,” the narrator muses, “which Elise was no longer accountable for. Its new definition, as the house of a poet whose work I knew well, many of whose poems I knew by heart, gave it altogether a new appearance.”

To some extent, this also appears to be a cue for the reader about how to read the story’s final stages, which abandon the realistic mode Spark has been employing and begin to take on an almost surrealistic mien. The soldier from the train reappears, claiming to need money for passage back to his unit’s base camp. The narrator offers him the cash, but rather than accept it outright, the soldier agrees to sell an item he is carrying with him. The item is an “abstract funeral.” What, exactly, is an abstract funeral? Well, this is where things get hazy.

All we know about the abstract funeral the soldier proffers is that it is sizeable: the narrator stuffs part of it in a holdall, part of it in various pockets, and still has some left over. On the train to the country, where the narrator is employed as a civil servant, the soldier reappears for a third time, and tells the narrator that he has also furnished Elise and the famous poet with abstract funerals. “I make them by hand,” he says.

We later learn that Elise and the poet have both been killed by a German bomb dropped on the home to which the poet had just returned. What does this have to do with the soldier’s admission that he provided the two with handmade abstract funerals? Writing on Emdashes, Benjamin Chambers suggests one possible interpretation:

The solider is, of course, the angel of death. He makes people’s funerals “by hand,” he comes and goes as he pleases (regardless of the laws of physics), and is only a “notion” until he becomes terrifyingly real, and the quotidian materials of everyday life – the cracked bathrooms, the dried-up inkwells – in which we invest so much of our emotional lives (as we see the narrator do when she visits the poet’s house) are all that we leave behind, poignant testimonies to our existence – so long as someone survives us who can bear witness.

The “of course” in the above is a bit disingenuous, since there is nothing obvious about how the final stages of Spark’s story unfold. Chambers’ reference to a “notion” refers to the final dialogue between the narrator and the soldier:

“To hell with the idea,” I said. “It’s a real funeral I want.”

“All in good time,” said a voice from the corridor.

You again,” I said. It was the soldier.

“No,” he said. “I got off at the last station. I’m only a notion of myself.”

This dialogue, which is frankly absurd, toys with the conflict between ideas and reality. The soldier offers abstract funerals, even though London during the Blitz has no shortage of actual deaths to contend with. (“To hell with the idea,” the narrator says.) Spark also explicitly connects this to the business of crafting fiction. Early in the story, the narrator says, “I believed, in those days, that truth is stranger than fiction.” Later on, the narrator assumes a more defensive pose, saying, “You will insinuate that what I have just told you is pure fiction.” Obviously, on one level, this assessment is perfectly accurate. Even the most supposedly “realistic” fiction is ultimately an abstraction from reality: Spark’s description of the poet’s overgrown garden and untidy room bears much the same resemblance to an actual house as the soldier’s abstract funeral does to the real thing.

“The angels of the Resurrection will invoke the dead man and the dead woman,” the narrator says at the close of the story, “but who will care to restore the fallen house of the famous poet if not myself? Who else will tell its story?” Here again, abstraction and reality abut one another; here again there is a lack of resolution between the two. Telling the story of the poet’s house will not, after all, “restore” it in the physical sense; it will remain an abstraction, a “notion” of its former self. And perhaps this is the only way to approach an atrocity on the level of the Second World War: through the safe prism of fiction, the defensive cloak of metaphor. Writing about the British wartime experience in retrospect, Spark questions the extent to which it has become nothing more than a notion of itself. It is impossible to restore the lives of those who perished in the war, except through the abstract mechanism of the written word.

Or perhaps this isn’t what Spark is saying at all. The final pages of this brief story are strange and oblique, and packed with a series of unresolved tensions. Whether this is an asset or a drawback is unclear. What is clear is that this story, which starts in a place of familiarity and ease, ends up somewhere obscure and uncomfortable, somewhere that resembles an overgrown garden, or a dark and dishevelled front room in the house of a stranger.

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