The Novel as Jerusalem: Muriel Spark's Mandelbaum Gate

In 1959 with her book MEMENTO MORI, the Scottish-born Muriel Spark established herself in this country as a novelist of considerable merit. Poet, critic, and biographer as well, Mrs. Spark’s new novel, THE MANDELBAUM GATE, which Knopf will publish this month, is an ambitious study of the divided city of Jerusalem as a symbol of conflicts in and out of fiction. Frank Kermode, professor of English literature at the University of Manchester in England and widely known critic, here presents a brilliant analysis of Mrs. Spark’s latest work.

PEOPLE — novelists even — have been heard to say of Muriel Spark that she is gifted and elegant, but a fantasist, a trifler. This at any rate allows one to see why the old topic of the death of the novel is still dusted off from time to time. Mrs. Spark is a novelist; she is not an antinovelist or a philosophical novelist, a realist or a neorealist, but a pure novelist. She is evidently not of the opinion that the possibilities of the form are exhausted, since she is continually finding new ones. Her novels quite deliberately raise difficult questions about the status of fiction, but she has not been driven to violence in her attempts to answer them; she does not cut her books up or fold them in or try to make them random. If there is to be randomness, she wants to be in charge of it. If the characters have to be free, then their freedom will have to be consistent with contexts not of their own devising, as in life. If the reader thinks that the shapes and patterns, the delicate internal relationships, of a well-written novel give the lie to life and suggest impossible consolations, then he must content himself with some other thing, with whatever unconsoling fiction he can find. Mrs. Spark is even somewhat arrogant about the extent of the novelist’s power: knowing the end of the story, she deliberately gives it away, and in a narrative which could have regular climactic moments she fudges them, simply because the design of her world, like God’s, has more interesting aspects than mere chronological progress and the satisfaction of naive expectations in the reader. Yet all the elements of this world come from the traditional novel.

The suggestion is, in Mrs. Spark’s novels, that a genuine relation exists between the forms of fiction and the forms of the world, between the novelist’s creation and God’s. At the outset of her career she wrote a novel called The Comforters, which is

quite deliberately an experiment designed to discover whether this relation does obtain, whether the novelist, pushing people and things around and giving “disjointed happenings a shape,” is in anyway like Providence. This quotation is actually from Memento Mori; Mrs. Spark’s later novels are all very different from The Comforters, but all are in a sense novels about the novel, inquiries into the relation between fictions and truth. You may treat her last two books, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means, both very brief and exquisitely formed, as beautiful jokes; they have a constantly varying formal wit, an arbitrariness of incident under the control of the writer’s presumptuous providence, that warrant the description. But like the wit of the seventeenth-century preacher, they are jokes for God’s sake, fictions which have to do with the truth.

“I don’t claim that my novels are truth,” she once said in an interview. “I claim that they are fiction, out of which a kind of truth emerges. And I keep in mind that what I am writing is fiction, because I am interested in truth — absolute truth. . . . There is metaphorical truth and moral truth, and what they call anagogical . . . and there is absolute truth, in which I believe things which are difficult to believe, but I believe them because they are absolute.” This absolute truth is, of course, the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. The lies of fiction can partake of this truth, perhaps give it a useful, though imperfect human application. It is, perhaps, inconceivable that the creator of fiction can — insofar as he looks at what he has done and sees that it is good — make shapes and depths utterly dissimilar from those of God. In a sense, this makes his work a daring kind of game. He lies like truth. He simulates the plots of God, even when he plays at being arbitrary and contingent. The tragic aspect of this is the subject of another Catholic novelist, Graham Greene, in The End of the Affair; Mrs. Spark is more concerned with the comedy of the situation. The novelist, presumptuous, arbitrary, scheming, and faking, lying like the fiend, makes things like worlds, plots absurdly like God’s.

The interest of this for nonbelievers is that even they must make worlds like plots. Even if they reject the Absolute as itself a fiction, they are by nature structure-makers and impose this human need on history, on nature, on poems and novels. They seek and accept images of order. They need not be alienated from a novel because it represents a world designed to possess formal relationships, rhythms, and certainties under the wild muddle we see at first glance. In other words, they are as well equipped as a Catholic to understand the power and beauty of Mrs. Spark’s most ambitious creation game, her new novel, The Mandelbaum Gate.

Mrs. Spark here tells a story, and a good one; she is a novelist all through, extremely inventive, at ease with complex plots. But she presents the story in discontinuous bits, blurring the climaxes, giving away the surprises. Why? Because in reality this occurs, and it occurs without making any difference to the certainties of the world and its design. She sets the story in Jerusalem because Jerusalem, as the medieval map-makers knew, is the center of this world, the core and paradigm of God’s plot. Jerusalem brings the two plot-makers together. The book is a confrontation, or rather a concord of plots. God’s plot is Jerusalem itself, the ancient données divided by the Mandelbaum Gate.

To recognize them is to know something of the ways of God to men; they lie timeless and unchanged under the extraordinary contingencies of modern Jerusalem. This is the plot the novelist confronts, with which she seeks concord. How does she set about such a task? By taking as a central figure Miss Barbara Vaughan, who is half Jewish, an English Catholic convert, and setting her down in Jerusalem on a pilgrimage to the holy places, which are divided by the Mandelbaum Gate. She is on the Jewish side of the gate; the Arabs will let her pass if convinced that she is a bona fide Christian, but they do not recognize half-Jews any more than they recognize Israel.

The story is of the adventures of Barbara on her pilgrimage, and also about her love affair and how it prospered when her lover succeeded in having his first marriage annulled at Rome. It is also about smuggling and spying and smart Arab operators and British consular officials. It is a complicated story. Io explain how it is made to match Jerusalem, I shall have to speak in some detail at least about the two opening chapters.

FIRST we meet Freddy Hamilton from the British Consulate, upper-class, talented, agreeable in his fifties, and a bit wet. He is given to composing vers de société in archaic verse forms, and is walking back through the Mandelbaum Gate making up a bread-and-butter letter to his weekend hostess on the Jordan side. It is to be a rondeau. He bumps into a Jewish child, then into a Jewishlooking Arab in European dress. He meets Miss Vaughan and hears her chidden by an old Jew for a dress which, though it seems modest enough in the heat of the day, offends the sensibility of two thousand years. Proceeding, he carries on with his thank-you verses as he passes a school where the children are chanting in Hebrew. He reflects on the Greek meters, “pitting culture against culture.” At his hotel he calls for a drink, and the Israeli waiter reminds him of a line from Horace. He remembers Miss Vaughan, and the small embarrassment when she told him she was half a Jew; but in spite of that they had contrived to be comfortably English together. Miss Vaughan had complained, as the English will, of un-English activities among the natives. Her guide was interested in modern cement factories and had been reluctant to take her to the top of Mount Tabor, “probable scene of the Transfiguration.” Then Miss Vaughan turns up, speaking of her dangerous trip to Jordan to see the other holy places, and of her archaeologist fiancé, who is seeking the annulment in Rome which she, not he, regards as indispensable to their union. Freddy does not know much about Miss Vaughan; she looks spinsterish to him. Later he learns of her sensual nature. Now he learns that her life has a different basis from his own, for he allows himself to say that he doesn’t understand this fuss about an annulment. (Barbara’s fiancé, being a scholar, understands it very well. Archaeologists also know that layers of irrelevance cover the original true deposits.) She quotes Apocalypse at him: “I find thee neither cold nor hot; cold or hot, I would thou wert one or the other. Being what thou art, lukewarm, neither cold nor hot, thou wilt make me vomit thee out of my mouth.” Surely one ought not to quote Scripture in this way? Freddy departs, thinking about Greek meters.

Under the quiet of this opening, which would, I think, delight Mr. Forster, chords are beginning faintly to sound. The second chapter is more decisive. Barbara is on top of Mount Tabor. In her, it seems, everything meets: Jew and Christian, the two testaments, an ability to live in the present without forgetting the historical deposit of holiness, Jewish intellect, and “the beautiful and dangerous gift of faith.” Can all these be made one? Intelligently she studies the parts; in faith she recognizes totalities beyond criticism, whether in a person or a poem or a world. On Mount Tabor, where an earthly body was transfigured as a poem is by its totality, she thinks of the Beersheba of Genesis. It is now dominated by a Scotch-tape factory, but it is still the Beersheba of Genesis, where Jacob tricked Isaac into blessing him instead of Esau, and so earned his inheritance and his place among the fathers of Israel. God went along with this; he had not been to Eton. “The mighty blessing, once bestowed, was irrevocable.” So, though she doesn’t know it, will the College of the Rota in Rome be tricked into annulling her fiancé’s marriage. Meanwhile, the Holy Land is Beersheba and Scotch-tape factories, Tabor and cement.

She remembers Jaffa, and the house of Simon the Tanner. If you recall that it was in Simon’s house that St. Paul had his vision of the unclean meats, the reminiscences of Barbara’s childhood which follow will not need the excuse that the Jewish guide asks her why she is not of her mother’s religion. Barbara remembers the double background of her childhood — the hunting Anglicans, the intellectual Jews of Golders Green, “Passover gatherings and bell-summoned Evensongs.” She decides that she is not fragments, but a totality; she is what she is, though her parts, like the parts of Christianity after the vision of St. Paul in Simon’s house, are Jew and Gentile, as the Old and New Testaments are a concord, the types of one fulfilled in the other. “She then remarked, without relevance, that the Scriptures were specially important to the half-Jew turned Catholic. The Old Testament and the New, she said, were to her — as near as she could apply to her own experience the phrase of Dante’s vision — ‘bound by love into one volume.’ ” Pending the true Transfiguration, which is of eternity, she decides that something of the sort is known in time, since memory, and history, bring health, and this recollection of the données of God’s plot enables us to do as we must: “what is to be borne is to be praised.”

The insight into a totality made up of such different parts is conveyed, in the city of Jerusalem or in a good novel, by an image. Barbara remembers an Easter vacation afternoon, spent with her English family on a tennis lawn, and as she leaves to celebrate Passover in Golders Green, “the drawing-in of an English afternoon . . . with its fugitive sorrow. ‘See here, Barbara,’ said her grandfather at Golders Green a few hours later, ‘these arc the bitter herbs which signify our affliction in Egypt.’ ” The intellectual Aaronsons enacted their Passover ritual as the English rolled their pace eggs in the mild woods. Barbara, shaky on detail, is excluded from the Jewish kitchen. She is neither full Jew nor full Gentile, and so all the better for the purposes of this novel, since her double estrangement mirrors the accidental deviations of the Gentile religion from its Jewish base, the New from the Old Testament. Sitting, like Deborah, on the top of Mount Tabor, she reflects on her own transfiguration in faith and sensuality, in acts of love and recognition. She will go to Jordan and finish the pilgrimage. Whatever Barbara may think of the matter, she has been transfigured, for the purposes of the novel, by Mrs. Spark.

IT WILL be seen that these opening pages achieve certain traditional ends. They establish character, tone, background, the last very strongly since the book has to be a sort of map of Jerusalem. They found a plot: the trip to Jordan, the annulment case. If that were all, they might possibly be thought somewhat extravagant; but they have also, to use Mrs. Spark’s word, anagogical work on hand. This is sometimes a matter of hints in the texture (the people Freddy bumps into, his clashing Greek against Hebrew) which may be for the moment obscure, as when Miss Vaughan quotes the Book of Revelation. Such hints imitate similar hints in the texture of reality. The structural imitation begins in the second chapter, with Barbara on Mount Tabor. The fraud that serves a divine purpose is associated with Beersheba. The healthgiving memory of Easter-Passover happens at Simon’s house. The old that has to be remembered underlies the meaningless variety and division of the new: Old Jerusalem, with its shrines calling for recognition, however perfunctory, as focuses of truth, subsisting under the hurrying Jews, the unrecognizing Arabs, and fortuitously assembled foreigners of the new city. It is all one and capable of transfiguration when rightly seen. Mount Tabor knew the warlike Deborah and the shining Christ, and now sees Miss Vaughan in love, sitting on the mountain nobody wanted to take her to. Down in the streets wildly deviant people bump each other in divided streets; but on some view they are one, and the city is their happy home.

When Barbara remarks “irrelevantly” that this reminds her of Dante, who at the climax of his vision of Paradise saw the scattered leaves of the world bound into one volume, legato con amore in un volume, we may ask on what kind of view she is irrelevant. Only on the impossible view that talk in novels obeys the standards set for relevance in common talk. We may believe, as Barbara and Mrs. Spark do not, that only in a book can the world be shown to be bound together as a book. Mallarmé said something of the kind, that the world exists to end in a book. But whether the shrines, the images, the donnees exist only inside or inside and outside the book, it remains true that in such a book people must say things that transcend simple relevance, and so may appear irrelevant. The use of the adverb is Mrs. Spark’s way of making peace with those who think novels ought to be simple, small towns rather than Jerusalems. Or it can be called “faking,” so that the simple story gets told while at the same time “a kind of truth emerges.” The run of talk must point back to the données, just as the fugitive sorrow of an English evening and the bitter herbs of Passover have to be juxtaposed, the time between annihilated. They are together as closely as Jewish mother and Gentile father, in the union that produced Barbara. If the novel is to be bound together in one volume by love, it may be necessary to use the word “irrelevantly” at the point of maximum relevance. Out of the lie “a kind of truth emerges.” Mrs. Spark’s comfortable expatriate English are fond of saying that the Arabs think in symbols, by which they mean “tell lies.” This is a good description of what novelists of Mrs. Spark’s stamp know they are doing.

Virtuoso composition of Mrs. Spark’s kind tends to make short novels. But The Mandelbaum Gate is twice as long as Jean Brodie and much more heavily plotted; one can’t offer a clumsy commentary on the whole thing. Having established the set of her world, or her Jerusalem, in the opening chapters — the process is quite arbitrary, like God’s piling layers of history and holiness onto one small region—she can make or allow the events of her story to fall within it, or even, to show her arbitrary power, outside it. What is required, as a critic once said of Milton, is that the reader should be continually on duty. It is up to him to see that the annulment plot, which turns, like a lawsuit in some vast Victorian novel, on the dubious circumstances of the fiancé’s birth and the absurd intervention of a jealous woman, has to do with Beersheba and Isaac, and with human applications of absolute truth. When Scripture is quoted, it is quoted with the same “irrelevance” I’ve discussed in connection with Barbara’s reference to Dante. The cultivation of English wild flowers on the Israel-Jordan border, the obsessive collocation of their popular with their botanical names, and with the holy places where Freddy’s friend Joanna finds them, may seem a minor and rather poetic figuration in the book, but it is firmly related to the central theme of Jerusalem, and also to the adventure story which somehow gets told. And when trefoil, lady s-finger, viper’s bugloss come from Gethsemane, the Mount of Olives, Siloam, these last names are touched, as they ought to be, by the commonplace; the English names rest on the holy places, as history and the world rest on Jerusalem. In the garden where these flowers grow, Freddy writes insincere letters to his terrible mother in Harrogate, and she too will be bound, under the pressure of apocalypse, into this one volume.

In this Jerusalem, as in the real one, there must be variety, confusion, conflict, not only between Semites but between everybody. Indigenous characters soon begin to pour into the story — Orthodox Jews, Orthodox Catholics from Lebanon, Arab operators, smooth Englishmen. The muezzin wakes you on the Israeli side; to touch the Wailing Wall you have to go by the gate to the Arab side. People in England, only remotely concerned, are drawn to Jerusalem, encountered in the polyglot confusion of the holy places. Barbara, Jew turned Catholic, visits the shrines disguised as an Arab. She buys from a Lebanese Christian merchant a chain with the Christian fish symbol but also with Turkish charms to counteract it.

THE adventures of Barbara in Jordan, and Freddy’s liberated behavior as, in flight from his mother, he accompanies her, are narrated in discontinuous but amusing fits. The Ramdez family, all charming, all making a good living out of refugees, spying, smuggling, the peccadilloes of English and American government officials, move into the center, as much a part of Jerusalem as the Zionists, the Scots Presbyterians, the priests and nuns. Farce works for Mrs. Spark as heavier irony for other writers; and underneath the story, with its farcical, anarchic, naturalistic incidents and encounters, are the holy places. To recognize them. even in this fugue, is what makes Barbara “all of a piece,” though a “gentile Jewess, a privatejudging Catholic.” The heart of it all is the memory, the anamnesis, of these places: Nazareth, “where it really began”; Cana and the first miracle, for “everything begins with that”; Capharnaum, where “the spiritual liberation of the human race had begun”; the birthplace of Mary Magdalen. In Jerusalem, observing the “actual Gethsemane passively laid out on the Mount of Olives,” she feels the relation of this Jerusalem to that other of poetry and hymn, “my sweete home, Hierusalem.” The pilgrimage may well be without emotion; it is essentially a simple act of recognition.

The quality of the book’s imagination is suggested by the inclusion of the Eichmann trial among these objects of Christian recognition; if one had to cite a single example to show Mrs. Spark’s deepening power, this would serve. All Barbara hears of the trial is a dull day when Eichmann is being interrogated by his own counsel. She sees it, however, as “the desperate heart” of the whole process: the dead mechanical tick of the discourse, words and statements divorced from all reality and all pity; and she thinks of the French antinovel, the discourse dead, the subject living. Barbara here decides, as it were, in passing, that she has to see the holy places on the Jordan side. They are basic to her kind of meaning, as to Mrs. Spark’s. It is a meaning you may find in a novel, not in an antinovel. The Eichmann passage is characteristic of Mrs. Spark’s sensibility, and of her desperate confidence in the novel. So that we may see how this confidence is based, she includes (as Camus and Iris Murdoch have included) a sermon about the point of the holy places and their involvement with fraud and false emotion. She is telling us that her novel too gets its meaning from truths which can be misunderstood, and that it is an analogue of Jerusalem; but she is also saying that we need to see it as Jerusalem-shaped without forgetting that it contains, like the city, a good deal that may seem hard to relate to that model.

To emphasize this, the quality of observed life, she brings into play the sharp ear and the keycold charity known from her earlier books. The dialogue is exemplary, Forsterian in its command of dialect. If she describes a cellar in Acre where the Crusader wall is still a foundation, she makes it a real cellar, not a symbol. People act credibly, are funny, make love, or light like people in the real Jerusalem. To write such a book, one needs to be very inward with the novel as a metaphor for the world. Mrs. Spark is precisely that; the book is, in an age of rather clumsy argument about fiction, a demonstration that great things can be done when a strong imagination determines to take up many aspects of the “kind of truth” that fictions provide and bind them up into one volume.