Off Its Rocker

Dame Muriel's surreal meditation on belief  

If you spent any time in England in the middle or late 1970s, you remember the criminal Lord Lucan as a great two-for-one figure in the popular imagination—a British amalgam of Dr. Sam Sheppard and D. B. Cooper. A good-looking thirty-nine-year-old moustachioed aristocrat (the sort of wastrel clubman that, one imagined, had been extinct for decades), Lucan in the fall of 1974 attempted to bludgeon his estranged wife to death in the basement of 46 Lower Belgrave Street, in London. But it was dark, and he mistook the children's nanny for Lady Lucan. He ended up killing the nanny, Sandra Rivett (he stashed her body in a mailbag), and giving his wife only some nasty wounds, from which she recovered sufficiently to finger him. Aided, it is thought, by his upper-crust friends, Lucan proceeded to disappear as tantalizingly as if, like our own Cooper, he had jumped out of a plane. Over the years until 1999, when he was pronounced legally dead, sightings of him were as frequent as they were (probably) false.

Readers of Muriel Spark's brilliant, addled novels—deceptive, dark little comedies that eventually veer off into bizarre supernaturalness—will not be surprised to learn that in her latest book she goes so far as to combine the Lucan story with the also real, if less famous, story of a "fake stigmatic." This is the sort of gaudy irreligiosity the eminent Catholic novelist has forever stuffed, along with nuns and miracles and murders, into her books. Spark's subject is always, ultimately, man's place in a world that God is entitled to treat as a funhouse. But for the duration of her typically slender novels she plays God—in this case combining the Lucan murder and the sham stigmata the way that a whimsical deity might decide to create water and then land just to see what would happen.

Spark's bleeding charlatan is Beate Pappenheim, a poor student and salesgirl from Germany who, in the same decade Lucan tries to murder his wife, comes up with the idea of faking wounds like Jesus Christ's with her menstrual blood. Her supposed ability to perform miracles turns her "into a real cult," complete with the arrival of credulous pilgrims at her bedside. (When she is finally exposed, "more money in Irish currency than any other [is] found to have been placed to her account.") By the time the main action of Aiding and Abetting begins, Beate has transformed herself into a Parisian psychiatrist, Dr. Hildegard Wolf, to whose consulting room comes a man claiming to be Lord Lucan. This being a Muriel Spark novel, he has, of course, been referred to Wolf by a priest. Again, this being a Spark novel, the book cannot content itself with such complexity but must double Lucan with a second man also claiming to be the murdering lord and now trying to blackmail Wolf with her past as Fräulein Pappenheim.

Like numerous books of the Bible, Dame Muriel's novels frequently defy belief. Her longtime readers will remember the mysterious voice calling up the geriatrics in Memento Mori, the Watergate-style bugging of the convent in The Abbess of Crewe. Even so, like the Bible, Spark's novels are designed to bring you to belief, if only by making you wonder, with a certain nervous gaiety, just Who might be behind the fiendish tangles of the world.

For all her fakery, Beate/Hildegard takes the reality of hell quite seriously. Here she considers the visit paid her by Lucky, one of the Lucan claimants,

what, she wondered, did Lucky mean by a pact with the Devil? ... Whether he was the real Lord Lucan or not, Hildegard felt he was referring to something genuinely in his past. She would not be at all surprised to find that, as the missing Earl, he was a fake; but she would be astonished if he had not at some earlier time compromised his conscience: "I sold my soul to the Devil." That must mean something.

What Hildegard and the likely Lucan have most in common is blood. They've both been drenched in it, and even if the immersion was achieved by fraud or violence, who knows what transfigurative powers it might possess? Hildegard is "consoled" by the possibility that at least one of the Lucans may be a religious maniac, and her boyfriend's speculative journal quotes Shakespeare's Sonnet 111 while pondering how the putative lord might have dissolved into the element he unleashed.

As the years piled up with nothing achieved but his furtive travels ... what had he become? Someone untraceable with blood on his hands, in his head, in his memory. Blood ...

... My nature is subdued
to what it works in, ike the dyer's hand.

Spark has never been afraid to joke about anything (she perceives God as having, after all, the most perverse sense of humor), and she has great fun pointing out, repeatedly, how much Lucky loves eating lamb. She is also clearly attracted by the idea of Lucan's having been declared dead without the evidence of a corpse. Her novel is animated by the possibility that he continues to walk the treadmill of an earthly purgatory—waiting, perhaps expiating, anticipating definitive punishment or eventual reward. "The nature of belief," the narrator says, "is very strange." Phony Hildegard may be, but the stigmatic-turned-shrink still believes she managed to cure certain of her devotees.

Spark is now the sole survivor among the big three Catholic novelists of postwar England. Her religious vision has always seemed the oddest, and perhaps the most authentic, in the trinity. Graham Greene was more interested in sucking up to earthly tyrants than in worshipping the ultimate powers that be, and Evelyn Waugh's professions of faith had a political dimension too, albeit one opposite to Greene's. Spark has never had much interest in politics; even Jean Brodie's attraction to Mussolini was more a function of the schoolmistress's passionate prime than anything of ideological importance.

Lucan's disappearance, we're told by one character, "partakes of the realistic-surrealistic." This has for so long been Spark's territory that one wonders why it took her all this time to get around to the vanished earl. Still, for all his suitability, and for all her deliberate, characteristic lurches between the real and the surreal, Aiding and Abetting does feel more than necessarily disjointed. Hildegard gets lost as the reader is dispatched on a merry chase after Lucan with the daughter of someone from his former circle. Spark eventually manages to bring the plot lines back together, but the unity is less than complete. And yet cleverness and high style remain abundant here ("She glared at him but he smiled at her as he rose, suave, casually dressed, rich, manicured, simply awful"), and the book's ending employs a particularly Waugh-like twist that is no less satisfying for being familiar.

Now eighty-three, Muriel Spark is among a select group of aged but still productive famous novelists. The twilight works of this pantheon are bound to be of mixed quality—and ripe for exploitation by publishers seeking to prolong the life of reliable old product lines. The books we'll be seeing from this group won't all be up to the last of Penelope Fitzgerald's, or even Saul Bellow's. But the typical Spark novel has always been stimulatingly off its rocker, and on the strength of Aiding and Abetting, there's yet no need to start persuading Dame Muriel into hers.