The Public Image—Muriel Spark

[I’m reading this short 1968 novel in two halves. So far I have only read the first half, so I don’t know what is to come in the second.]

6 July 2019
Chapters 1-4
Even in a short novel by Muriel Spark—a novella really, of about 35,000 words—there’s a lot going on. Not only is the narrator about as omniscient as it’s possible to be, she is happy to offer unusually forthright opinions about her characters. She lets us know that Annabel Christopher, the main character and the one whose point of view we follow mostly, is ‘stupid’—I’ll come back to that particular pronouncement—while her husband… I’ll come back to him as well. And Spark plays with the timeline soon after the first chapter opens. Annabel is trying to get used to the still empty flat in Rome, the one she’s just bought and moved into with her new baby, when the narrative almost immediately loops back. We don’t realise how far back at first, and it isn’t until a lot of things have happened that we catch up with that moment again at the start of Chapter 3. That’s a quarter of the way through the book, and we might wonder why an author would wish to highlight a moment in this way. And it’s in Chapter 3 that the reason becomes clear….

Frederick, the actor-writer husband pushed into the background by Annabel’s meteoric rise to movie stardom, seems to have decided to smash the publicity machine that is now a part of both their lives. He’s threatened suicide before, so often that she takes no notice—or ‘forgets’ about it—but now he’s carried out his threat. And he’s set things up to make it seem as though she’s a heartless seeker of celebrity addicted to the high life. It’s a nasty trick, and whatever satirical things Spark might want to aim at Annabel, riotous partygoing doesn’t come into it. She had been looking forward to a quiet weekend with her new baby, was hoping Frederick would be back soon from a self-indulgent five-day absence of his own—he has a mistress in a quiet suburb—and is mystified when people arrive for a party. It’s Frederick’s idea, and it’s only after the highly public drink-fest that the family doctor arrives to bring her the bad news. While she’s been trying to limit the damage, literally and metaphorically—the partygoers are trashing the place—Frederick has thrown himself into a deep archaeological pit. He was dead before they got him to hospital.

This is Chapter 3, all set on the same Friday that opened the novel, and we understand as well as Annabel does what a mess she’s in. Muriel Spark had been living in Rome for something like a year by the time she was writing this, and she knows all about the kind of celebrity gossip culture dissected by Fellini in La Dolce Vita (1960). The early chapters of the novel are largely a satire about it, and she states quite categorically that Italy is where it was invented. In the 21st Century we take it for granted that it’s everywhere, but in the late 1960s Spark felt it necessary to explain what it was like there. So we see Annabel’s problem: at least one well-known journalist had been at the party and, as Frederick well knew, the papers are likely to have a field-day with the story. In Chapter 4, after she has identified the body in the middle of the night, we see Annabel taking damage limitation to a higher level…

…but first I’m going to rewind, because a lot had been going on before that fateful Friday night. Mainly, Annabel Christopher has been morphing from the quiet little actress from Wakefield into the English tiger-lady the gossip-columnists love. All along, Muriel Spark is letting us know that it’s nonsense, that the tiger-lady reputation is manufactured mainly by one insider working at the studio. Frederick would love to go to bed with this attractive young woman, but she decides he’s better in bed with his wife—where, she can allege, things go on between him and the quiet-seeming Annabel that you would hardly believe. It’s just like the Hollywood myth-making of the 1940s and 50s, in which the lives of the stars were presented as being at least as exciting as anything on-screen. Spark lets us know that the machine is quite beyond the control of either Annabel or Frederick… inexorably, movie by successful movie, it starts to dictate both their lives.

But it doesn’t do it equally. Frederick, a man of the 1960s—that is, raised in a culture in which the man is in charge—had been used to patronising his little wife. He would let her know with every word and gesture that she was the brainless one, while he was the one who knew about stuff. He’s good at his job, can act and write, but… his career is no more successful than hers. And then, almost by chance, it seems that Annabel’s simplicity of style suddenly fits perfectly with what the movies need. Through the smoke and mirrors of the industry—lighting, closeups, whatever—one particular director can present her as a woman with hidden depths of unexpressed passions. And Annabel gets it. When the narrator, early in the novel, goes along with the general (male) view that she is stupid, Spark is playing a game. Everything Annabel does shows how much she really understands. It’s Frederick who doesn’t get it—or, if he does get it, resents how her kind of low-level talent gets all the rewards while the carefully-honed intelligence of his approach achieves almost nothing.

It doesn’t put Annabel in control. It would be possible to present her as just s much a victim, were it not for the highly gratifying approval, wealth, fan-mail…. Her fame has spread west to the rest of Europe, then further west still. They are in Hollywood for a while (for a film? I forget), and suddenly she’s in the frame with Oscar-winners. She isn’t there yet, but maybe soon…. It’s no wonder Frederick is chewing the carpet. Neither of them is happy with the marriage, but both of them know that it’s best to keep up appearances, for now. Back in Italy, Frederick is found enough work to keep him ticking over, he has a mistress, even if she isn’t the one he’d really go for if he could, and now—I can’t quite remember how it happens, whether it was really Annabel’s decision—with the arrival of their son, they are a proper family. Which is when Annabel decides to organise the buying of the apartment in an old palazzo. Spark makes a point of remarking how it isn’t usually easy for a woman, even for a star like Annabel, to bring off such a feat successfully. But she’s done it. And Frederick disappears for days on end.

So that’s where we are. Except… how is Annabel going to get out of the fix she’s in? At something like 2.00 a.m., as she leaves the hospital where she’s just identified Frederick’s body, she’s exhausted. And then this allegedly stupid woman, in real time, puts in place all the elements of an escape strategy. The doctors have got her out through a back corridor, through what seems to be a morgue, and it hasn’t fazed her one bit. She doesn’t need to go home, the family doctor tells her, there’s a hotel room waiting for her. And she tells him to forget that. He’s shocked at first, until his wife helps him to understand that while he might know his profession, Annabel knows hers. Neighbours, Annabel says, she needs her neighbours with her at a time like this. And the baby, she’s come home because a nurse has been having to look after her baby, and that can’t be right. The journalists and photographers are waiting, and by the time she’s ready to speak to them she’s assembled an image from a High Renaissance painting. She and her son are at the centre of it, with the neighbours—an assortment of men, women and children from every stratum of Roman society—assembled around her and looking on adoringly, or pleadingly, or with some other expression or gesture suggestive of high emotion. It’s a masterpiece.

But she hasn’t finished yet. Chapter 4 ends—and I haven’t read beyond it yet—with her simple statement to the assembled members of the press: Frederick’s death was, of course, an accident.

12 July
Chapters 5-8—to the end
Has she done it? Just before the short final chapter Annabel’s director, Luigi Leopardi, keeps saying how lucky she has been. And she has—tell you later—but she’s also carried on working as hard to keep her public image clean as on that awful Friday night. It’s only Sunday night as Luigi is speaking, but Annabel has had all kinds of things to deal with. If anybody deserves to beat the stupid system she’s been living in for maybe three years now, she does. But this is a Muriel Spark novel, the final chapter is terribly short, and we know there’s got to be a sting in the tail. Which there is. The sting is provided by a character I managed not to make any reference to as I wrote about the first four chapters, an old friend of Frederick’s called Billy O’Brien. He’s even less successful than Frederick, finding it hard to make a living writing for the newspapers back in Ireland, and in an earlier chapter he’d written a snide little review of one of Annabel’s films. He’s also the man who brought Kurt, the German journalist, to the disastrous party… but nothing seems to have come of that. Nothing ever comes of it, because it turns out that Billy doesn’t need Kurt for his sting.

As before, a lot goes on in these chapters. And it’s nearly all melodramatic—but whatever speeding locomotives head down the track to mangle our tightly-bound heroine, well, if she isn’t somehow able to redirect them, they fortunately seem to redirect themselves with no help from her. She sticks with her story that it definitely wasn’t suicide, as a sensational (and entirely fictitious) story becomes feasible that Frederick was constantly pursued by sex-mad women. They were chasing him in the church above the pit, and one of them pushed him down into it. The story hasn’t needed to be put to the test yet, but by the time the inquest is about to take place on Monday morning, Annabel, Luigi and the woman who concocted the ‘Tiger-lady’ reputation in the first place have closed down all the others. Mainly, the idea that there was an ‘orgy’ at her flat on that night has been put to rest.

There’s a much worse threat, the most melodramatic thing in the book, but Billy has been able to nip it in the bud. If there had been any doubt about Frederick’s motive for arranging the party—there isn’t, of course—then the four letters he’s written to different people make it clear. Billy has been able to intercept them all… or maybe Frederick had given them to Billy to distribute, I forget. Whatever, Billy the loyal friend brings them to Annabel on the Saturday morning. The three that are addressed to living people, including Annabel herself, are all vile. They accuse her of attending orgies, of neglecting their baby, whatever, all of it carefully drafted. Annabel almost admires the skill, but both she and Billy are astonished by the letter to his mother. She’s dead, but the Italian press adore letters from misbehaving sons to their mothers, and by the time it would have come out that she’s been dead for three years it wouldn’t make any difference.

There are other pieces of luck. A woman had been found half-dead and drugged in the flat after the party, and she’s in hospital. By now, Annabel has been denying that there had ever been a party, so it seems tricky—until she can put the story about that the girl was one of Frederick’s tribe of would-be groupies. Better still, the girl has a history of mental health problems. Her American parents are over to pick her up, are charmed by Annabel’s own visit to the hospital, and are quite open with the information. So, no danger there. And when Frederick’s mistress arrives, having been trying to get in touch with Annabel all weekend, she is very keen to hand over a letter he had sent, full of the same libels as the others. Annabel now has a collection of five letters, and she’s keeping them close to her.

There’s a ten-year-old girl, the daughter of Annabel’s German doctor, who had been asking difficult questions on the Friday night and is saying potentially embarrassing things… but her childish prattle is fairly easy to gloss over. So that’s all right. As for the other German, Kurt the journalist—he’s the only clue that Billy’s up to no good. Why did Billy bring him to the party if he hadn’t intended to publicise it?

We find out in the last chapter. After having sworn that he hadn’t, Billy had made copies of the letters and is forcing Annabel’s lawyer to make a one-off payment for them, a sum so huge (but affordable, the lawyer says) that he won’t tell her how much. She’s safe, then? A sting in the tail, but one she can survive? Yes—but she chooses not to let Billy make a killing. At the inquest that she and Luigi had so carefully scripted, she makes up her own script. She produces the letters, knowing—as do we, because Luigi has told her so often—that it will be the end of her career. And the final page or two have her at the airport, on the way to Greece (I can’t remember the specific attraction of Greece for the moment), with a few bags and her baby son. To hell with the lot of them, she doesn’t say, because she doesn’t need to. The public image? Who needs it when, having shown Billy where dishonesty gets you—a fact that’s just occurred to me—she’ll have enough to live on for as long as she wants?

OK, it’s not Muriel Spark’s greatest novel but, 50 years before the present sorry state of our celebrity-obsessed fake news culture, she shows without any risk of contradiction that if you’re in it, the only thing to do is get out.