Monday, April 23, 2012

{review} robinson

Muriel Spark Robinson (1958)


This is a post for Muriel Spark Reading Week, hosted by Simon (stuck in a book) and Harriet (harriet devine's blog), with lovely logo by Thomas (my porch).
If you ask me how I remember the island, what it was like to be stranded there by misadventure for nearly three months, I would answer that it was a time and landscape of the mind if I did not have the visible signs to summon its materiality: my journal, the cat, the newspaper cuttings, the curiosity of my friends; and my sisters - how they always look at me, I think, as one returned from the dead.
On the 10th of May 1954 a plane en route to the Azores crashes on a remote island in the North Atlantic. That island is Robinson. There are only three survivors - the female narrator (January Marlow) and two men with somewhat dubious pasts: Tom Wells, purveyor of lucky charms to the masses, and the mysterious Jimmie Waterford. Waterford - a pseudonym of sorts, may or may not actually have been trying to get to the island of Robinson for reasons connected with a family inheritance. 


Robinson the island is not entirely uninhabited, for it possesses a reclusive owner, Robinson. Yes, Robinson of Robinson (there is a neat "no man is an island" joke there which Spark does not miss). Robinson lives a reclusive life with an adopted young son and a cat. The island is visited only infrequently for harvesting the pomegranate crop, and Robinson, while he lives in a house with many civilised charms (a library - this would certainly help my stay on a desert island) and adequate provisions, does not possess a radio or any means of communicating with the outside world. Robinson is not keen on other people, however the survivors are stranded until the next pomegranate boat arrives in three months' time.
"I wish," said Jimmie, "I stay at home. I commence to think I want my head examined for making this dangerous journey."
"Same here," I said, without really meaning it. I did wish to go home, but not that I had never come away. If I had stayed at home, there might have been a fire in the house, or I might have been run over, or murdered, or have committed a mortal sin. There is no absolute method of judging whether one course of action is less dangerous than another.
As they slowly recover from their injuries, we see a familiar Spark device at work: the reassertion of the survivors' essential, individual personalities. For Spark, the essential core of one's human nature will always overrule any other factors - such as consideration of others or even awareness of the danger that one's less satisfactory characteristics pose to oneself on a desert island. One thinks of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in this regard: it is inevitable that the girl most likely to be burned to death will burn to death; the girl most likely to betray Miss Brodie will do so; and Miss Brodie herself cannot change her own nature. Once Spark's characters on Robinson, temporarily derailed from their everyday trajectories by their injuries (and thus, we are teased, able to change?) are set back on the rails, they fall swiftly back into these ruts (oh dear, the metaphor got away from me), and tragedy is inevitable. 


There are other things going on in this book - the "no man is an island" witticism is also an important key to the book, as is the (obvious) allusion to Robinson Crusoe and his island. Another famous island lurks beneath the text too, that of Shakespeare's Tempest, where the theme of the "sea-change" ("Full fathom five, thy father lies… / Nothing of him that doth fade, / But doth suffer a sea-change / into something rich and strange") is compared to the narrator's reworking of the past in her journal-into-book transformation (and not to the more likely - but totally unlikely in a Spark sense - transmutation in the individual's characters). There is a typical Spark strand of Roman Catholicism going on (Robinson is a near-crazed anti-Marian). 

There is also the question of how reliable a narrator is Mrs Marlow, who makes a big point of creating a journal of exactly what is happening, but who is also suffering from concussion from the plane crash and describes her moods at one point as "not stable at the best of times": "Perhaps we were fairly insufferable." Little repetitions of information nibble away at our faith in her credibility. To what extent is this island "a truth of the mind"? And when Robinson goes missing and the only clue is a trail of blood, the three survivors must ask the question: are they really alone on the island, or is one of them a murderer? 

I wondered if this book also played with Golding's Lord of the Flies, which came out in 1954, and is, of course, another wonderful study of human nature, particularly the inevitable victory of individual interest over collective good. 

Rating: 8/10. Not my favourite Spark so far (more on that later in the week), but pretty close. The cat who plays ping-pong is brilliant, if you like cats who play ping-pong. 

If you liked this... I want to re-read all the island stuff: Donne ("no man is an island"), the Tempest, Robinson Crusoe. You'll note I omit Lord of the Flies which will remind me of  poorly taught English classes at school until my dying day.

12 comments:

  1. Hmmm. I see that the 'lovely logo' dropped out in the editing process. But it really is lovely!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I love this review! I'm so pleased someone wrote about Robinson, because it's one of the Spark novels I know very little about (although I do have it) - I'm especially pleased it was you who wrote about it, because this review captures so much that I love about Spark - plus a cat playing ping-pong!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thank you, Simon - you really must read it as a cat lover (and Spark lover, obviously). The heroine even [OK, partly] ascribes to my theory that cats respond to a particular piece of music (preferably whistled in the case of mine).

    ReplyDelete
  4. This sounds really good; the desert island premise should be very fertile ground for an author like Spark. I'm beginning to wish this was Muriel Spark reading month instead of week, as every book I hear about sounds like something I want to dive into immediately!

    ReplyDelete
  5. I haven't read any of Muriel Spark's writings as her books aren't very easily available where I live. But this review is so persuasive that I can't help feeling somewhat deprived of not having been exposed to any of her books earlier.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Hi Geetanjali - I'm lucky that my university library has plenty of her books, so I am going to read a few more over the coming months. As I'm sure Sophia - thanks Sophia! - would agree, this week has provided so many new temptations! Thank you both for your comments.

    ReplyDelete
  7. You made this sound delightful. I have a cat who plays volleyball and one who plays football... The ping pong palying cat sure appeals to me. But there is more. The intertextuality is interesting. The pomegranate boat strikes me as funny as well.
    It sounds quirky in a positive way.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Ah yes, we've got one quite fond of cricket! It is quite a dark book, but the quirkiness rescues it from being as dark as some of her others.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Miss Jean Brodie is the only Spark I've read, but this week has got me thinking I need another at some point. Love that "fairly insufferable" line.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Thanks Sara C - I felt a bit guilty liking this one a little better than Miss Brodie! The writing in Miss Brodie is magnificent, of course. But no cats with pingpong balls...

    ReplyDelete
  11. Nice review - captures the book, and Spark, very well. I read (and blogged on) this for the Reading Week too.
    I used to have table football playing cats once. I love the way she weaves quirkiness into her books.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you Seamus - I'm off to read your review now.

      Delete

{READ IN 2017}

  • 102.
  • 101.
  • 100.
  • 99. Spy - Bernard Newman
  • 98. Cargo of Eagles - Margery Allingham & Philip Youngman Carter
  • 97. The Mind Readers - Margery Allingham
  • OCTOBER
  • 96. The China Governess - Margery Allingham
  • 95. Hide My Eyes - Margery Allingham
  • 94. The Beckoning Lady - Margery Allingham
  • 93. The Tiger in the Smoke - Margery Allingham
  • 92. More Work for the Undertaker - Margery Allingham
  • SEPTEMBER
  • 91. Coroner's Pidgin - Margery Allingham
  • 90. Traitor's Purse - Margery Allingham
  • 89. The Fashion in Shrouds - Margery Allingham
  • 88. The Case of the Late Pig - Margery Allingham
  • 87. Dancers in Mourning - Margery Allingham
  • AUGUST
  • 86. Flowers for the Judge - Margery Allingham
  • 85. Death of a Ghost - Margery Allingham
  • 84. Sweet Danger - Margery Allingham
  • 83. Police at the Funeral - Margery Allingham
  • 82. Look to the Lady - Margery Allingham
  • 81. Mystery Mile - Margery Allingham
  • 80. The Crime at Black Dudley - Margery Allingham
  • 79. The White Cottage Mystery - Margery Allingham
  • 78. Murder Underground - Mavis Doriel Hay
  • 77. No Man's Land - David Baldacci
  • 76. The Escape - David Baldacci
  • 75. The Forgotten - David Baldacci
  • 74. Zero Day - David Baldacci
  • JULY
  • 73. Pilgrim's Rest - Patricia Wentworth
  • 72. The Case is Closed - Patricia Wentworth
  • 71. The Watersplash - Patricia Wentworth
  • 70. Lonesome Road - Patricia Wentworth
  • 69. The Listening Eye - Patricia Wentworth
  • 68. Through the Wall - Patricia Wentworth
  • 67. Out of the Past - Patricia Wentworth
  • 66. Mistress - Amanda Quick
  • 65. The Black Widow - Daniel Silva
  • 64. The Narrow - Michael Connelly
  • 63. The Poet - Michael Connelly
  • 62. The Visitor - Lee Child
  • 61. No Middle Name: The Complete Collected Jack Reacher Stories - Lee Child
  • JUNE
  • 60. The Queen's Accomplice - Susan Elia MacNeal
  • 59. Mrs Roosevelt's Confidante - Susan Elia MacNeal
  • 58. The PM's Secret Agent - Susan Elia MacNeal
  • 57. His Majesty's Hope - Susan Elia MacNeal
  • 56. Princess Elizabeth's Spy - Susan Elia MacNeal
  • 55. Mr Churchill's Secretary - Susan Elia MacNeal
  • 54. A Lesson in Secrets - Jacqueline Winspear
  • 53. Hit & Run - Lawrence Block
  • 52. Hit Parade - Lawrence Block
  • 51. Hit List - Lawrence Block
  • 50. Six Were Present - E. R. Punshon
  • 49. Triple Quest - E. R. Punshon
  • MAY
  • 48. Dark is the Clue - E. R. Punshon
  • 47. Brought to Light - E. R. Punshon
  • 46. Strange Ending - E. R. Punshon
  • 45. The Attending Truth - E. R. Punshon
  • 44. The Golden Dagger - E. R. Punshon
  • 43. The Secret Search - E. R. Punshon
  • 42. Spook Street - Mick Herron
  • 41. Real Tigers - Mick Herron
  • 40. Dead Lions - Mick Herron
  • 39. Slow Horses - Mick Herron
  • APRIL
  • 38. Everybody Always Tells - E. R. Punshon
  • 37. So Many Doors - E. R. Punshon
  • 36. The Girl with All the Gifts - M. R. Carey
  • 35. A Scream in Soho - John G. Brandon
  • 34. A Murder is Arranged - Basil Thomson
  • 33. The Milliner's Hat Mystery - Basil Thomson
  • 32. Who Killed Stella Pomeroy? - Basil Thomson
  • 31. The Dartmoor Enigma - Basil Thomson
  • 30. The Case of the Dead Diplomat - Basil Thomson
  • 29. The Case of Naomi Clynes - Basil Thomson
  • 28. Richardson Scores Again - Basil Thomson
  • 27. A Deadly Thaw - Sarah Ward
  • MARCH
  • 26. The Spy Paramount - E. Phillips Oppenheim
  • 25. The Great Impersonation - E. Phillips Oppenheim
  • 24. Ragdoll - Daniel Cole
  • 23. The Case of Sir Adam Braid - Molly Thynne
  • 22. The Ministry of Fear - Graham Greene
  • 21. The Draycott Murder Mystery - Molly Thynne
  • 20. The Murder on the Enriqueta - Molly Thynne
  • 19. The Nowhere Man - Gregg Hurwitz
  • 18. He Dies and Makes No Sign - Molly Thynne
  • FEBRUARY
  • 17. Death in the Dentist's Chair - Molly Thynne
  • 16. The Crime at the 'Noah's Ark' - Molly Thynne
  • 15. Harriet the Spy - Louise Fitzhugh
  • 14. Night School - Lee Child
  • 13. The Dancing Bear - Frances Faviell
  • 12. The Reluctant Cannibals - Ian Flitcroft
  • 11. Fear Stalks the Village - Ethel Lina White
  • 10. The Plot - Irving Wallace
  • JANUARY
  • 9. Understood Betsy - Dorothy Canfield Fisher
  • 8. Give the Devil his Due - Sulari Gentill
  • 7. A Murder Unmentioned - Sulari Gentill
  • 6. Dead Until Dark - Charlaine Harris
  • 5. Gentlemen Formerly Dressed - Sulari Gentill
  • 4. While She Sleeps - Ethel Lina White
  • 3. A Chelsea Concerto - Frances Faviell
  • 2. Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul - H. G. Wells
  • 1. Heft - Liz Moore

{READ IN 2016}

  • (K = Kindle; rr = re-read)
  • DECEMBER
  • 92. Richardson's First Case - Basil Thomson [K]
  • 91. The Alington Inheritance - Patricia Wentworth [K; rr]
  • 90. Orphan X - Gregg Hurwitz [K]
  • 89. The House of Godwinsson [Bobby Owen 24] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 88. Music Tells All [Bobby Owen 24] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 87. Helen Passes By [Bobby Owen 23] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • NOVEMBER
  • 86. It Might Lead Anywhere [Bobby Owen 22] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 85. There's a Reason for Everything [Bobby Owen 21] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 84. Secrets Can't Be Kept [Bobby Owen 20] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • OCTOBER
  • 83. Night's Cloak [Bobby Owen 19] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 82. The Conqueror Inn [Bobby Owen 18] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 81. The Diabolic Candelabra [Bobby Owen 17] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 80. The Dark Garden [Bobby Owen 16] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • SEPTEMBER
  • 79. Picture Miss Seeton - Heron Carvic [K]
  • 78. Down Under (Benbow Smith 4) - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 77. Walk with Care (Benbow Smith 3) - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 76. Danger Calling (Benbow Smith 2) - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 75. Fool Errant (Benbow Smith 1) - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 74. The Annam Jewel - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 73. Mr Zero - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 72. Will o' the Wisp - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 71. Red Shadow - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 70. Pursuit of a Parcel (Lamb 3) - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 69. Who Pays the Piper (Lamb 2) - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 68. The Blind Side (Lamb 1) - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 67. Outrageous Fortune - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 66. The Amazing Chance - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 65. Red Stefan - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • AUGUST
  • 64. The Coldstone - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 63. Anne Belinda - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 62. The Black Cabinet - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 61. Hue & Cry - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 60. The Skin Collector - Jeffery Deaver [K]
  • 59. The Kill Room - Jeffery Deaver [K]
  • 58. Nothing Venture - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 57. Kingdom Lost - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 56. Beggar's Choice - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 55. Hole and Corner - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 54. Touch and Go - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 53. The Red Lacquer Case - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 52. Run! - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 51. Fear by Night - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • JULY
  • 50. The Dower House Mystery - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 49. The Astonishing Adventure of Jane Smith - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 48. Weekend with Death - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 47. Blindfold - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 46. Silence in Court - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 45. Acts of the Assassins - Richard Beard [K]
  • JUNE
  • 44. Hack - Kieran Crowley [K]
  • 43. The Portable Veblen - Elizabeth McKenzie [K]
  • 42. The Spirit Murder Mystery - Robin Forsythe [K]
  • MAY
  • 41. The Ginger Cat Mystery - Robin Forsythe [K]
  • 40. The Pleasure Cruise Mystery - Robin Forsythe [K]
  • 39. The Polo Ground Murder - Robin Forsythe [K]
  • APRIL
  • 38. The Outsider - Jason Dean [K]
  • 37. The Hunter's Oath - Jason Dean [K]
  • 36. Missing or Murdered - Robin Forsythe [K]
  • 35. The Beetle - Richard Marsh [K]
  • MARCH
  • 34. A Curious Beginning (Veronica Speedwell 1) - Deanna Raybourn [K]
  • 33. The Chimera Vector - Nathan M. Farrugia [K]
  • 32. An Infamous Army - Georgette Heyer [K]
  • 31. Mr Bazalgette's Agent - Leonard Merrick
  • 30. Don't Tell - Karen Rose [K]
  • 29. Say Goodbye - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 28. Gone - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 27. The Killing Hour - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 26. The Next Accident - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 25. The Third Victim - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • FEBRUARY
  • 24. The Perfect Husband - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 23. Find Her - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 22. Fear Nothing - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 21. Catch Me - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 20. Love You More - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 19. Live to Tell - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 18. The Neighbour - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 17. Hide - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 16. Alone - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 15. The Humans - Matt Haig [K]
  • 14. Utopian Man - Lisa Lang
  • 13. Love Insurance - Earl Derr Biggers [K]
  • JANUARY
  • 12. The Ignition Effect - Viv Ronnebeck [K]
  • 11. My Brilliant Career - Miles Franklin [K]
  • 10. Dangerous & Unseemly - K. B. Owen [K]
  • 9. In Bitter Chill - Sarah Ward [K[
  • 8. Half a Crown - Jo Walton [K]
  • 7. Ha'penny - Jo Walton [K]
  • 6. Hilda Wade: A Woman with Tenacity of Purpose - Grant Allen [K]
  • 5. The Case of William Smith - Patricia Wentworth [K; rr]
  • 4. Blue Murder - Harriet Rutland [K]
  • 3. Bleeding Hooks - Harriet Rutland [K]
  • 2. Knock, Murderer, Knock! - Harriet Rutland [K]
  • 1. Ten Star Clues [Bobby Owen 15] - E. R. Punshon [K]