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.


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

  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!

  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).

  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!

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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...

  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.

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


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