The Art of the Novelistic Vignette–Muriel Spark’s “Reality and Dreams”

As we are all aware, chacun à son gout, or de gustibus non est disputandum; in other words, there’s no accounting for tastes.  We all like different things, and no doubt that’s as it should be,  to allow all the many different things in our world to thrive and flourish.  As Robert Louis Stevenson also put it, in his A Child’s Garden of Verse, which first expressed the matter to me when I was quite young, “The world is so full of a number of things/That I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.”  So, why am I not entirely happy with Muriel Spark’s shortish novel Reality and Dreams, especially since it is so relatively short that any readerly boredom and pain incurred in reading it could certainly not be long-lived?  I can’t answer that question without referring to the movies, and since that’s what the book centers around, a span of time in the life of a British movie director obsessed with his work and his own legend, perhaps that’s entirely as it should be as well.

There’s a movie I’ve heard of but have (thankfully) never seen:  I’ve heard that Andy Warhol once filmed an eight-hour movie of someone sleeping.  And that’s what the movie was, simply the encapsulated experience of watching someone sleep.  I cannot imagine how unutterably boring it must have been to watch, but I have to confess that I thought of that movie when suffering my way slowly through the longueurs of Spark’s novel.  For, it operates similarly in the sense that it is composed of a series of vignettes, painted on the stage scenery of our minds, by a largely omniscient narrator, with a great deal of telling and not much showing.  Before I proceed, let me say that I have no objection to omniscient narrators and have at times found the opposite tactics, those of stream-of-consciousness or limited points of view, equally boring in other cases.  Nor do I have enshrined in my temple of taste E. M. Forster’s long ago preference for showing over telling, which so many writers took as gospel until now it is once again starting to be questioned or even to fall in disfavor.  I simply am describing some qualities of the book in enumerating these characteristics.

There is a great deal of reported dialogue in the book, in fact much of the book centers on what people say to each other about themselves and others and there are only brief spans when we learn from the narrative what they felt.  In any case, when we do learn something felt, there is no analysis of it in the omniscient voice, which is surely a neglected opportunity, since it can be one of the genuine pleasures inherent in reading about characters in this mode, to hear a voice-over analysis of  their feelings as a continuation of being told what their feelings are.

The story centers around an accident to the director of films, the main character Tom Richards, and his recuperation, his “redundancy” period (for non-Britishers, “redundancy” is becoming officially unemployed), and the resumption of his film career.  His fall from a high crane while filming is the cause of his accident, and towards the end of the novel, we see his disaffected daughter Marigold and a minor disgruntled starlet and a previous husband of a woman the director has slept with plotting to sabotage a second crane again to injure or to kill him, but interestingly enough (and that the writer chose largely to write around these opportunities is more interesting than what she actually did; one wonders at her choice), the starlet is actually the one who falls and is instantly killed, and Tom Richards at the end of the novel is going on his merry way, continuing his typical life as before his accident.

What the novel centers around instead are the conversation and conflicts inherent in the pairings and re-pairings of the characters Tom, his family and friends, and co-workers, who in their personal lives act a lot like a set of spoiled children, and they are of course the spoiled darlings of the screen, so there’s nothing inherently wrong with that choice.  It’s just that there’s so much of it that it itself becomes “redundant.”  Tom and his wife Claire are serially unfaithful to each other but happy together with this arrangement, but Tom himself cannot even be faithful to a mistress whom he is otherwise obsessed with.  “But he was Tom Richards; he could not help his moods,” we are told.  Even his children are part and parcel of the series of ironies visited upon the characters of the book.  One of the best moments of the book occurs when his daughter Marigold resurfaces after a mysterious long absence; it turns out that she has been living in tent cities and camper communities with those who, like her father, have lost their jobs, but who unlike her father are not rich and therefore have her sympathy.  The headline we are asked to imagine reads:  “Millionaire Film Magnate’s daughter lives rough to show solidarity with the out-of-works.”  She certainly has little or no sympathy with her father.

Probably what I miss the most from the potentialities of this book is more exploration of the spirituality inherent in two statements made tantalizingly at the very front and at the very back of the book.  The first line of this book about a director who thinks he is something like a minor god reads:  “He often wondered if we were all characters in one of God’s dreams.”  In the last paragraph of the book, Claire, Tom’s wife, is pouring drinks for herself, Tom, and their daughter Cora from Tom’s other marriage.  The last sentence reads, “Both Tom and Cora felt her strength and courage sustaining them, here in the tract of no-man’s land between dreams and reality, reality and dreams.”  There is no question but what Muriel Spark has mastered the art of the novelistic vignette, which often reads so like dialogue and stage directions from a play.  But why, oh why, I ask myself, didn’t she make more of the potentialities inherent in her novel as she began and ended it?  And for that, I have no ready answer, except “There’s no accounting for tastes.”  That’s evidently just not what she wanted to write about!

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Filed under Articles/reviews, Literary puzzles and arguments, What is literature for?

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