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The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark

We know we are in for an interesting read when we find this near the start of the novel:

As they realised themselves in varying degrees, few people alive at the time were more delightful, more ingenious, more movingly lovely, and, as it might happen, more savage, than the girls of slender means. (9)

The time is 1945. The ‘savage’ girls live in the May of Teck Club which exists for

The Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years …(9)

This is my second contribution to #ReadingMuriel2018, hosted by Heavenali. Memento Mori had older people as its subjects while The Girls of Slender Means are young. I plan to reading more of Muriel Spark’s work – she wrote 22 novels – in this anniversary year of her birth.

The story of The Girls of Slender Means

The events in the Club in Kensington occur between VE Day and VJ Day in 1945, but also at a later date. A number of young women live in the Club, on the lower floors in dormitories but increasing in social standing as the accommodation rises to the fourth floor. There are many young women, and our attention is drawn in particular to Selina the beautiful one, Jane the fat one doing ‘brain’ work and Joanna who, having failed in love has come to London and teaches elocution. Joanna recites poetry throughout. There are lesser characters, such as the older women including Greggie who manages the garden and claims there is an UXB buried there.

The young women are obsessed with having a good time now and expect their futures, with suitable young men, to come along in due course.

Love and money were the vital themes in all the bedrooms and dormitories. (26)

Men are attracted to the hostel. Nicholas Farringdon is a poet philosopher ne’er-do-well. We learn that after the events of the novel he converted to Catholicism and martyred in Haiti. This is reported by Jane to one of the other survivors of the disaster at the May of Teck Cub.

Jane is employed by a dodgy publisher to write letters to authors so that he can sell their replies. You know he is dodgy because he changes his name every two years and has abandoned two of his three wives. Jane’s activities are referred to, by her, as brain work. Her employer asks her to investigate Farringdon and so he comes to the Club and falls for Selina. None of the young women really have a handle on the world, and they are too naïve to know it. Jane, for example, naïve in 1945, is really on the make as much as her publisher boss. In the later time frame of the novel, after Farringdon’s death, we find she is collecting material for a feature on him.

There is a role for a Schiaparelli dress, passed around the young women for various activities and stolen by Selina under cover of the chaos of the building as it collapses.

And there is a part for a skylight out onto a flat roof. The girls are forbidden to use it, but some of the most slender are able to slip through the opening, others have to smear their bodies with cold cream or margarine. It is the focus of the climax of the novel.

Some reactions

I really enjoyed Muriel Sparks’s spikey style. Her descriptions of people nearly always include a twist, undercutting what on the surface.

Her description of war-battered London is a marvel of compression. Here is the novel’s opening paragraph:

Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions. The streets of the cities were lined with buildings in bad repair or in no repair at all, bomb-sites piled with stony rubble, houses like giant teeth in which decay had been drilled out, leaving only the cavity. Some bomb-ripped buildings looked like the ruins of ancient castles until, at a closer view, the wall-papers of various quite normal rooms would be visible, room above room, exposed, as on a stage, with one wall missing; sometimes a lavatory chain would dangle over nothing from a fourth- or fifth-floor ceiling; most of all the staircases survived, like a new art-form, leading up and up to an unspecified destination that made unusual demands on the mind’s eye. All the nice people were poor; at least, that was a general axiom, the best of the rich being poor in spirit. (7)

And the novel ends with the words ‘long ago in 1945’ (142). The focus is on the poverty of spirit of the young women emphasised in those not so far off days.

A review in the New York Times in 1963 by Virgilia Peterson points to the qualities of this novel, at the time of its publication.

A review that captures the social nuances of the May of Teck Club can be found on Jacquiwine’s Journal blog (from July 2017).

The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark (1963) Penguin 142pp

More Muriel Spark

The first of my contributions to #ReadingMuriel2018 was Memento Mori by Muriel Spark first published in 1959. I read the Virago version.

In May/June I will read and report on a novel by Muriel Spark from the ‘70s. Any recommendations?

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A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin

I became aware of a twitter stir about this book last autumn. The title struck me as original, but I had never heard of the author. Eventually I wrote it on my tbr list, and soon after that requested it from my local library. Here it is and I must give it back after only 3 weeks because another reader has reserved it.

237 Manual cover

What have we here?

43 short stories by an American writer who died in 2004. Lucia Berlin was known and admired by some, but with the publication of this collection it is expected she will have something of a renaissance.

Many of the stories appear to be based on her own life. The same characters and situations are revisited: her sister dying of cancer in Mexico City, receptionist job in a doctor’s surgery, Oakland, Boulder. The blurb and introduction by Stephen Emerson tell us something of her life: three husbands, four sons, alcoholism, conquering alcoholism, an itinerant life.

The stories show the writer’s ability to enter the lives of her characters, sometimes two in one story. And some read almost as if she had responded to people saying oh, you should write a story about that.

The stories

A collection with 43 stories has many themes: living at the very bottom of the heap, needing to find a few coins to get the next bottle, knowing exactly when each liquor stores opens in the morning, the consequences of ignorance and naivety in a cruel world, illness, exploitation, and above all addiction.

I lost count of the stories in which addiction, usually to alcohol but also to heroin, rob the characters of their humanity. They abandoned self-respect, they are exploited and betrayed, and they suffer.

Yet these are not stories of misery. She also observes many actions of extreme kindness and generosity: the tenderness and attention to the sister who is dying of cancer; people who stay after hours, persuade others to do a little more for the unfortunates, the friendships made.

502 is a story about the protection given by four older guys to Miss Lou. The men re alcoholics who spent their days in a broken down old car. Their joshing made it impossible for the local policeman to prosecute Miss Lou for a driving offence. Some bonds are forged in extremis. And the sting in the tale of the story is that Officer Wong was known to be a kind cop.

As the stories follow one another, however, the reader accumulates a picture of the precariousness of life, how easily people can be tripped up and betrayed and end up in desperate situations.

237 Lucia-Berlins

The writing

Lucia Berlin writes with little outward emotion, almost deadpan, but she makes circumstances clear. Silence is a story about her beloved Uncle John, an important person in her childhood in a dysfunctional family. But out in the truck with him one day she witnesses him hurting a dog and a boy in an accident. He does not stop and nothing is said. The reader wonders about all this until the end of the story, when the narrator, now an adult catches up with her elderly uncle. ‘Of course by this time I had realised all the reasons why he couldn’t stop the truck, because by this time I was an alcoholic.’ (332).

Writing about very painful things is hard to do well. Lucia Berlin does not overwrite, and the evenness of the distance she keeps us from her events and characters heightens the pain, the despair. Without commentary she observe the small details of life that tell of bigger things. She trusts her readers to approach the stories intelligently, lets us do some of the work.

The title story is a masterpiece: saying things while writing about others. It has humour, wit and acute observation. The narrator used to be much better off, but now must join those who use public transport, must earn their living cleaning up after profligate people. She sees the dirty side of life. Here are some extracts from A Manual for Cleaning Women.

This practice tells you all you need to know about the cleaning woman and her relationship with her employers:

The minute I get to work, I first check out where the watches are, the rings, the gold lame evening purses. Later when they come running in all puffy and red-faced I just coolly say, “Under your pillow, behind the avocado toilet.” All I really steal is sleeping pills, saving up for a rainy day. (27)

She describes how to get your employer to notice your work.

My masterpiece in this area was when I cleaned the top of Mrs Burke’s refrigerator. She sees everything, but if I hadn’t left the flashlight on she would have missed the fact that I scoured and re-oiled the waffle iron, mended the geisha girl, and washed the flashlight as well. (35)

And the misunderstandings, in this case in the home of a pair of psychiatrists:

Once I bought Natasha, four years old, a black sequined blouse. For dress-up. Ms Dr Blum got furious and hollered that it was sexist. For a minute I thought she was accusing me of trying to seduce Natasha. She threw the blouse in the garbage. I retrieved it later and wear it now, sometimes, for dress-up. (32)

And a typical acute observation:

Women’s voices always rise two octaves when they talk to cleaning women and cats. (31)

These extracts also illustrate two particular skills of Lucia Berlin: the use of lists and her deadpan humour. Try her!

A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin. Published in 2015 by Picador 399pp

Related

You can read one short story – Friends – on Vice website here.

Dwight Garner’s review in the New York Times from August 2015.

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