It’s been a long time since I read any Muriel Spark, so I had forgotten just how weird she can be. But even if I’d remembered, I doubt I would have been prepared for the sheer outrageous weirdness of The Hothouse by the East River.
For most of the novel it feels like we are reading a fairly straightforward realist novel with one odd twist that may be a factor in the psychological disconnect of one of the two central characters. Spark was never one for long descriptive scenes, for painting in the landscape or building up the social context within which her novel is set. Practically all of the work is done by dialogue (the speakers practically always at odds with each other or misinterpreting what is said) or by brief interior monologues. So we know this novel is set in New York, primarily in an apartment overlooking the East River, and the time is roughly contemporaneous with when the book was written in the early 1970s, but Spark wastes no time telling us what New York is like or what the apartment is like, or filling in details of costume or politics or anything else that might fix the period. What we get, as in so many of Spark’s novels, is effectively a handful of talking heads standing in front of a blank screen. And because there is no effort to establish the minutiae of their world, for a long time it is easy to ignore or misinterpret the signs that all is not right.
This, then, is the story of Paul and Elsa Hazlett. They met during the Second World War when they were both working for intelligence in England, but now they are living in New York, in an apartment where they cannot control the heat, and their marriage has grown old and tired. Somewhere along the way, Elsa has acquired an immense amount of money, though we never get any idea of where that money comes from. They have two grown-up children, Pierre and Katarina, though they appear to be disaffected and have grown away from the family, though still dependent on their parents for money. At some point in the not too distant past, Elsa was hospitalised for some unspecified mental health problems, the circumstances of this seem to have driven a wedge between the couple. Although Elsa is now regularly seeing a therapist, Garven, Paul remains convinced that her mental problems are recurring. As things develop, however, it is Paul’s mental health that most worries the reader.
Oh, yes, before I forget, that oddity: Elsa’s shadow goes the wrong way. Instead of falling away from the light, her shadow stretches towards it. Everybody notices this, but nobody remarks on it, only Paul seems to think there is anything wrong. Though time and again we are made aware of the fact that people tend to walk around her shadow rather than cross it. Is this wrong-way shadow a manifestation of Elsa’s mental ills, or is it perhaps a sign that the world Paul sees is wrong?
In truth, we fairly quickly become convinced that it is the latter. Never trust Muriel Spark.
The story begins when Elsa is buying a new pair of shoes. The assistant who serves her, Mueller, could be Helmut Kiel, a German spy that they both knew during the war. In the months preceding D-Day, they had worked for an allied intelligence unit where German prisoners-of-war were persuaded to transmit misleading messages back to Germany. But Kiel had somehow managed to undermine their efforts. At the same time, Paul was convinced that Elsa had an affair with Kiel, or perhaps it was with their colleague Miles Bunting, or possibly even with the security officer, Colonel Tylden. When Elsa tells Paul about the shop assistant, he is sure that it really must be Kiel, and that consequently his own life must be in danger. It matters not how often he is told that Kiel died in prison after the war, or that Kiel would be much older than Mueller now is, it is impossible to shake his conviction. Paul, meanwhile, becomes ever more puzzled at the way nobody else seems to appreciate the danger he now faces.
And all the while the shadows of the past gather close around them. Elsa’s closest friend, Princess Xavier, was also one of their colleagues at the intelligence unit. Their son, Pierre, stages a ludicrous production of Peter Pan in which all of the roles are played by actors over 60, and the leading part, Peter Pan himself, is played by Miles Bunting. And even Tylden suddenly appears out of nowhere.
Meanwhile the therapist, Garven, the supposed voice of sanity in the midst of all of this, is himself behaving in an increasingly bizarre way. In a carefully controlled scene of escalating and hilarious mayhem (did I mention that the novel is very funny? Well, it is Muriel Spark, after all), Elsa’s maid quits, and Garven ends up taking on the role of the family butler. In that role he can observe, at close hand, Paul’s increasing paranoia, and Elsa’s increasing detachment from reality. But his observations only make him the more disordered and dubious. By now everyone in the novel has become disconnected from reality, and when Paul starts to insist that Elsa is really dead, we’re inclined to believe him. Except that we still haven’t glimpsed the full story.
It’s only short, this novel, just 140 pages, yet there is so much packed into it that it seems to be much longer. A scathing satire on new world wealth and on the failures of wartime intelligence, lacerating sideswipes at avant garde theatre and at the practices of psychiatrists and analysts; a realist novel that takes us further away from reality with every page that passes. It’s wonderful and mad and I really mustn’t let so much time pass before I read more by Muriel Spark.