I first read Muriel Spark eight years ago in a small town by a river, a town in which I was at that time living. I worked in the public library on the French side of town three days a week and once a week frequented the public library on the English side of town. Time passed as I moved between the two buildings, the former located at the top of a hill, the latter at the bottom of that same hill. It was in this library, which is to say the library at the bottom of the hill, and which overlooked the river, in fact most things in the town overlooked the river, or else the trees, or else expanses of gravel that were perhaps car parks, that I found a copy of The Girls of Slender Means. I can’t recall the time of year, although it’s true everything has its season, in other words there’s a time for everything, but I do remember how I felt in those days. I felt then like I could see my life rolling out in front of me, and it looked like the street on which I then lived, with the blue and green and white houses and the red and yellow doors. And I could discern in the distance the seasons rolling in, and the apples falling in the orchard, and the windows freezing shut, and the blue smell of spring, and the children in the wading pool in the baked summer light. And I knew that underneath it all was the savage secrecy of simple things. During this time I was nominally trying to think through the relationship between language and suffering. If violence was distinguished by its instrumental character… What was it? Was it that I believed in everyday suffering? I wanted my body to become a vehicle for the pure idea. I wanted to eradicate the sadness I felt since I was a girl but that seemed to me now an extravagance. All the same, as I poured the coffee each morning, I wondered, What’s going to happen? And so you see I loved the lovely, brutal girls of slender means. I loved Selina Redwood’s affective austerity, her esoteric studies of poise and their attendant invocations of complete composure, her dedication to composing herself through composing herself. I loved her like I love so many of Spark’s women, women who are accustomed to staking out the perimeter of their days, women who work to preserve a spare, inviolate centre.
In The Girls of Slender Means, Selina’s actions are carried out according to some secret logic that, although indecipherable to the men around her, retains its integrity. And anyway, as one poet asks, what use is intelligibility in the disaster we can’t contemplate? Played out against Nicholas’s excessive and devouring feeling, his desire to break her and break her in, Selina’s coolness, her obscure and disconnected utterances, are strategies of resistance. Nicholas reflects that he wants to ‘convert her soul’, wants to have her confess, but why should she accede? An appeal to the truth, after all, is scarcely the prerogative of a society which coerces its members to own up the better to hunt them down.
For a year all I did in that town by the river was read: I read at work, I read at home, I read uphill and down, I real early in the morning, and I also read late into the night when I was on the shift for the rape crisis hotline. I read in hospital waiting rooms and on buses. I read for ways of preserving that spare and inviolate centre. I was so full of stories that I was choking them back up, but whose were they and what, in the end, did they amount to? So many lives one’s single life contains. I was looking for a language and for a way of being and feeling in the world that could communicate the violently secular eternities, that could convey that there, behind every mood, is rage.
What is this language? It’s a language of no. It’s a language carved out by a long-term grinding down, a drip drip drip, and it’s a language that’s constituted of associated little refusals. In Ugly Feelings, Sianne Ngai writes about a series of bad feelings that are creative and political in that they are underlined by refusal: a refusal to perform affect in specific ways, which is also a refusal to stick to the script. The poet Anne Boyer calls these feelings dramatisations of ‘just not’: ‘History’, she writes, ‘is full of people who just didn’t. They said no, thank you, turned away, escaped to the desert, lived in barrels, burned down their own houses, killed their rapists, pushed away dinner, meditated into the light’. No in this case is self-preservation, it’s a turning away from the social contract, a way of being at odds with what Boyer calls the ‘merciless and circulatory conditions of all the capitalist yes’. I found this no in Spark’s refusalist fictions, her refusing women. Selina slips out of the burning building holding the Schiaparelli dress, and she eludes us. She stays intact, above water, herself. We can’t get to the bottom of her. No is a selective, cultivated cruelty. The mechanics of the moral imagination of Spark’s women involve an unspoken inconsistency: although they are in solidarity, they remain solitary. Their solidarity depends upon a kind of intransigence, detachment, even a meanness. The vital thing, the absolutely most vital thing, is not to let anybody get to the bottom of you.
An example. It is not that the sound of a woman’s neighbour’s weeping through the wall gives her pleasure, exactly, it is not as if one could say that her neighbour’s weeping is as music to her ears, at the same time, her instinctive and implicit refusal to engage with his, which is to say the neighbour’s sorrows gives her a kind of gratification. Her whole life long she has listened to the tragic life stories of various men, their trials tribulations, how at school they had been puny, weak or stupid, how their peers had held them in contempt, how women, particularly their mothers, had held them in contempt. She has watched as these stories are deployed as alibis for all kinds of crimes and misdemeanours that they had committed and would continue to commit for the rest of their lives. And so, as her neighbour weeps on the other side of the wall, as she silently repudiates him, the woman might feel content. She does not need him to recount the particulars of his sadness. In the first place, a few days earlier she had overheard him through the wall, screaming at his mother and teenaged sister who had come to visit him for a first and no doubt final time. There was a daughter somewhere, one he was not allowed to see, perhaps the sister was in fact his own daughter, in any event, his family stayed on through an afternoon during which time he held them responsible for his misery, alternately bellowing and beating on the wall connecting the two flats.
How might one talk about an experience that, without having been defined, nonetheless sets effective limits on one’s life? One hopes in one’s heart of hearts for some salutary logic that is not forthcoming. One tries in vain to move beyond the misfortune of one’s girlhood; instead one spends one’s life desiring absolutely and forever the revelation of a moment. When the hotline phone rang in the middle of the night, in the town by the river where I then lived, I sometimes thought, If I could be quiet, if I could be still, perhaps I would learn the words that I had been waiting for all along, as I rolled through my life like a marble on a track, only momentum carrying it forward, only the left and right hands of chance and circumstance moving it this way and then that. I shouldn’t overstate the significance of this. All the same, do you see how it is significant? When is it that our ruin takes root?
Please forgive me. I was not born with an instinct for pleasure.
Sarah Bernstein is from Montreal. Her work has appeared in publications like tender, Cumulus, Adjacent Pineapple and Contemporary Women’s Writing. Her first book, Now Comes the Lightening, was published in 2015 by Pedlar Press. She has recently completed the manuscript for a novel called The Coming Bad Days.
A version of ‘Mostly No’ was presented by Sarah Bernstein at the Narrative Experiments event held in August 2018 at the Glasgow Women’s Library. Part of Muriel Spark 100, this programme, curated by Hannah Van Hove, was funded by Creative Scotland and supported by MAP, the National Library of Scotland and the Glasgow Women’s Library.