Saturday, 23 May 2009

42. Muriel Spark - 'The Leaf-Sweeper' (1952)

'But it was still misty, and really, I can't say whether, when I looked a second time, there were two men or one man sweeping the leaves.'
(Muriel Spark, The Complete Short Stories, Penguin, 2001, p.190)

I had little or no idea what this was going to be about, or like; a good way to finish this extended week of stories from favoured writers. If a week is a long time in politics, I am not sure what Harold Wilson would make of my progress with this. I only got around to completing this story on Thursday 16th of July - as you will see the post has lain dormant for quite some time. ASSAD will reconvene shortly, on a week by week basis, perhaps without a theme to begin with - let's just get things started again!

In truth, I shifted to novel reading: Grant Allen, John Verney, Sjowall and Wahloo, E. Nesbit, Donald Barthelme... and only on Thursday managed to get around to reading this piece. One recent novel read spurred the choice of Spark, a new favourite: her Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960), 64 years on, a distinct, droller bedfellow of Allen's The British Barbarians. This is a strain of literature probing the English in particular, their foibles, hypocrisies and absurdities. Dougal Douglas, like Bertram Ingledew, a stranger in a foreign land, is regarded with a mixture of fascination, admiration, horror and incomprehension - and like Ingledew, his role is freelance agent provocateur, sprite-at-large, observing . He is, however, more devious and machiavellian in his means of exposing folly and involving himself in these people's lives. He also takes on paid employment, given the brief of almost a 'blue skies thinker' in the modern parlance; he is given the task of taking the pulse of the workplace and approaches it in an idiosyncratic manner the bosses accept due to their perception of this Scot as an 'Arts Man'.

'The Leaf-Sweeper' is an even earlier work from Spark's career of over fifty years, published originally in The Observer - and will be far from the last I will read (there is an allegory of Watergate in a nunnery, a fictionalised account of Lord Lucan's later life and, of course, a certain novel that was filmed about a schoolmistress with fascist fixations... plz feel free to recommend any more, anyone!). She seems to me to be one of the key post-WW2 writers, along with Angus Wilson, Kingsley Amis &c.

The first thing to state about this story is that, like TBOPR, this is bloody funny - Spark has an understated way with insinuation and absurdity. The premise itself rings true in its absurdity - the leaf-sweeper turns out to be an author and fanatic recently released from a mental institution. Johnnie Geddes's fanaticism revolves around his unshakeable opposition to Christmas and all its works. He has some success with pamphlets on the subject and then full-length books (including Abolish Christmas or We Die) outlining his apocalyptic vision, captured amusingly by Spark: 'He cites appalling statistics to show that 1.024 per cent of the time squandered each Christmas in reckless shopping and thoughtless Churchgoing brings the nation closer to its doom by five years.' The effect is all the stronger because he rather has a point!

Spark introduces the concept succinctly and without ceremony - with something of the matter-of-fact quality that I observed in Dahl; after establishing the rather wistful, grounded scene of a man sweeping leaves in the mist for the local council, she throws in this: 'He looks much older than he is, for it is not quite twenty years ago that Johnnie founded the Society for the Abolition of Christmas.' (p.185) It gets one intrigued, right from the off, and Spark goes on to cover a lot of ground in a mere six pages. We get to know very little about the narrator who encounters Johnnie, and it simply does not matter in a vignette such as this is.

Quite how Spark turns it into a ghost-story is ingenious; amusing and melancholy at the same time: 'But perhaps you don't know how repulsive and loathsome is the ghost of a living man. The ghosts of the dead may be all right, but the ghost of mad Johnnie gave me the creeps.' (p.189)

1 comment:

  1. Does anyone know what the theme of the leaf-sweeper is?