Wednesday, 25 April 2012

The Go-Away Bird

The Go-Away Bird - Muriel Spark

This collection of short stories shows Spark's range. The go-away bird of the title is 'the grey-crested lourie', a bird who's call seems to be "go'way, go'way". There are eleven stories in this collection, originally published in a variety of places and they are varied but with some recurring themes.

I really enjoyed this book -  it is full of energy and oddness. I have decided to post a little piece on each story rather than try to come up with a unified theory of everything.

The Black Madonna
There are some interesting parallels in this book with contemporaneous novel Robinson. Both have idolatry of the Virgin Mary at their core. In Robinson the owner of the titular island, also called Robinson, has exiled himself from the world largely because of his issues with idolatry, seeing it as cultish, pagan and threatening to his faith.

Here, a Madonna is sculpted from a piece of bog oak found in Ireland. This is also the source of the "large proportion of Roman Catholics" in the "new town of Whitley Bay" which is a result of the large number of nurses (many of whom would have been Irish at the time) and people "drawn inland from Liverpool" a city whose character and famous Scouse accent has been hugely influenced by the enormous amounts of Irish who settled there both at the time of The Great Famine and afterwards.

The sculpture is left black and is not draped because "If you start dressing it up in cloth you'll spoil the line." It attracts people from as far afield as London "as to a museum", people who the priest thinks have "probably no religion at all, poor souls, though gifted with faculties."  However it is not it's artistic value that is central to this story but it's apparent power to grant wishes.

The story also includes that oddity, a childless Catholic couple. Their status has allowed them to purchase things their neighbours can't afford, and the time to "expand themselves in the way of taste". They have no "television receiver", "they considered  television not their sort of thing, they adhered to their religion; they voted Labour; they believed that the twentieth century was the best so far; they assented to the doctrine of original sin; they frequently applied the word 'Victorian' to ideas and people they did not like.." They even have some Jamaicans friends - they are after all "no different from anyone else."

Spark burns away the  layers of comfort  covering some buried prejudices which emerge to "spoil the line". Throughout, Spark's lines are immaculate.

The Pawnbroker's Wife
A quirky tale set "on the coast of the Cape of Good Hope" explores the hitching together of tedious respectability and artless fabulity. The idea of idolatry arises again as items which have been pawned into the shop of the stories' name giver are represented by her and her daughters as being that which they are not. Mostly this is to back up their image of the youngest daughter as being above anyone else and a sure bet to be in the 'films' etc. One of the items is a compass and there's a sense that most of the characters have lost their compasses of the moral variety.

The Twins
Parent's always believe the best about their children - but is it always true? Stephen King amy have been taking notes (or he may not!) Shares with The Pawnbroker's Wife a sense of how a family can decide their own truth and exclude those outsiders who don't buy into it.

Miss Pinkerton's Apocalypse
Is this flying saucer Spode or Royal Worcester?

'A Sad Tale's Best for Winter'
On the contemplation of corruption while in a state of sobriety.

The Go-Away Bird
 Vengeance burns long and slow on the Veldt; any kind of innocence will be leveraged by London Landladies and who knows where a novelist will find their inspiration.
And all the while the 'the grey-crested lourie' calls "go'way, go'way"

Daisy Overend
The narrator takes a job with Daisy Overend "to help with some committee work." "It was the literature of politics and the politics of literature which occupied Daisy and thus she bamboozled many politicians who thought she was a writer, and writers who believed her to be a political theorist." Things don't go too well and the job lasts three days.

You Should Have Seen the Mess
Cleanliness is next to loneliness.

Come Along, Marjorie
Taking a rest cure at an abbey, the Sparkian heroine finds that control can be dangerously close to its opposite.

The Seraph and The Zambesi
Dancing, fire and chasing an angel over the Victoria Falls.

The Portobello Road
Needle in a haystack and at the Portobello Road market. A supernatural murder mystery.

My reading of this book was inspired by The Muriel Spark Reading Week hosted by Stuck in a Book and Harriet Devine's Blog


  1. Great overview! I can't remember if I still have this edition, or whether I gave it away when I got the collected stories of Spark. As it is, I've only read one story by her ('You Should Have Seen The Mess') which someone mentioned to me on Twitter. Now I want to read more - with her economic prose, she'd be great.

    1. I'll be getting the collected stories if I see them. You should read some more - some are very, very economical.

  2. I've got this and I think now I should rather have read this that Territorial Rights, although, once again, there are similarities but that's because she has a very special way to write.
    I've read a review of Robinson which sounded great, I would be particularly keen on reading the first story.
    The Twins and The Pawnbroker's Wife sound excellent as well.

    1. Caroline - I haven't done justice to all the stories - the title story is really good. Some are very short and quirky and I guess I was trying to echo that in my own small way.

  3. Muriel Spark's novels are so varied and eccentric, I bet she would be marvellous at short stories. I really want to get this now!

    1. She was recognized firstly as a short story writer - and I can see why. Many of her strengths as a novelist apply very well to the short story form.