As early as 1965, Muriel Spark had a title in mind for a new book. That title was Hothouse East River. The novel itself, however, would not appear until 1973, much changed from its original incarnation, as Spark herself would confide during a 1970 interview with the Guardian newspaper: “I’m so interested in the present tense that I’ve redone a book I’ve been working on for three years, The Hot House by the East River, and put it all in the present tense.” The present tense gives the illusion of immediacy and veracity – this story is happening right now, in real time. Spark had used the present tense to good effect in The Driver’s Seat (1970) and Not to Disturb (1971). The first of those books was chilling in the extreme, the second an almost theatrical farce. The Hothouse by the East River would combine elements of both.
For a few years in the 1960s, Spark made Manhattan her home. The New Yorker magazine had helped cement her fame in the US by publishing the near complete text of her novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in a single issue (14 October 1961), and a dedicated office, redecorated to her taste, was held for her within the magazine’s HQ should she ever need to use it. Yet the novel she would eventually pen about New York would be one of her strangest, most jarring works, painting an unflattering portrait of the city’s wealthier denizens and their spiritually empty lives.
Elsa is a socialite. She came from nothing and apparently made her fortune from real estate – though the details are kept hazy, for reasons which eventually become apparent. Her husband Paul thinks she is mad. She stares out of the window of their apartment at nothing in particular for hours on end, and reckons that the shoe salesman she met at the start of the story is actually a German POW, Kiel, she and Paul worked alongside at a black ops site in England during World War Two. (Spark herself worked in just such a facility, as part of a team which sent transmissions to Europe in the guise of a German radio station. Spark, when not at her desk, would take the prisoners for walks in the countryside, just as Elsa used to do.) But the shoe salesman, Paul reasons, cannot be Kiel – he is far too young. Elsa, however, is sure she is right, while her analyst Garven is more interested in his client’s shadow, which always falls the wrong way. Elsa and Paul’s son Pierre, meantime, is putting together a stage version of JM Barrie’s Peter Pan, in which all the roles will be played by geriatrics. Is Elsa then a Peter Pan figure herself, whose shadow has not been sewn back correctly? Is she living in a Neverland of her own construction?
Peter Pan haunts this short, troublesome novel, as does the ghost of The Great Gatsby, alongside echoes of Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’. It is not a story to wear its borrowings lightly, but retains an atmosphere all of its own. The dialogue belongs to the Theatre of the Absurd: language falls apart; meaning becomes elusive or elliptical. The book opens with the shoe salesman Kiel telling Elsa that the pair she is trying on ‘fit like a glove’, in an echo of the opening of The Driver’s Seat. The seemingly neurotic Elsa feels like a close cousin to Lise in that earlier book, but Spark’s style has altered somewhat. The flash-forwards of The Driver’s Seat – we learn what is to be Lise’s fate as early as chapter three – are resisted here. The mystery will only slowly be solved by reader and characters both, and at the end we may still not be entirely clear what has just occurred.
Between publication of The Driver’s Seat and Hothouse Spark gave a speech to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. It was published as The Desegregation of Art and clarifies the novelist’s objectives at the time, so much so that it is worth quoting from at length:
“I only say that the art and literature of sentiment and emotion, however beautiful in itself, however striking in its depiction of actuality, has to go. It cheats us into a sense of involvement with life and society, but in reality it is a segregated activity. In its place I advocate the arts of satire and of ridicule. And I see no other living art form for the future . . . I would like to see in all forms of art and letters, ranging from the most sophisticated and high achievements to the placards that the students carry about the street, a less impulsive generosity, a less indignant representation of social injustice, and a more deliberate cunning, a more derisive undermining of what is wrong. I would like to see less emotion and more intelligence in these efforts to impress our minds and hearts . . . The only effective art of our particular time is the satirical, the harsh and witty, the ironic and derisive. Because we have come to a moment in history when we are surrounded on all sides and oppressed by the absurd . . . The rhetoric of our times should persuade us to contemplate the ridiculous nature of the reality before us, and teach us to mock it . . . To bring about a mental environment of honesty and self-knowledge, a sense of the absurd and a general looking-lively to defend ourselves from the ridiculous oppressions of our time, and above all to entertain us in the process, has become the special calling of arts and letters.”
I wonder what Spark would do with the world of 2017 and 2018; I wish she were around to answer that.
The Hothouse by the East River - Chapter One
If it were only true that all’s well that ends well, if only it were true.
She stamps her right foot.
She says, ‘I’ll try the other one,’ sitting down to let the salesman lift her left foot and nicely interlock it with the other shoe.
He says, ‘They fit like a glove.’ The voice is foreignly correct and dutiful.
She stands, now, and walks a little space to the mirror, watching first the shoes as she walks and then, half-turning, her leg’s reflection. It is a hot, hot day of July in hot New York. She looks next at the heel.
She looks over at the other shoes on the floor beside the chair, three of them beside their three open boxes and two worn shoes lying on their sides. Finally, she glances at the salesman.
He focuses his eyes on the shoes.
Now, once more, it is evening and her husband has come in.
She sits by the window, speaking to him against the purr of the air-conditioner, but looking away – out across the East River as if he were standing in the air beyond the window pane. He stands in the middle of the room behind her and listens.
She says, ‘I went shopping. I went to a shoe store for some shoes. You won’t believe me, what happened.’
He says, ‘Well, what was it?’
She says, ‘You won’t believe me, that’s the trouble. You aren’t sure that you’ll believe me.’
‘How do I know if you don’t tell me what it is?’
‘You’ll believe me, yes, but you won’t believe that it really happened. What’s the use of telling you? You don’t feel sure of my facts.’
‘Oh, tell me anyway,’ he says, as if he is not really interested.
‘Paul,’ she says, ‘I recognised a salesman in a shoe store today. He used to be a prisoner of war in England.’
‘Helmut Kiel. Which one do you think?’
‘There was Claus, also Kiel.’
‘Oh, that little mess, that lop-sided one who read the books on ballet?’
‘Yes, Claus Kiel.’
‘Well, I’m not talking about him. I’m talking about Helmut Kiel. You know who I mean by “Kiel”. Why have you brought up Claus Kiel?’
Paul thinks: She doesn’t turn her head, she watches the East River.
One day he thought he had caught her, in profile, as he moved closer to her, smiling at Welfare Island as if it were someone she recognised. The little island was only a mass of leafage, seen from the window. She could not possibly have seen a person so far away down there.
Is it possible that she is smiling again, he thinks; could she be smiling to herself, retaining humorous reflections to herself ? Is she sly and sophisticated, not mad after all? But it isn’t possible, he thinks; she is like a child, the way she comes out with everything at this hour of the evening.
She tells him everything that comes into her head at this hour of the evening and it is for him to discover whether what she says is true or whether she has imagined it. But has she decided on this course, or can’t she help it? How false, how true?
It is true that in the past winter he has seemed to catch her concealing a smile at the red Pepsi-Cola sign on the far bank of the river. Now he thinks of the phrase, ‘tongue in cheek’, and is confused between what it means and how it would work if Elsa, with her head averted towards the river, actually put her tongue in her cheek, which she does not.
And Paul, still standing in the middle of the carpet, then looks at her shadow. He sees her shadow cast on the curtain, not on the floor where it should be according to the position of the setting sun from the window bay behind her, cross- town to the West Side. He sees her shadow, as he has seen it many times before, cast once more unnaturally. Although he has expected it, he turns away his head at the sight.
‘Paul,’ she says, still gazing at the river, ‘go and get us a drink.’
Their son, Pierre, came to see them last night. He said, while they were discussing, by habit, in the hall, the problem of Mother: ‘She is not such a fool.’
‘Then I am the fool, to spend my money on Garven.’
‘She’s got to have Garven.’ He uttered this like a threat, intensifying his voice to scare away the opposition that he knew to be prowling.
Garven Bey is her analyst. Pierre is anxious that his mother should not go back into the clinic and so upset his peace of mind. Moreover, Pierre knows it was not his father’s money that went so vastly on Garven, but the surface-dust, the top silt, merely, of his mother’s fortune.
Last night, Paul said, as his son was leaving, ‘What did you think she looked like tonight?’
‘All right. There’s definitely something strange, of course …’
The Hothouse by the East River by Muriel Spark, with an introduction by Ian Rankin, Polygon, 144pp, £9.99