A Sublime Sleight of Hand (or Why I Love The Comforters)

UNKNOWN WRITER: It is almost sixty years since the publication of Muriel Spark’s debut novel The Comforters (1957) and for me, it remains one of the finest metafictional novels of all time – all because of one simple, almost casual, feat of literary genius.

SCEPTICAL READER (yawning): Not the G-word again.

UW: Yes, the G-word again. Have you read the book?

SR: Maybe.

UW: Well, just in case, The Comforters tells the story of Caroline who has the apparent delusion that she is hearing her thoughts and actions being typed on an unseen typewriter by an entity she comes to call the Typing Ghost. After some resistance Caroline accepts her status as a fictional character but calls into question the competence of her author. She decides to take control of her own destiny by making notes of the narrative she overhears in order to write her story herself.

SR: So what? I’ve seen that conceit lots of times: an author’s intention to write a novel that is obviously fictional because the art of telling a story that they seek is exactly that – to tell a story and to be seen to be telling a story. End of.

UW: True, but look what Spark does (and barely breaks sweat as she does so): she… hang on, I’m going to have to shout… SPOILER ALERT – I’M GOING TO MENTION THE END OF THE NOVEL. I RECOMMEND YOU READ IT YOURSELF AND THEN REJOIN THIS POST.

SR: That was loud.

UW: Sorry. Anyway, what Spark does is this: she takes her fictional protagonist, Caroline, out of the novel and makes her the author of the book that we, the readers, hold in our hands.

SR: What do you mean?

UW: You have to bear in mind that The Comforters is written in the past tense, so all that happens has happened, even though it is an unfolding story for the characters.

SR: This is going to get complicated, isn’t it?

UW: Yes. So, as I said, Caroline can hear the words of the omniscient narrator. Her boyfriend, Laurence Manders, discovers the notes she’s been taking and writes to her saying that he resents the prospect of being a character in her novel.

SR: I don’t blame him.

UW: Me neither, but you see, we, the readers, see the words he writes but he destroys his letter before Caroline can see it.

SR: Right…

UW: And the novels ends (SPOILER ALERT AGAIN): “and he did not then foresee his later wonder, with a curious rejoicing, how the letter had got into the book” (The Comforters 188).

SR: I see…

UW: One sentence of sublime genius. A fabulous literary sleight of hand.

SR: I don’t get it.

UW: The implication is that Manders later reads a book that Caroline has written in which his letter appears even though he destroyed it before she could read it. That book is The Comforters. Caroline is a paradox. She is both a character in, and the author of, the unfolding events in The Comforters. She is the Typing Ghost that she can hear, and she is the author of the narrative that we are reading.

SR: Uhhh…

UW: To quote: “She was aware that the book in which she was involved was still in progress … and now she was impatient for the story to come to an end, knowing that the narrative could never become coherent to her until she was at last outside it, and at the same time consummately inside it” (The Comforters 165-166). How good is that? That’s why I love The Comforters.

SR: Ah.

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