Not to Disturb by Muriel Spark (1971) New Directions (2010) 96 pp
Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat was so strange, so not what I was expecting from the author of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, that I couldn’t wait to find out what else she had up her sleeve. There are quite a few to choose from, and unfortunately I don’t see them that often in the bookstores. But New Directions recently released a new edition of Not to Disturb that in its lovely black, matte cover called out to me as I was passing it one day.
Not to Disturb (perhaps obviously from its cover) follows Spark’s stranger, more moribund fiction, though I didn’t find it quite as strange as The Driver’s Seat . . . still, it’s pretty strange.
When the book begins, we are thrown into an already ongoing conversation. Several servants are talking about some future event — some future death or murder — as if it has already happened.
‘Small change,’ he says, ‘compared with what is to come, or has already come, according as one’s philosophy is temporal or eternal. To all intents and purposes, they’re already dead although as a matter of banal fact, the night’s business has still to accomplish itself.’
There is a meeting about to take place in the library between the home’s regal owner, his wife, and one of his private secretaries. They have locked the door from the inside and said they are not to be disturbed. For some reason, these servants are preparing for death. How? By arranging their alibis and signing contracts with journalists who will want their personal perspective. They think the police and camera crews will show up first thing in the morning, if not sooner. By their estimation, the event should occur around 3 o’clock in the morning or maybe 6 o’clock.
‘I really could sleep,’ she says. ‘I really feel like another nap.’
‘No,’ says Pablo. ‘Lister wants us all to be suffering from shock when the police arrive. Lack of sleep has the same effect, Lister says.’
Brewing underneath that macabre surface are the strange relationships between all of the people. One of the young maids is pregnant, and they don’t know who the father is.
‘I never went with him,’ says Heloise. ‘I had the chance, though.’
‘Didn’t we all?’ says Pablo.
Sex is very much the issue here. There are a series of other strange relationships too, and not just among the servants.
‘Sex is not to be mentioned,’ Lister says. ‘To do so would be to belittle their activities. On their sphere sex is nothing but an overdose of life. They will die of it, or rather, to all intents and purposes, have died. We treat of spontaneous combustion. One remove from sex, as in Henry James, an English American who travelled.’
Not to Disturb is a very short book. And it seems everything I can say about it would reveal its secrets, and they are more fun to learn — or, rather, discern — from the book itself. The whole book is a lot of fun, even if it is a dark criticism of the upper class and their world, which includes their servants. The characters are revealed through incisive dialogue that is almost always evasive (that’s part of the fun). However, I didn’t find in it the depth of The Pride of Miss Jean Brodie or even of The Driver’s Seat. Still, it suited my mood perfectly when I read it. There is a lot to decipher, interesting people to meet, and Spark fills it with dark comic lines like this one.
‘Death is that sort of thing that you can’t sleep off . . . .’
I have a lot more Spark to enjoy. An exciting prospect considering the fact that I have no idea what to expect next. In a way, it’s the same feeling I get when I anticipate another Aira novel: who knows what is going to be between the covers, but it will be interesting.