The Bachelors, sets London as a stage on which its characters perform giving the reader the same intimacy as sitting in the stalls. In his introduction, James Campbell notes that this novel, first published in 1960, was written at a time when Spark’s career was taking a turn towards the theatre. This is, in many ways, a novel wearing the shoes of a stage-play, treading a line between the two forms.
The plot centres on a group of young bachelors of varying professions, whose lives are spent in various bars and clubs, talking about women they want to be with but not marry. Their contented lives are disrupted when one of the men, Partick Seton, a spiritual medium, is convicted of fraud. What unfolds is a series of often amusing events that lead to the climax of the novel.
As someone who had not previously read Spark’s work, I found comfort in its minimalism and its close attention to dialogue and characters. The relationships between the bachelors is intricately structured. The book dispenses with the clutter of elaborate descriptions of the London setting, giving enough to simply set the scene. What Spark does choose to describe is economical and precise, writing what matters to the action that follows, not unlike the opening of a new scene in a screen or stage play: “It was six o’clock in the evening of that Saturday in the third-floor double room in Ebury Street. Patrick Seton sat in a meagre arm-chair […] Alice Dawes was propped in one of the divan beds, still half-dressed.”
Spark’s sharp and attentive use of dialogue is, as always, enjoyable; in some sections there is nothing but conversation to further the plot and unveil the relationships. Through dialogue the reader learns about the net of characters are how they are connected; here , there are moments of wit and comedy that would lend The Bachelors to screen or stage adaptations:
“A vocation to the priesthood is the will of God. Nothing can change God’s will.
You are an epileptic. No epileptic can be a priest. Ergo you never had a vocation.
But you can do something else.”
“I could never be first-rate.”
‘”[…] you were never meant to be a first-rate careerist.”
“Only a first-rate epileptic?”
“Indeed, yes. Quite seriously, yes,” the old priest said.
The novel is full of simple yet brilliant moments such as these. Spark has a unique ability to make the reader feel as if he or she is sitting with her observing these characters and is in on the joke. Spark’s satire comes from the fact that she doesn’t take her characters too seriously, even when the characters themselves do. This works best in the case of the spiritualists who are very serious about the séances they perform and believe themselves to be genuine while denouncing others as frauds.
The book reads very much like a marriage between a novel and a play, yet the moments of exposition and storytelling are equally praiseworthy. The shifts between the styles is seamless; Spark’s talent in writing prose is captivating and rewarding. This is done particularly well through a balance of lyricism and punchy writing, giving the being able to sit, listening to the narrator: “Ronald lived in a sun-balconied hostel. Some of the other fifty-nine were mentally deficient. Most were neurotic. None was highly intelligent”.
It is a pleasure to discover and celebrate Muriel Spark’s work on the centenary of her birth and The Bachelors is an excellent way to get a taste of the writer’s intelligent, fun and inventive writing.