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LITTLE SPARK IN SOCIAL NOVEL

SYMPOSIUM
By Muriel Spark
Houghton Mifflin
192 pages, $18.95

I do think there is a spirit of evil.

-- Muriel Spark, in an interview
NOW THAT Walker Percy is dead and J.F. Powers virtually quiescent, Muriel Spark at 72 and Graham Greene at 86 are the only active practitioners of any note of that curious subgenre, the Catholic novel. As such, Spark views reality in a way distinctly different from even her fellow Catholic novelists. Like some stone imp from a cathedral roof, she looks at it askance, over the tops of her spectacles, as it were.

"Symposium," her 19th novel, will shock some of her readers. It is not a Catholic novel at all. The sense of evil, which is strong, is Calvinistic rather than Catholic; and, even more than Calvinistic, it has a whiff of the ancient Scots delivery one finds in the old Scottish ballads, in Stevenson, above all in James Hogg. Under the guise of a social novel -- remember, one of the chief meanings of "guise" is "to mask" -- it is a bogle story, and a good one, though it might be questioned whether a bogle story, however good, should be expected to carry the weight of a novel.

The somewhat overpretentious title, "Symposium," harks back to Plato's famous dinner party where the repast, like its contemporary London equivalent, featured good food, good wine and good talk. By the end of Plato's philosophical revel all the guests but three were either drunk or asleep. So Socrates had only Agathon and Aristophanes to listen to his concluding paradox, which Mrs. Spark uses as one of her two epigraphs: " . . . the genius of comedy was the same with that of tragedy." Her other epigraph, this one from Lucian's "Symposium," has the carousal "finally broken up by the shedding of blood."

The bloodshed in Mrs. Spark's "Symposium" takes the form of unsolved stranglings -- the reader, however, knows who is responsible for them.

The climactic dinner party is given by Hurley Reed, a successful painter, and his rich mistress, Chris Donovan. Among the guests are a newly married couple: William Damien, whose immensely wealthy mother is destined to be strangled while the party is in progress; and his beautiful red-haired young wife, Margaret Murchie of St. Andrews, who affects a long-sleeved green velvet dress and who makes those to whom she is introduced unaccountably uneasy.

She is a witch, of course, and that bizarre green costume is the tip-off. For it is very like the green velvet worn by the Queen of Elfland whom Thomas the Rhymer met, in one of the greatest of Scottish ballads, as she was out riding by the Eildon Tree. That same woman of the Sidhe steals mortal lovers as Margaret has stolen William, meeting him by design at Marks & Spenser's fruit counter. The warlock who serves her is her mad Uncle Magnus, whom she visits in his psychiatric ward in the Jeffrey King Hospital.

The Muriel Spark of just yesterday would have given both the English social world and this Scots devilry a metaphysical twist. The Muriel Spark of today does not; and the omission makes this book, however engaging as a narrative, the weakest of her novels.

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