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The Mandelbaum Gate by Muriel Spark
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The Mandelbaum Gate (1965)

by Muriel Spark

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Showing 1-5 of 7 (next | show all)
I don't think most people like this book because they think it's trying to be too many things - a story about conflicting religious belief, a story about Middle East politics, a spy story, and an emotional whirlwind. However, this is my favorite of Spark's books mostly because the style engrossed me (whereas I think it irritates most people...) from page one [and kept me reading]. ( )
  dbsovereign | Jan 26, 2016 |
I'm definitely a fan of Muriel Spark, having read a good number her other better known works and short stories, but I found this novel, which takes place in the then new country of Israel in 1961—when Jerusalem was divided between the Israeli state and Jordan by the Mandelbaum gate—was slow to get off the ground. Spark spent the first half of the book situating her characters and the geographic and political situation, at which time any Jewish person was barred from Jordan and immediately suspected of spying if they ever DID make it across the borders, which of course could result in very dire consequences. Our two main protagonists are Freddy Hamilton, a Britisher working for the foreign office, and Barbara Vaughan, a British old-maidish teacher on a visit to Israel and Jordan on a religious pilgrimage; she has Jewish roots on her mother's side and considers herself a half-Jew, but as a convert to Catholicism, is eager to visit all the sacred sites the old city has to offer, added to which she has entered into a love affair with an archeologist working on the Dead See Scrolls site (also on the Jordanian side of the border), whom she hopes to meet there and eventually marry if certain circumstances prove favourable. The story really takes off when Freddy comes back from what should have been a routine weekend visit to friends of his on the Jordanian side of Jerusalem, having blanked out several days from his memory; he is convinced he's returned to his hotel on the Sunday night as per his usual, only it is Tuesday, and the people at the F.O. have been nervously looking for him. When it turns out he's somehow been involved in the disappearance of Barbara Vaughn, who up till then was only a passing acquaintance because they were staying at the same hotel, a very interesting adventure is described to to the reader, one involving espionage and bed-hopping, with plenty of mixed messages and cultural incidents which show Spark's mordant humour to brilliant effect. Definitely a novel I'll want to revisit now I have the measure of it, so I can better appreciate Spark's slow buildup next time. ( )
1 vote Smiler69 | Dec 12, 2015 |
The year is 1961. Its a story of Israel and Jordan. It's a story of Jew, Arab, and Christian. Barbara became engaged to archaeologist who must first have his marriage annulled by the church before they can be married. To meet up, one must pass through the Mandelbaum Gate, a checkpoint between the Israeli and Jordanian parts of Jerusalem. We meet many characters in the course of the novel--a headmistress, an official with the English consulate, a brothel owner, a gift shop owner, a family running a travel agency as a front for other activities, and more. The book's genre is difficult to define, containing elements of religion, espionage, politics, and romance. While I appreciate the writing, the novel did not fully resonate with me. ( )
  thornton37814 | Dec 5, 2015 |
My introduction to the writing of Muriel Spark came through reading The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (after having enjoyed the film version). While I enjoyed this read I had not read any other novels by her recently so I was not sure what to expect upon picking up The Mandelbaum Gate. I am told that it is in some ways not typical, though her books do cover a variety of geographical locations and types of character. It is longer than most, if not all, of her other books as she tends to write quite short novels, and the economy of her prose must in part account for that.

The book is set in 1961 in Jerusalem but it is a 'historical novel' only in the sense that like that genre it is firmly set in a particular time and place. It was published in 1965, so Spark was writing only shortly after the events take place, and was therefore discussing relatively current events. The Mandelbaum Gate divides Israel, or Occupied Palestine, depending on your political viewpoint, from Jordan. The political divide takes no account of the sites holy to Christians, and so pilgrims - such as Barbara Vaughan, one of the main characters in the book - are hampered by having to pass through the gate (and needing proof of baptism to do so) if they are to see some of the locations associated with the life and miracles of Christ. Barbara's situation is complicated by the fact that she is half Roman Catholic and half Jewish - the latter being reason enough not to mean that she would be in danger of being arrested as an Israeli spy should she be found on the Jordanian side of the Gate.

Barbara is staying on the Israeli side, in a hotel which is also the residence of a British diplomat Freddy Hamilton. Freddy's job at the Embassy is unclear, though he does describe himself at one point as a filing clerk. He seems to be more than this, but he doesn't seem to do very much work at all in fact, and appears remarkably naive and ineffective in his understanding of the difficulties Barbara will face if she pursues her desire to see the holy sites on the other side of the Gate. Most importantly, for this reader, Freddy is a poet with an artistic turn to his mind as evidenced by the opening of the novel where we are introduced to him in the first paragraph:
"Sometimes, instead of a letter to thank his hostess, Freddy Hamilton would compose a set of formal verses - rondeaux, redoubles, villanelles, rondels or Sicilian octaves - to express his thanks neatly. It was part of his modest nature to do this. He always felt he had perhaps been boring during his stay, and it was one's duty in life to be agreeable. Not so much at the time as afterwards, he felt it keenly on his conscience that he had said no word between the soup and the fish when the bright talk began; he felt at fault in retrospect of the cocktail hours when he had contributed nothing but the smile for which he had been renowned in his pram and, in the following fifty years, elsewhere." (p 3)

Alongside these two main characters are a number of dependent players on both sides of the Gate, including the Cartwrights, Freddy's British friends on the Jordan side with whom he regularly stays; the Ramdez family - ostensibly running a travel agency, but using this as a cover for various other activities - Abdul, the son, teaching Freddy Arabic on the Israeli side, Joe, the father, a rather uninviting character running a brothel on the Jordanian side, where Suzi, his daughter, eventually takes Barbara when they smuggle her through to Jordan. Freddy seems at first attracted to Abdul, but transfers his affection to Suzi, who resembles her brother closely - they are described as beautiful, dark skinned but blue-eyed. It is Suzi's resemblance to Abdul that seems at first to attract Freddy to her. There is also Alexandros, lover of Suzi and owner of a gift shop; Saul Ephraim, archaeologist and unofficial tour guide for Barbara; Rupert Gardnor, colleague of Freddy, and his wife Ruth; and hardly appearing and yet important to the whole thing, Ricky (Miss Rickward), headmistress of the school in which Barbara teaches in England, and Harry Clegg, Barbara's fiance, and archaeologist working in the Dead Sea area.

The story is primarily about Barbara's attempt to gain access to the biblical sites on the other side - the Arab side - of the Mandelbaum Gate, but of course it is really about religion, politics, faith and the complexity of life. No character is entirely clear to us, no one's motivations are entirely certain, no one is entirely virtuous or unvirtuous, with the possible exception of Joe Ramdez. The story is firmly set in a specific place and time with the Eichmann trial occurring in the background indirectly connected through a relation of Barbara. There is also Nasser's Post Office, Jewish cousins in Golders Green, and Freddy's amnesia among the many events that transpire in this detailed but not too busy book.

What is typical of Spark in this book is her style of writing, which is precise yet comfortable. It invites the reader to relax and enjoy details that, while not inconsiderable all of which seem to move the story forward, fill in details that help make sense of the plot without impeding any suspense that has built up. There is also a sense of humor and wit amid the very serious issues, a wonderful use of repetition and of moving the narrative backwards and forwards in time, a sort of helix effect of strands spiraling around each other, with the author in complete control - this is often enough to make me laugh at its cleverness, as well as the witty elements in the writing. She always seems to invest much vigor in her writing which is taut but with a sort of panache. Through a solid foundation--the structure allows the novel to grow slowly but not too slow--the story gradually comes to a satisfying denouement.

There are motifs such as Freddy's attitude (such as it is, it takes some of the edge off any sense of danger), and biblical references like this phrase from the Book of Revelation - "Being what thou art, lukewarm, neither cold nor hot, thou wilt make me vomit thee out of my mouth." Both Freddy and Barbara independently decide that people should really not quote the Scriptures at one, and yet that phrase keeps coming back. It seems what the novel is all about - the clash of British culture, where one's religion is no one else's business and yet of vital importance in various ways, with Middle Eastern culture, where it is a matter of life and death, and one cannot afford to be lukewarm. One moment that this becomes more clear is when Freddy and Suzi are taking Barbara, wrapped in the clothes of an Arab servant and lying low in the car, through part of Jordan, and Freddy thinks they will all feel better if they stop for a pink gin before lunch. That is typical of Freddy, but also indicative of the overall theme of the novel.
The novel ends, wonderfully, with Freddy exploring Old Jerusalem and describing, for the first time in the novel, the actual Mandelbaum Gate--a fitting conclusion for this fine story. ( )
  jwhenderson | Apr 20, 2014 |
The Mandelbaum Gate is, I would guess, Muriel Spark's longest novel, and one that both treads familiar and exotic territory. It centres around a brief period in the divided Jerusalem of 1961, together with excursions into Israel and Jordan, backwards into the England of the assimilated Jew and the horsey upper middle class, and forwards into an uncertain figure. Eichmann is being tried in Jerusalem, and relations between Arab and Israeli are as fraught as they have ever been. Alongside the very British Freddie and the elusive half Jewish Barbara, Spark focuses on the Palestinian Ramdez family, existing in no man's land and trying to survive and rule a dangerous and ambiguous world. What is the book about? Faith, certainly - Catholicism with its capricious demands, Judaism with its exclusivity; love - obsession, sexual, asexual; politics and espionage; the beauty and terribleness of the Middle East; families falling apart and coming together. The book is somehow out of time, but very firmly embedded in a particular era - it's no surprise that diplomat Freddie spends much of it in an amnesiac fugue, Barbara in disguise, the Ramdez family in a myriad of different identities, in an environment of spies, and the byzantine workings of governments and churches. Jordan and Israel can never just be beautiful places, or sites of historical interest - they are essentially political and unstable; used for many different purposes. It's a slippery book, ambiguous and tricky - but such is love, such is religion, such is politicss...
  otterley | Oct 20, 2013 |
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Sometimes, instead of a letter to thank his hostess, Freddy Hamilton would compose a set of formal verses - rondeaux, redoubles, villanelles, rondels or Sicilian octaves - to express his thanks neatly.
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Ich weiß deine Werke, daß du weder kalt noch warm bist. Ach, daß du kalt oder warm wärest! Weil du aber lau bist und weder kalt noch warm, werde ich dich ausspeien aus meinem Munde
als drehte er den Knopf eines Rundfunkgeräts von einem gestörten Sender zum anderen, so ließ er den Zeiger seines Gedächtnisses über die Skala der Erinnerungen hinhuschen, bis er auf jenen klaren Augenblick stieß ...
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VIRAGO EDITION:
When Barbara Vaughan's fiancé joins an archaeological excursion to the site of the Dead Sea Scrolls, she takes an opportunity to explore the Holy Land. It is 1961, and the nation of Israel is in its infancy. For Barbara, a half-Jewish Catholic convert, this is a journey of faith, and she ignores warnings not to cross the Mandelbaum Gate from Israel into Jordan. An adventure of espionage and abduction, from pilgrimage to flight, The Mandelbaum Gate is one of Spark's most compelling novels, and won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140027459, Paperback)

Barbara, engaged to an archaeologist, has pursued the beauty and danger of a life of faith. On a visit to Jerusalem she has befriended the diplomat Freddy Hamilton. Ignoring his warning that she risks arrest because of her Jewish blood, she has set out on a pilgrimage beyond the Mandelbaum Gate.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:23 -0400)

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