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Symposium by Muriel Spark


by Muriel Spark

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Listening to an audio book by Muriel Spark is a terrific accompaniment to #ChristinaSteadWeek: I bet Stead would have liked Spark's satirical style...

The title is a droll play on words. Spark has resurrected the ancient Greek meaning of Symposium as a drinking party or convivial discussion after a banquet while also spoofing the guests' opinion of themselves as experts discussing some topic. Bookended by a posh London dinner party where the menu occupies the hosts at length but is actually cooked by hired help, the novella then provides the back story of some very odd guests indeed. Spark's penchant for black humour and the macabre is playful and pitiless. None of these characters are sympathetically handled, though mad Uncle Magnus at least has someone's best interests at heart, even if his methods lack, a-hem, discretion...

Margaret Damien (nee Murchie), the new bride who met her wealthy husband in the fruit & veg section of Marks and Spencer, has an unfortunate history of being associated with unexplained deaths. A schoolteacher, and a fellow nun. She gets tired of the police interviewing her about events she had nothing to do with, and considers that perhaps she should engineer events so that that she has more control over the situation.

Enough already! I'll ruin the book if I say any more.

The narration is pitch-perfect. It is easy to overdo posh British accents so that they become snooty caricatures of themselves, but McCready gets it just right. ( )
  anzlitlovers | Nov 17, 2016 |
Muriel Spark was in her 70s when this book was published, but hadn't lost anything off her fast ball. Here she packs into fewer than 200 pages the material for two novels -- a crime story, and story of supernatural horror about the exploits of a beautiful red-haired Scottish witch and her mad warlock uncle. Any of a thousand hacks could have expanded that latter material to 400 0r 500 pages, by stuffing it with diminished chords and heavy breathing and other such boogetty-boogetty. Not Dame Muriel, who is dry, ironic, and matter of fact as always.

The story obviously has a lot in common with The Ballad of Peckham Rye, but the Devil is considerably more charming there.
  sonofcarc | Feb 6, 2013 |
Another excellent Muriel Spark novel. It's about a dinner party, but thankfully most of it consists of the back stories of the participants rather than the actual dinner party itself. It's pretty funny, and very well done. Spark's books aren't heavy, but they have a lot going on beneath the surface. I think it's a shame that the first I read of hers was The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which I found annoying. ( )
  annesadleir | Jan 14, 2011 |
The plot of Symposium weaves around a dinner party given by artist Hurley Reed and his companion, Chris Donovan. Their dinners are reknown for both the quality of the food and of the people there. And the staff- the chef, the butler, the servers- are all impeccably polite. All is not quiet in this rarified world, though- there have been a string of burglaries lately amoung their set, and there is a new member of their group. Margaret Murchie has recently become Margaret Damien, and she comes with a past that includes mysterious dispperances and deaths and an uncle who lives in an asylum who gives the family good advice. Mostly good advice.

The story jumps around in time, sometimes being the night of the dinner, sometimes in the pasts of the various diners. In this way, we learn the backstories of them all, especially that of Margaret. We also learn about Hilda Damien, Margaret’s new mother-in-law. She is wealthy and is visiting from Australia to settle the newlyweds with a flat as a wedding present. She is to join the group after dinner, but sadly is detained by her own murder.

It’s an entirely entertaining novel, satirical and witty, funny and dreadful at the same time. ( )
  lauriebrown54 | Aug 16, 2010 |
A London dinner party provides the ocean in which float icebergs of discontent and malice. The extent of the conflicts masked by the urbanity of etiquette is gradually revealed as Spark goes back to the events of the previous weeks and their cumulative effects on the diners. As with all her work, this short novel is incisive and poetic. It is marred only by the author's apparent distatste for all her subjects and her disdain for their lifestyle. ( )
  TheoClarke | Apr 12, 2010 |
Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
"Symposium" is not, after all, a modern Platonic dialogue. It is, rather, a murder mystery, but a mild one, in that neither victim nor suspects are emotionally engaging enough to arouse fear. The plot seems a mere excuse for describing the dinner, and the dinner an excuse for delineating modern types.
the reader’s first (misleading) impression is of a disorienting randomness of focus. The book begins with an extended dialogue between two characters who all but vanish for the rest of the story, and it ends by dwelling on the grief of another character who has only appeared once before, in a short, digressive scene aboard an aeroplane, and whose connection with the mainstream of the novel’s events is made all the more tenuous when his tailpiece is narrated, uniquely, in the future tense. (Here, as in all her novels, Spark is very careful about tenses.) ... The elaborate structure of Symposium now allows its author to explore, with a convert’s temerity, the very nature of omniscience, be it divine or authorial: of the several Catholic characters in the novel, by far the most important – although there are only one or two misjudged moments of specific intrusion – is the distinctly inscrutable deity who narrates it with such energy and relish.
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...the affair even ended in wounds and the party was finally broken up by the shedding of blood.
Symposium (Tr. Loeb: The Carousal) of Lucian
...the chief thing which he remembered was Socrates compelling the other two to acknowledge that the genius of comedy was the same with that of tragedy, and that the true artist in tragedy was an artist in comedy also.
Symposium (Jowett translation) of Plato
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Muriel Sparks was the greatest Scottish novelist of modern times, the irony being that she departed Scotland as a teenager and returned thereafter only for brief visits. (Introduction)
'This is rape!'
She was peerless, sparkling, inventive and intelligent - the creme de la creme. (Introduction)
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Book description
'This is the story of a dinner party, a knot of people with pasts and connections which at first seem few but are later found to be many...The prevailing mood is urbane: the wine is poured, the talk continues, and all the time the ice on which the protagonists' world rests is being thinned from beneath by boiling emotions and ugly motives...No writer handles the tension between formality of expression and the subversiveness of thought more elegantly'. Candida McWilliam, Independent on Sunday
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0811216594, Paperback)

Dame Muriel Spark delivers a delightfully alarming novel, full of high society and low cunning.

One October evening five posh London couples gather for a dinner party, enjoying "the pheasant (flambé in cognac as it is)" and waiting for the imminent arrival of the late-coming guest Hilda Damien, who has been unavoidably detained due to the fact that she is being murdered at this very moment…

Symposium was applauded by Time magazine for the "sinister elegance" of Muriel Spark's "medium of light but lethal comedy." Mixed in are a Monet, a mad uncle, some unconventional nuns, and a burglary ring run by a rent-a-butler. Symposium stars a perfectly evil young woman (a classic sweet-faced hair-raising Sparkian horror) who has married rich Hilda's son by hook or by crook, hooking him at the fruit counter of Harrod's. There is also spiritual conversation—and the Bordeaux is superb. "The prevailing mood is urbane: the wine is poured, the talk continues, and all the time the ice on which the protagonists' world rests is being thinned from beneath, by boiling emotions and ugly motives….No living writer handles the tension between formality of expression and subversiveness of thought more elegantly." (The Independent on Sunday).

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:10:33 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

Ten stylish Londoners assemble for a smart dinner party - a knot of people with pasts and connections that at first seem few but are later found to be many. As the wine flows and conversation continues, the guests anticipate the arrival of the distinguished Hilda Damien, a rich widow, who is expected to look in after dinner. But Hilda is inexplicably absent for a very grim reason...… (more)

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