Aiding and Abetting

I’m planning a trip to Scotland in the not-so-distant future and so I thought it would be a good time to familiarize myself with the work of Muriel Spark. I gather from the little I’ve read about Ms. Spark thus far that Aiding and Abetting is not one of her more “important” works, but as a slim volume of truly imaginative, satirical, and irreverent fun, I think it really holds up. For a work of less than 200 pages, there’s just an incredible amount of plot—three equally creative and crazily spiraling plot lines all together—but somehow she makes it work. There are books in which “nothing happens” and yet everything happens. This, I would say, is a book that demonstrates the opposite principal. There’s a lot going on, and yet, very little has come to anything at the end of the novel.

Aiding and Abetting takes a historically factual murder case as its (loose) premise. In 1974, the 7th Earl of Lucan (nicknamed Lucky), an inveterate and generally unsuccessful gambler, decided to murder his wife. Instead, he accidentally murdered his children’s nanny and only injured his wife. He went into hiding the same night, and was never found by the police. It’s generally assumed that he was able to evade capture because he had the help of a network of other titled friends in England, who for various reasons, elected to help him escape rather than turn him in for his crime.

From here, Spark “absorbed creatively” and “metamorphosed” Lord Lucan’s story, blending it with a parallel tale of Hildegard Wolf, a famed German psychiatrist whose unorthodox method of spending most of her clients’ very expensive sessions talking about herself has gained her a high level of prestige in Paris, where she now lives. Dr. Wolf has a secret of her own, however: as an impoverished student in Germany, she infamously defrauded faithful Catholics all over Europe by posing as a stigmatic. When she was exposed, Dr. Wolf (then “Blessed Beate Pappenheim, the Stigmatic of Munich”), escaped the country, went into hiding, and completely reinvented herself as a successful, but actually uncertified psychiatrist.

The story begins as Dr. Wolf is introduced to not one, but two, Lord Lucans, both of whom want to employ her as their psychiatrist, and both of whom attempt to blackmail her on the basis of her background as a false saint. Spark adds one last thread to the increasingly complicated—but not difficult to follow—plot: the daughter of one of Lucan’s former friends and one of his former gambling partners are both engaged in an impromptu manhunt for Lucan, who they are certain is still alive.

I gobbled the story down easily over the course of a rainy weekend (the would-be hurricane Irene); the novel is broken down into 19, short, segmented chapters which each follow one or two of the running storylines. It’s made for fast reading. And while the psychology employed throughout the book is not particularly deep or convincing, there is a delightful, whimsical absurdity that forgives any false analysis that Spark might throw in. It’s all very much kept at the level of farce. Consider the reaction of Jean-Pierre, Hildegard’s companion of five years, when she finally reveals her past to him: “Why…did you not tell me before about your exciting early life as a stigmatic?”

The novel is not without more complex themes, of course. Overall, it could be argued to be a book about self-created myths, about the false personas that everyone creates to hide either their real selves, or the selves they no longer choose to be. We are who we choose to say we are; we are the product of the stories we tell about ourselves. And there’s always some truth in those stories. Hildegard, for instance, continues to insist—even while on the run, fearing exposure from her blackmailers—that “I caused miracles. I really did cure some people. Strangely enough I did.” The story that she told about herself—that she was a blessed stigmatic—may have been untrue, but it was real enough to feel like a genuine miracle to the people who believed in her.

The one element of the novel that I felt a bit ill at ease with was the final sequence wherein one of Hildegard’s patients, a grandson of a chief in central Africa, arranges for both Lucans to be invited to Africa (therefore out of Hildegard’s hair), only for one of the men to be eaten by cannibals.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I think the level of absurdity in this crazy ending is just pitch perfect, and on a narrative level, I’m actually all for the cannibals. Unfortunately, for a book published in 2001 and set in the 1990s, this turn of plot (and the various scenes of dialog leading up to it) has a rather anachronistic, Olde Worlde colonialism about it. The chief is referred to as “a wily fellow” who later decides that his grandsons “would benefit by consuming an earl.” In the best case scenario, this seems a reductive portrait of an African chief; in the worse, it’s simply ethnocentric and racist. It doesn’t help that a Mexican character earlier in the book is referred to as a “sage brown fellow.” It’s possible in both cases that Spark is affecting the prejudices of her emphatically stupid and dull Lord, but I’m not sure these scenes can be attributed to character flaws—it’s a little too implicit in the narrative itself.

For sheer imagination, flowing plot, and a dark sense of humor, though, the book is rather stellar. I look forward to reading more of Spark’s work in the future.