Bang Bang, I’m Alive: Muriel Spark’s “The Portobello Road” & “Bang-Bang You’re Dead”

Stories Four friends in a photograph, described in Muriel Spark’s short story “The Portobello Road,” reflect “the glory of the world, as if it would never pass.”

Ah, but the glory of the world does pass, a truth made utterly clear by Spark—British writer and Catholic convert—by the story’s end and largely through the device of a murdered woman’s seemingly content ghost.  One of the four friends snuffs out another: George, who is all sensitivity (neurotic sensitivity) and no conscience, murders Needle, who dies yet stays alive.  Needle (a woman) appears before George and amiably says hello to him; by and by he has a nervous breakdown.

When she was alive, Needle was considered lucky.  Joltingly, in fact, her friend Kathleen says, “[Needle] was at Confession only the day before she died—wasn’t she lucky?”  I submit that the story suggests that the best kind of “luck” is metaphysical or supernatural “luck.”  This, however, is actually Grace, shown to transcend not only the glory of the world but also friendships the neurotically sensitive can ruin with murder.

“The Portobello Road” is cheeky, unusual and riveting, and so is “Bang-Bang You’re Dead.”  The principal character, Sybil, is an easily bored intellectual compliant enough to spend a lot of time with her obtuse friend, Desiree, and Desiree’s husband.  This is to say she keeps returning to an environment of falseness:  the married couple are unspeakably dishonest, self-deluding.  But Sybil is doing this not only because she is weak, perhaps, but also because she has guilt to expiate.  Interestingly, she escapes a killer’s bullet near the story’s end (divine mercy?) whereas another character does not.  Is Sybil one of the elect?

Coming from the Catholic Spark, even “Bang-Bang You’re Dead” is not an altogether secular fiction.  Both stories are ingenious and can be found in the book, The Stories of Muriel Spark  (1985).


Set To Rights: The Movie, “Barcelona”

Cover of "Barcelona"

Cover of Barcelona

Staying temporarily in Barcelona, Spain are Fred (Chris Eigeman), an officer in the Navy, and his cousin Ted (Taylor Nichols), a committed salesman.  Without intending to be, both are representatives of America, confronting myths about their home country floating around Barcelona at all times.  Spaniards know nothing about the U.S., but Fred and Ted have youthful ignorance of their own; and, to be sure, their excursions in Whit Stillman’s 1994 film, Barcelona, are wonderfully engaging.

Fred drifts toward common hedonism (but is also capable of falling in love) before discovering what a bad deal hedonism is.  Ted hankers for Protestant religious belief but fails to truly possess it.  Neither phenomenon victimizes the player, however; it is violent anti-Americanism that victimizes Fred.  He gets shot and no one knows if he will recover.  There is some irony in the fact that the cousins ineluctably like the Barcelona women from the trade fair and pursue them.  At last, as Stanley Kauffmann indicates, “almost everything is set to rights”: Fred and Ted find love, and they have survived anti-Americanism.  Like Stillman’s other films, Barcelona focuses on implacable change, and although its plot is not always solid, it is a bright, incisive trip.  And a tasteful and funny one.

In 1951, It Was The New Howard Hughes “Racket”

p3392_p_v7_aaThe Howard Hughes-produced The Racket (1951) is a remake of a 1928 film, which I haven’t seen, and it’s nicely convincing about the workings of a city dominated by a crime syndicate.  Probably the best thing about it is the cast.  Among others, Robert Ryan co-stars as a crime boss, the second in the syndicate hierarchy, and early on, we are startled to see his brutal behavior toward Robert Mitchum’s police chief.

The Racket is based on a play.  What it lacks in originality it makes up for in vitality.  Because director John Cromwell received a lot of uncredited help from Nicholas Ray, et al., it is finely made.  The movie is far from faultless, but I’m glad it exists and is available on DVD.

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