My last encounter with Muriel Spark was not a successful one and I wasn’t fussed on Aiding and Abetting, her novel about the elusive Lord Lucan.
The Ballad of Peckham Rye worked much better for me and I loved this folkloric fantasy about the mysterious Dougal Douglas who pops up to wreak havoc on the inhabitants of Peckham before disappearing as quickly as he has appeared.
There is a cumulative strangeness to this dead-pan tale, which marries ingenuity, strong pacing and dark humour to great effect. I’ve recently been re-watching Matt Berry’s wonderful TV series Toast of London and there was something of that surreal show in the world that Spark has created here.
Dougal Douglas comes from Scotland to Peckham to conduct “research” for an autobiography he is ghost-writing about an aging stage star, the magnificently named Maria Cheeseman. Charismatic and something of a chancer, Dougal succeeds in convincing not one but two company managers to hire him as an ‘arts man’ – someone who will explore the psychology of the workplace and put in place plans for better productivity. Dougal gives very little time to either business, as he declares it necessary to take weeks off at a time to research the behaviour of the citizens of Peckham, though what he is really doing is listening out for people’s personal stories, and then using them in Maria Cheeseman’s autobiography. Three birds with one stone if you will.
Dougal begins by strolling around the neighbourhood, inveigling his way into everyone’s business and generally suggesting that they should take every Monday off. Before he gets through with the people of Peckham, he will have caused unprecedented absenteeism, caused nervous breakdowns and driven someone to murder. He will also be blamed for causing a young electrician, Humphrey Place for jilting his bride-to-be at the altar; responding to the question “Wilt thou have this woman to be thy wedded wife?” with the blunt “No, to be quite frank, I won’t.” It is this scandal, more so than all the others that immortalises Dougal Douglas and creates the ballad that gives the book its name.
‘It wouldn’t have happened if Dougal Douglas hadn’t come here’
The success of The Ballad of Peckham Rye rests solely on Spark’s wonderful and incredibly concise characterisation. The novella is peopled with a vivid array of characters who orbit around the charisma of the strange Scotsman. Dougal, it seems, is capable of transforming himself into whatever someone needs him to be.
Because of this skill, he comes to have a great deal of influence in the town and his antics earn him devotees and enemies in equal numbers. The central drama of the novel reaches its peak when Douglas is blackmailed by a teenage boy and rumours around Douglas’s lead to violent hysteria.
‘I have the powers of exorcism,’ Dougal said, ‘that’s all.’
‘The ability to drive devils out of people.’
‘I thought you said you were a devil yourself.’
‘The two states are not incompatible …’
This idea of conjuring devils is a central conceit of the novel. In the company of Dougal, other characters seems to reveal their true colours. They have been living in the ‘proper’ manner, ignoring their true feelings in loveless marriages, unfulfilling affairs and boring jobs. Dougal becomes an agent of chaos, drawing out their true feelings with sometimes devastating consequences.
So, who is Dougal? The rumours swirl – he is a spy, a police informer, possibly the Devil himself. Dougal does little to dissuade this idea, playing up his suggestive appearance with a humped shoulder, two lumps on his temple that he claims were once horns and an ongoing aversion to illness. However, Dougal seems more like mercurial Pan, a lord of misrule who – advertently or not – upends the lives of everyone he comes into contact with.
‘You’re supposed to be the Devil, then?’ Humphrey asked.
‘No, oh no, I’m only supposed to be one of the wicked spirits that wander through the world for the ruin of souls.’
For its short length, the book contains subtle social commentary and psychological insight, addressing issues of class, economics and religion with a very light touch. It is very funny, albeit in the darkest way, and has a tremendous pace, Dickensian in its scope and filmic in its delivery.
The Ballad of Peckham Rye is full of intrigue and subversion, answering none of the questions it raises. Like the ballad that has arisen from his visit, the story of Dougal Douglas in one of evasion, something that can and will be interpreted in a variety of ways, leaving only ambiguity in its wake.
read on: book
number read: 362
number remaining: 384
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!