Charlizechat's Reviews > The Abbess of Crewe

The Abbess of Crewe by Muriel Spark
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Apr 13, 09

Read in April, 2009

** spoiler alert ** "The Abbess of Crewe" is Muriel Spark's insanely arch, inventive take on Watergate, a satirical highwire act as stylized and delicious as "The Rape of the Lock." The eponymous Abbess is a dark, formidable hierarch, at once galvanizing and maddening, essentially a fairytale Nietzschean who wouldn't be out of place in the pages of Oscar Wilde or Lewis Carroll. In fact the whole novel stands good comparison with those two. This book does not wish to fool us that this is 'real life', in the humanistic way in which we become so involved emotionally with the characters in, say, "The Girls of Slender Means" or "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie." But then, Spark is never shy about her willingness to 'manipulate' the goings-on on the page; never is she diffident about who is the author and who is the character! And, like Jean Brodie and so many other manipulators in her pages, the Abbess shares that essential feature with her creator. Driven by ambiguous, but certainly highly aesthetical, impulses, the Abbess is a figure of almost Satanic splendor; it's just possible, though highly dubious, that she really intends to have a positive spiritual impact on her charges, though she spares no concern for their diet, finances, or right to privacy. Her opposition is, needless to say, absolutely contemptible without the absolving tincture of prideful appeal. And the entire plot, along with much of the characterization, is set in a kind of sustained point-counterpoint to the intrigues of the Nixon Administration and its foes, allowing Spark to tickle us with her endlessly soaring absurd audacity. Wiretaping nuns! Burglaring Jesuits! Pet food! And who will ever forget that Kissingerean doppelganger Gertrude? This is not Spark's greatest single achievement, but it's as well-written as anything in the language and endlessly delightful-- and still cryptically chilling too.
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