Brief encounters: “A Member of the Family” by Muriel Spark

From The Complete Short Stories

The Complete Short Stories of Muriel Spark

Muriel Spark, like Mavis Gallant, could be a blisteringly cold writer. Her perception was sharp, her understanding of her characters’ psychologies was acute, and her ironies were merciless. Spark is probably best known for her 1969 novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, but she was also a brilliant short story writer; it is in her short fiction that she may frequently be found at her most distilled and combative.

Much of this has to do with the genre’s concision. Never a writer given to verbosity, Spark found in the short story a vehicle to strip her language to its bones, ruthlessly excising anything extraneous and focusing in on her subjects with an intensity that is almost chilling. The word is appropriate: there is an icy quality to Spark’s writing that derives in large part from her unsparing, unsentimental approach to character and situation. If you are looking for consolation as a reader, you would be well advised to look elsewhere.

Which is not to say that her work lacks humour, though it is humour of the darkest, bleakest kind. The corrosive final line in “A Member of the Family” is shocking and frankly aversive – a testament to the viciousness with which Spark could treat her characters – but nonetheless prompts, on a first reading, a bark of uncomfortable laughter. On subsequent readings, knowing what’s coming, it’s still hard not to smile ruefully at the author’s almost gleeful pitilessness.

The emotional affect of this brief, nasty story is so strong that it is liable to obscure the sterling technique at work in it. The story opens with a two-word command: “You must.” The speaker is Richard, a grammar school teacher who has been carrying on a romance with Trudy, the story’s protagonist. Richard’s full imprecation is: “You must … come and meet my mother,” though the latter part is separated in the sentence by an interpolation from the third-person narrator, alerting us to the fact that this invitation arrives “suddenly, one day in November.”

The brevity and breeziness of this opening belie the freight of information it carries for anyone who cares to pay attention. The first two words depict Richard as controlling – not “you should” or “you might,” but “you must.” By breaking the dialogue into two separate syntactical units, Spark accentuates the imperative in the pair of words that are, after all, the first thing a reader encounters in the story. That the invitation arrives “suddenly” is also germane: this is a moment Trudy has been yearning for almost since first meeting Richard. And the specific time of year – “one day in November” – is redolent of late autumn, shorter days, greater darkness and cold, leaves falling off of trees. In a string of fourteen brief, unassuming words, Spark manages to put her reader on guard, instilling a sense of creeping unease right from the jump: attentive readers can be assured that whatever the nature of this liaison, it is not going to end well.

The balance of the story flashes back and forward to trace the trajectory of Trudy’s relationship with Richard. The two meet in the Austrian town of Bleilach, where Trudy is travelling with Gwen, a thirty-five-year-old teacher whose clothes and makeup indicate to Trudy that the other woman has “given up all thoughts of marriage.” It is Gwen who introduces Trudy to Richard, a co-worker who is also vacationing in the Austrian lake town. From the beginning, Trudy notices something strange about the way Gwen interacts with Richard, whom she seems to know quite well: there is a “friendly indifference” to Gwen’s demeanour, though each time they meet he kisses her on the cheek. When Trudy inquires, Gwen tells her that Richard is “an old friend.”

Stranger still is the discovery that Gwen goes to the house of Richard’s mother most every week for Sunday dinner. “A great friend of my mother, is Gwen,” Richard says. “Quite a member of the family.” That is the same formula with which Gwen will describe herself no more than a page later, with one significant adjustment: “I’m quite … a member of the family in my way.” It’s those final three words one needs to pay attention to – a monosyllabic trio that conceals a whole universe of meaning.

“A Member of the Family” is a story about naïveté as personified by Trudy, who shaves seven years off her actual age to appeal to Richard as a younger woman. “I have got a lot to learn from life,” Trudy tells Gwen. “God,” the other woman answers, “you haven’t begun to believe that you’re still twenty-two, have you?”

Of course, Trudy’s insouciance and the recklessness with which she throws herself emotionally into her affair with Richard aligns her much more with her assumed age than her actual chronological one. And Spark is ruthless in underscoring this. The language early in the story is sprightly with the rhythms of adolescence; listen to the almost picture book like alliteration in the following two sentences: “The campers were long-limbed and animal, brightly and briefly dressed. They romped like galvanized goats, yet looked surprisingly virtuous.” Here we are presented with a picture of youthful vigour (notwithstanding the heavy irony in the second sentence’s final clause) that exists in stark contrast to the mustiness Trudy will discover when she finally attends at the home of Richard’s mother.

After their return to London, Gwen tries to convince Trudy to have her father meet Richard to gauge the suitor’s intentions. “A young girl like you needs protection,” Gwen says. This moment of infantilization does not go unremarked – Trudy tells her not to “be silly” – but it once again points up the ironic distance between Trudy’s chronological age and her expressed attitudes toward Richard. Just prior to this exchange, Trudy has appeared in Gwen’s room breathless, as she often does, even though Gwen’s apartment is on the first floor. “Trudy was furious with Gwen on these occasions for seeming not to understand that the breathlessness was all part of her only being twenty-two, and excited by the boyfriend.”

The rest of the story is a journey, so to speak, from innocence to experience. As the settings and language become duller and more claustrophobic, and the true nature of her experience with Richard comes into stark relief, the final lines, with their full weight of irony and revelation, appear as shocking as they are inevitable. The full meaning in the story’s title comes clear for Trudy as well as for the reader, who is left dazed and flashing back to the moment at the opening, when Richard springs his sudden invitation on his lover. The moment, we recall, that takes place in November, just as the trees are quietly shedding their leaves to die in the winter cold.

Brief encounters: “A Member of the Family” by Muriel Spark
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