Dark Relief: Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye

Muriel Spark’s mordant comedies are the flip side of P. G. Wodehouse’s featherlight farces.  After a Wodehouse Bertie-Wooster-and-Jeeves binge, I turned to Spark’s satires.  I happened to pick up her very funny early novel, The Ballad of Peckham Rye, the story of a wily bachelor who is the antithesis of Bertie Wooster.  Although Spark’s comedies take a dark turn, she, too, has a penchant for labyrinthine plots and silly names.

ballad-peckham-rye-muriel-spark-paperback-cover-artSpark’s spare, humorous, upside-down Ballad, published in 1960, makes you wonder who exactly the angels and the devils are in Spark’s fictional world. The hero, Dougal Douglas, a Scottish trickster, moves to Peckham and, without a twinge of conscience, accepts two jobs from rival textile companies.  The company directors, Mr. Druce at Meadows, Meade & Grindley, and Mr. Willis at Drover Willis, say they want him to bridge the gap between art and industry in his new position as assistant personnel manager.

But to what avail?

It is all about absenteeism.

Mr. Druce, a man who childishly spends Saturday mornings riding elevators at a department store, has already hired an efficiency expert from Cambridge to limit movements among the factory workers for optimum productivity. Dougal, hired because of his less intimidating background as a graduate of the University of Edinburgh, quickly recognizes Mr. Druce’s soulless fascination with limiting movement.  During the second interview, he “sat like a monkey-puzzle tree, only moving his eyes to follow Mr. Druce.”

Mr. Druce assures Dougal that he can define his job, but forbids lectures on art. Soon it becomes clear that art is a sop, and Dougal’s real job is to control.

” It will be my job to take the pulse of the people and plumb the industrial depths of Peckham.”

Mr Druce said:  “Exactly.  You have to bridge the gap and hold out a helping hand.  Our absenteeism,” he said, “is a problem.”

“They must be bored with their jobs,” said Dougal in a split-second of absent-mindedness.

Dougal’s absent-minded remark reflects his real attitude toward the workforce.  He rarely spends any time in the office, and he urges employees to take more days off.  Soon even Miss Merle Coverdale, head of the typing pool and Mr. Druce’s mistress, is calling in sick and taking walks in the park with Dougal.  Is absenteeism a bid for freedom from oppression, or a demonic joke on Dougal’s part?  Only Humphrey, a “refrigerator engineer” and Union member, resists absenteeism, and says it is unethical.

Ballad of Peckham rye first edition sparkDougal is so outrageous that the reader cannot feel sympathy for him.  Although he has a deformed shoulder–I kept thinking of Richard III– he uses it to get sympathy from women.   He has no compassion:  he refuses to visit his fiancee, Ginny, when she is ill, especially when she is in the hospital, because his “fatal flaw” is an intolerance of illness. Ginny doesn’t think much of his fatal flaw, and drops him. But Dougal uses this breakup with Ginny to get to know women at work:  he has a crying breakdown in the canteen, and the women pity him, comb his hair,  and tell him their stories.

Dougal has a third job:  ghostwriting a memoir for a retired actress, Maria Cheeseman.  He interweaves the Peckham women’s’ stories with her history.

Not only does he devilishly charm people, including his aged landlady, but he stirs people up, and his enemies equate him with the devil.   His initials, DD, are devilish, and he encourages them to think he is the devil by showing off bumps on his forehead which he claims were horns removed.

But there are plenty of other devilish characters:  Mr. Druce, an exploiter of labor, also has the D initial and his name rhymes with “deuce.”  And many characters have slightly devilish funny names:  Mr. Drover, the director of the rival company; Dixie (another D name), a 17-year-old bossy, avaricious typist; Mr. Weedin, head of persoonel; and Miss Frierne (think “fryer”), the landlady.

At one point, in a graveyard, Dougal “posed like an angel-devil, with his hump shoulder and gleaming smile, and his fingers of each hand spread against the sky.”

Is he an angel or a devil?  Well, he certainly is not an angel, but are all his messages about work injudicious?

The characters are flat:  Spark’s manipulations of her puppets are masterly, but we don’t care about them.  In her best books, this flatness works to the hone the narrative, but The Ballad of Peckham Rye is not as polished as, say, Memento Mori and A Far Cry from Kensington.  It is fun to read this from a devil-angel perspective:  is it a satire of capitalism or a tale of temptation?   Spark, a Catholic convert, often uses grotesque symbolism:  think of Catholic writers Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and Evelyn Waugh.

I enjoyed this novel, but I wouldn’t recommend it as a starting place for Spark.

By the way, Merry Christmas!