"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Short Story Analysis: “The Portobello Road” by Muriel Spark, Part 1

This is the first work I’ve ever read by Muriel Spark, and I have to say I am intrigued.  I’m going to do an analysis of this story, but I have to admit there is what feels like a missing element to completely understanding it.  I’ll get to that, but first let me quote one of the best opening paragraphs you’ll ever find in a short story.

One day in my young youth at high summer, lolling with my lovely companions upon a haystack, I found a needle.  Already and privately for some years I had been guessing that I was set apart from the common run, but this of the needle attested the fact to my whole public: George, Kathleen and Skinny.  I sucked my thumb, for when I had thrust my idle hand deep into the hay, the thumb was where the needle had struck.

Now that is what a short story should do, tell a story first and foremost, and story is about more than the mundane.  A story should be about something out of the ordinary, and what could be more out of the ordinary than finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.  Now to be more accurate, the narrating character, referred to as Needle—we never do learn her birth name—because of this defining moment in her life, the needle found her.  Here’s the rest of the opening section.

When everyone had recovered George said, ‘She put in a thumb and pulled out a plum.’  Then away we were in our merciless hacking-hecking laughter again.

The needle had gone fairly deep into the thumby cushion and a small red river flowed and spread from this tiny puncture.  So that nothing of our joy should lag, George put in quickly,

            ‘Mind your bloody thumb on my shirt.’

Then hac-hec-hoo, we shrieked into the hot Borderland afternoon.  Really I should not care to be so young of heart again.  That is my thought every time I turn over my old papers and come across the photograph.  Skinny, Kathleen and myself are in the photo atop the haystack.  Skinny had just finished analysing the inwards of my find. 

            ‘It couldn’t have been done by brains.  You haven’t much brains but you’re a lucky wee thing.’

Everyone agreed that the needle betokened extraordinary luck.  As it was becoming a serious conversation, George said,

            ‘I’ll take a photo.’

I wrapped my hanky around my thumb and got myself organised.  George pointed up from the camera and shouted,

            ‘Look, there’s a mouse!’

Kathleen screamed and I screamed although I think we knew there was no mouse.  But this gave us an extra session of squalling hee-hoo’s.  Finally we three composed ourselves for George’s picture.  We look lovely and it was a great day at the time, but I would not care for it all over again.  From that day I was known as Needle.

Now that is a great hook of an introduction.  You want to know more of these people, and you want to know what this new found luck developed and became Needle’s future.  In addition there’s more there than meets the eye.  The haystack and the blood foreshadow the story’s climatic moment, and I think there subtle symbolism going on that adds depth to this story. 

But I’ll get into that in a little while.  First I want to present some biographical and geographical detail that I think adds context.  Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, raised Presbyterian (though her father was Jewish), lived in Southern Rhodesia with her husband, who was violent and depressive, had a son, divorced her husband, worked in Intelligence during WWII, and converted to Roman Catholicism in 1954, and was encouraged to write by two other famous Catholic convert novelists, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene.  From what I gathered, Spark had the same sort of bubbly personality of her Needle character.  She settled in London for most of her early writing career, and then went on to live the remainder of her life in Tuscany.

As you can see there are several biographical details that enter into this story.  The characters are Scottish; Needle, who is also slight of frame, does travel down to Africa with her potential husband, Skinny (John Skinner); George, like Spark’s husband, is a sort of emotionally needy character who does a violent act; Needle does settle in London after the war, and she is a Roman Catholic convert with a carefree personality.  This story is told in a series of vignettes, starting with the opening vignette of the four characters on the haystack with Needle meeting up with her lucky moment.

If finding the pin was the story’s first premise defining the central character, the second premise comes in the second vignette.  It comes many years later, down in London.

One Saturday in recent years I was mooching down the Portobello Road, threading among the crowds of marketers on the narrow pavement when I saw a woman.   She had a haggard, careworn, wealthy look, thin but for the breasts forced-up high like a pigeon’s.  I had not seen her for nearly five years.  How changed she was!  But I recognised Kathleen, my friend; her features had already begun to sink and protrude in the way that mouths and noses do in people destined always to be old for their years.  When I had last seen her, nearly five years ago, Kathleen, barely thirty, had said,

            ‘I’ve lost all my looks, it’s in the family.  All the women are handsome as girls, but we go off early, we go brown and nosey.’

I stood silently among the people, watching.  As you will see, I wasn’t in a position to speak to Kathleen.  I saw her shoving in her avid manner from stall to stall.  She was always fond of antique jewelry and of bargains.  I wondered that I had not seen her before in the Portobello Road on my Saturday morning ambles.  Her long stiff-crooked fingers pounced to select a jade ring from amongst the jumble of brooches and pendants, onyx, moonstone and gold, set out on the stall.

Portobello Road is apparently a rather famous and iconic section of west London where an outdoor market takes place on Saturdays.  From this meeting place we get the name of the story.  From within the crowd, Needle calls out to George, who is by Kathleen and is now Kathleen’s husband.

‘Hallo, George,’ I said again.

Kathleen had started to haggle with the stall-owner, in her old way, over the price of the jade ring.  George continued to stare at me, his big mouth slightly parted so that I could see a wide slit of red lips and white teeth between the fair grassy growths of beard and mustache.

‘My God!’ he said.

‘What’s the matter/’ said Kathleen.

‘Hallo, George!’ I said again, quite loud this time and cheerfully. 

‘Look!’ said George.  ‘Look who’s there, over beside the fruit stall.’

Kathleen looked but didn’t see.

‘Who is it?’ she said impatiently.

‘It’s Needle,’ he said.  ‘She said “Hallo, George”.’

Needle,’ said Kathleen.  ‘Who do you mean?  You don’t mean our old friend Needle who—‘

‘Yes.  There she is.  My God!’

He looked very ill, although when I had said ‘Hallo, George’ I had spoken friendly enough.

‘I don’t see anyone faintly resembling poor Needle,’ said Kathleen looking at him.  She was worried.

George pointed straight at me.  ‘Look there.  I tell you that is Needle.’

‘You’re ill George.  Heavens, you must be seeing things.  Come on home.  Needle isn’t there.  You know as well as I do, Needle is dead.’

And so, here is the second premise.  Needle is now a ghost.  We don’t learn how Needle dies until what I count as the eighth vignette, when Needle dies on a haystack, paralleling the opening of the story where she receives her identity. I won’t reveal right now how she dies, so if I’ve enticed you to read this story go and find it.  I’ll reveal it in Part 2.

I do want to conclude Part 1 with some observations from the first two vignettes.  I’ll just number them as I randomly list them.  (1) It is interesting that Needle’s defining moment occurs on a haystack, her climatic death will take place on a haystack, and George’s beard in that second vignette is described as “grassy growths.”  (2) The needle which pricks her finger and draws blood suggests both a sexual activity and an initiation, a breaking of the hymen.  (3) It is interesting that Needle is considered and indeed considers herself lucky, despite her gruesome fate.  (4) The crowded open market setting of Portobello Road seems to allude to Dante’s Divine Comedy, especially when Dante the character first enters Hell and sees all the souls in Limbo carrying about as if they had never died.  There he utters, “I had not thought death had undone so many,” the very words later borrowed by T. S. Eliot in his great poem, “The Wasteland.”  As far as we know, Needle is the only dead person in the crowd.  (5) The use of the word “mooching” in that first sentence of the second vignette is rather interesting.  Unless there’s some local slang I’m missing, mooching means to take without paying, to sponge.  One of Needle’s self-acknowledged sins we see later is that she sponged off people, especially Skinny, to live a care-free irresponsible life. 

With that I’ll leave you with a video clip of someone filming Portobello Road as he walks it and speaks to people.

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