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

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Feast Day of St. Catherine of Siena

April 29 is the feast day of the woman I consider the patron saint of this blog, St. Catherine of Siena.  Ever since I read her biography during the first year of this blog, I fell in love with the little woman.  I’ve spent a lot time expanding getting to know more about her life, her writings, and her theology.  Why would a literature blog pick St. Catherine of Siena as its patron?  Well, she is a Doctor of the Church, which means her writings have contributed in some way to church teaching.  But it’s not just that.  After all I could have picked St. Francis De Sales, who is also a Doctor and the patron saint of writers.  But I read St. Catherine first and fell in love with her writing, even if I don’t always understand it.  What makes Catherine’s writing special to me is that she always seems to think in imagery, and finds the most perceptive image.  She is a natural born poet.  It’s amazing to me she had no education and learned to write as an adult. 

For example, take this passage from Prayer #11, translated by St. Catherine of Siena scholar, Suzanne Noffke, OP:

Today your Truth, with wonderful light,
points out the source of darkness,
that stinking garment,
the selfish will.
And your Truth reveals as well
the means by which we come to know the light,
the garment of your gentle will.
What a marvelous thing,
that even while we are in the dark
we should know the light!
that in finite things
we should know the infinite!
that even while we exist in death
we should know life!
Your Truth shows us
that the soul must strip herself of her selfish will
if she wants to be clothed perfectly in yours,
just as one turns one’s garment inside out
when one undresses.
Quote is taken from The Prayers of Catherine of Siena, 2nd Edition, Suzanne Nofke, OP, Translator and Editor, Paulist Press, 1983.

If you didn’t catch the metaphor, she uses clothing as a metaphor for two different wills, God’s will and the “stinking” selfish will, and she ups the ante of the metaphor by giving us the image of undressing and turning the garment inside out when we strive to put on God’s garment.  She seems to express everything in imagery.

You may have also noticed on my blog I fixed one of Catherine’s quotes: "Love follows knowledge."  This comes from her a book titled, Little Talks with God, which is an organized condensation of Catherine’s Dialogue, her great work and easier to read if you want to explore her writing.

When the soul is lifted by a great, yearning desire for the honor of God and the salvation of souls, it practices the ordinary virtues and remains in the cell of self-knowledge, so that it may know better God’s goodness toward it.  It does this because knowledge must come before love, and only when it has attained love can it strive to follow and to clothe itself with the truth.

But humble and continuous prayer, founded on knowledge of oneself and of God, is the best way for the creature to receive such a taste of the truth.  Following the footprints of Christ crucified, and through humble and unceasing prayer, the soul is united with God.  He remakes it in his image through desire, affection, and the union of love.

There’s a lot to unpack there, but it hinges on Catherine’s term, “the cell of self-knowledge” and what I think she means by it is that one must have and nurture a personal relationship with God before one can obtain the knowledge of God, and then can one love, not just God but all of humanity.  Now that’s what I think she’s saying.  But she’s light years above my little brain.

You can click on the Catherine of Siena tag and find several of my posts on her and her work.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Poetry: Sonnet 73 by William Shakespeare

I completely forgot that on April 23rd was William Shakespeare’s birthday.  The Bard turned 451 years old the other day.  Well, of course he didn’t turn anything because Shakespeare passed on from this world many years ago, and unless they celebrate birthdays in heaven it’s unlikely anyone there keeps count. Only we mortals continue to keep count.  Shakespeare wrote such a lovely sonnet on coming death that it’s worth posting as a memorial to his birth.  And death!  Shakespeare happened to die on April 23rd as well.

Sonnet 73
By William Shakespeare

That time of year thou mayst in me behold,
 When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
 Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
 Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
 In me thou seest the twilight of such day,
 As after sunset fadeth in the west,
 Which by and by black night doth take away,
 Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
 In me thou seest the glowing of such fire,
 That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
 As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
 Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.

Just a quick note to explain the poem.  Shakespeare compares the passing of three time linked events with the passing of life, one in each quatrain.  The passing of the year in the first, the passing of the day in the second, and the passing of the hearth’s fire in the third.  The sequence of the three is rather interesting.  The end of the year is notable because of shortened days; shortened days leads to darkening evenings, and cold evenings lead to a fireplace.  He leaves the extinguishing of the hearth’s fire for last since a fire suggests the spark of life within each person, both of which ultimately expire.  I have to say that the closing couplet doesn’t strike me as one of Shakespeare’s strongest.  It seems rather conventional, but it gets the job done.  It’s still a wonderful poem.

In honor of Will’s birthday, let me also post this picture of a birthday cake topped with the Globe Theater as a cake top.

Now I shameless stole this picture from my friend Laura’s blog, Provenance Online Project, otherwise shortened as POP.  Laura has this wonderful job of putting online rare and interesting books, and she blogs about some of it, and on this particular blog she remembers Shakespeare’s birthday by going through some of the forgings of Shakespeare’s signature by a scoundrel named William Henry Ireland.  It’s a fascinating read, especially since at one point Ireland goes on to include a tuft of hair that he claims was Shakespeare’s on a sham letter supposedly to Shakespeare’s wife, Ann.

Laura is no stranger to my blog.  Several years ago I posted a picture of a wonderful blanket she knitted for Matthew.  You can go back to that post, here.  So Laura is not only very smart, she is very creative. 

Friday, April 24, 2015

Short Story Analysis: “The Portobello Road” by Muriel Spark, Part 2

In Part 1 of this analysis I showed how the two premises the story is based on is the lucky moment of finding the needle in the haystack and that Needle, as the central character is called, is now dead and is a ghost.  Spark spends an expository vignette to explain the nature of Needle’s current state.  It has been five years since she has died; there is executor’s business to “look over,” attends Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation, and entertains herself on Saturdays by traversing and perusing “the pleasurable spread of objects on the counters’ along Portobello Road.

But most Saturdays I take my delight among the solemn crowds with their aimless purposes, their eternal life not far away, who push past the counters and stalls, who handle, buy, steal, touch, desire and ogle the merchandise.  I hear the tinkling tills, I hear the jangle of loose change and tongues and children wanting to hold and have.

Those two sentences are at the heart of the story’s central theme; the Portobello Road becomes a metaphor.  Life, with death not far away, is composed of an aimlessness encounter with the “merchandise” of our earthly existence, which both forms our growth (as we progress on the road) and the framework of our moral centers: our desires and sins and contacts with humanity and absorption with material things.  And so she is on the Portobello Road when she encounters her old friends, now married.

That is how I came to be in the Portobello Road that Saturday morning when I saw George and Kathleen.  I would not have spoken had I not been inspired.  Indeed it’s one of those things I can’t do now—to speak out, unless inspired.  And most extraordinary, on that morning as I spoke, a degree of visibility set in.  I suppose from poor George’s point of view it was like seeing a ghost when he saw me standing by the fruit barrow repeating in so friendly a manner, ‘Hallo George!’

So Needle as ghost speaks out, and it is interesting that it was in trying to speak out that caused poor Needle to be murdered and her mouth filled with straw silenced.  That is the story’s present time, but much of the story is how we got to this point where Needle is an actual ghost.  And so the vignettes shift back in time.

From the two vignettes that establish the story’s premise, Spark picks up the narrative back at the four friends’ youth and develops their maturation.  She does this by detailing their geographic progression. 

We were bound for the south.  When our education, what we could get of it from the north, was thought to be finished, one by one we were sent or sent for to London.  John skinner, whom we called Skinny, went to study more archaeology, George to join his uncle’s tobacco farm, Kathleen to stay with her rich connections and to protect intermittently in the Mayfair hat shop which one of them owned.  A little later I also went to London to see life, for it was my ambition to write about life, which first I had to see.

There is a narrative movement in the story from the Scottish borderland to London and then to Africa where George is managing the tobacco farm and Skinny is investigating some archaeological sites.  Needle tags along with Skinny, uncertain whether to marry him, yet mooching off him as she drifts through life.  After a few years Skinny and Needle meet up with George, and then Spark provides a number of vignettes which serve as a psychological study of George’s character.  We see George as a needy person, “yearning” to keep the group together, derisively seen as a silly attempt to hold on to a youthful past, perhaps even an unwillingness to mature.  We see George as a failure at the farm, his moodiness and lack of emotional control and insecure.  We see George’s anxiety, and what he is anxious about is his inability to control life, which makes him a complete contrast to Needle who drifts along carefree.  They meet up on George’s farm where George having fathered a child with a “brahn” woman named Matilda and who is pregnant with another—brown is a recurring color pattern in the story, brown skin, brown eyes, brown hay—tells Needle a secret.

‘Well, this is a secret, mind.  Promise not to tell.’


‘I’m married.’ 

‘Married, George!  Oh, who to?’ 


‘How dreadful!’  I spoke before I could think, but he agreed with me. 

‘Yes, it’s awful, but what could I do?’ 

‘You might have asked my advice,’ I said pompously. 

‘I’m two years older than you are.  I don’t ask advice from you, Needle, little beast.’ 

‘Don’t ask for sympathy then.’ 

‘A nice friend you are,’ he said, ‘I must say after all these years.’ 

‘Poor George!’ I said. 

‘There are three white men to one white woman in this country,’ said George.  ‘An isolated planter doesn’t see a white woman and if he sees one she doesn’t see him.  What could I do?  I needed the woman.’ 

I was nearly sick.  One, because of my Scottish upbringing.  Two, because of my horror of corny phrases like ‘I needed the woman,’ which George repeated twice again. 

‘And Matilda got tough,’ said George, ‘after you and Skinny came to visit us.  She had some friends at the Mission, and she packed up and went to them.’ 

‘You should have let her go,’ I said. 

‘I went after her,’ George said.  ‘She insisted on being married, so I married her.’ 

‘That’s not a proper secret, then,’ I said.  ‘The news of a mixed marriage soon gets about.’ 

‘I took care of that,’ George said.  ‘Crazy as I was, I took her to the Congo and married her there.  She promised to keep quiet about it.’ 

‘Well, you can’t clear off and leave her now, surely,’ I said. 

‘I’m going to get out of this place.  I can’t stand the woman and I can’t stand the country.  I didn’t realise what it would be like.  Two years of the country and three months of my wife has been enough.’ 

‘Will you get a divorce?’ 

‘No, Matilda’s Catholic.  She won’t divorce.’ 

I assume the racism in that dialogue is inherent to the two characters and not Spark the author (though one can’t always tell when a writer writes in an era of pre-racial sensitivity), and if so then you can see the fallen state of all humanity that I think Spark is suggesting.  That secret is critical to the plot because ten years later when George returns to England and the two meet at a farm in Kent George tells Needle of another secret, that he is going to marry Kathleen.  Needle is shocked and reminds him that it would be bigamy since he’s married to Matilda. 

‘I’m not sure that Congo marriage was valid,’ he continued.  ‘Anyway, as far as I’m concerned, it isn’t.’ 

‘You can’t do a thing like that,’ I said. 

‘I need Kathleen.  She’s been decent to me.  I think we were always meant for each other, me and Kathleen.’ 

‘I’ll have to be going,’ I said. 

But he put his knee over my ankles, so that I couldn’t move.  I sat still and gazed into space. 

He tickled my face with a wisp of hay. 

‘Smile up, Needle,’ he said; ‘let’s talk like old times.’ 


‘No one knows about my marriage to Matilda except you and me.’ 

‘And Matilda,’ I said. 

‘She’ll hold her tongue so long as she gets her payments.  My uncle left her an annuity for the purpose, his lawyers see to it.’ 

‘Let me go, George.’ 

‘You promised to keep it a secret,’ he said, ‘you promised.’ 

‘Yes, I promised.’ 

‘And now that you’re going to marry Skinny, we’ll all be properly coupled off as we should have been years ago.  We should have been but youth!—our youth got in the way, didn’t it?’ 

‘Life got in the way,’ I said. 

‘But everything is going to be alright now.  You’ll keep my secret, won’t you?  You promised.’  He had released my feet.  I edged a little further from him. 

I said, ‘If Kathleen intends to marry you, I shall tell her that you’re already married.’ 

‘You wouldn’t do a dirty trick like that, Needle?  You’re going to be happy with Skinny, you wouldn’t stand in the way of my—‘ 

‘I must, Kathleen’s my best friend,’ I said swiftly. 

He looked as if he would murder me and he did.  He stuffed hay into my mouth until it could hold no more, kneeling on my body to keep it still, holding both my wrists tight to his huge hand.  I saw the red full lines of his mouth and the white slit of his teeth last thing on earth.  Not another soul passed by as he pressed my body into the stack, as he made a deep nest for me, tearing up the hay to make a groove the length of my corpse, and finally pulling the warm dry stuff in a mound over this concealment, so natural-looking in a broken haystack.  Then George climbed down, took up his bottle of milk and went his way.  I suppose that was why he looked so unwell when I stood, nearly five years later, by the barrow in the Portobello Road and said in easy tones, ‘Hallo George.’

One can appreciate this story in many ways.  “He looked as if he would murder me and he did” is just a great deadpan sentence.  One could marvel at the resonances: “Not another soul passed by” contrasts wonderfully with the souls that pass along the Portobello Road.  In death she becomes the buried needle in a haystack that gave her very identity many years earlier.  Needle’s murder is the climax of the story, and from here Spark brings the story back to the present and we see George’s emotional breakdown, which completes the character study.

But it is on this point of Catholicism, that marriage is in dissolvable and divorce is not possible, that the story rests.  It was much more part of Catholic identity in the 1950’s when the story was written than it is now, where divorce has become commonplace even among Catholics. It was a charged subject and a point of contention in culture. 

So is Catholicism strictly a structural element to the story? I started this analysis in Part 1 by stating there was a missing element I couldn’t put my finger on that completed my understanding, and I think it’s wrapped in the Catholicism motif that runs throughout.  Kathleen is a devout cradle Catholic, and Needle like Spark is a Catholic convert. 

I was fortunate, I was lucky…so everybody kept telling me on different occasions.  Although it annoyed me to hear, I knew they were right, but in a way that was different from what they meant.  It took me very small effort to make a living: book reviews, odd jobs for Kathleen, a few months with the publicity man again, still getting up speeches about literature, art and life for individual tycoons.  I was waiting to write about life and it seemed to me that the good fortune lay in this, whenever it should be.  And until then I was assured of my charmed life, the necessities of existence always coming my way and I with far more leisure than anyone else.  I thought of my type of luck after I became a Catholic and was being confirmed.  The Bishop touches the candidate on the cheek, a symbolic reminder of the sufferings a Christian is supposed to undertake.  I thought, how lucky, what a feathery symbol to stand for the hellish violence of its true meaning.

That feather symbol foreshadows the piece of hay that George tickles her face with just before kills her.   In her charmed life, Needle lives as the birds in that great quote from Christ:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat (or drink), or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?  Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you more important than they?  Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span? (Matthew 6:25-27)

That comes from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus gives His beatitudes which define what it means to be blessed.  Needle is blessed, meaning blissfully happy.  She has no malice toward anyone, not even George.  She is a happy ghost, no animus, no bitterness.  She is not there to haunt, though George’s conscience gets the better of him.  There is a continuum for Catholics between life of the flesh and blood and life of the hereafter that is much more accentuated than in Protestantism.  Catholics speak with the dead; we commune with saints.  They are with us.  Death doesn’t end life.  This is a wonderful story.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Notable Quote: On Ordered Liberty by Edmund Burke

I ran across this quote at The Imaginative Conservative, one of my favorite internet sites.    It’s worth quoting here because so much of it is at the core of conservative governing principles. 

So much of the contemporary right-of-center governing coalition is made up of a coming together of traditional conservatives with libertarians.  The coalition is based on agreement on the general scope of government (less is better) and on macroeconomics (free markets are a good thing).  There is even a book out by Charles C. W. Cooke titled The Conservatarian Manifesto, which draws out what this overlapping nature of these two different philosophies.  I haven’t read it, but you can read a review of it here.  

But this quote I think draws the dividing line between conservatives and libertarians.  Ordered liberty requires the power of government to maintain order and a citizenry filled with virtue, of which can be only truly obtained by the values of the Judeo-Christian religions.  That last one might be a bit controversial.  I’m not going to expand on it here.   

“The only liberty that is valuable is a liberty connected with order; that not only exists along with order and virtue, but which cannot exist at all without them. It inheres in good and steady government, as in its substance and vital principle.”
- Edmund Burke


Wednesday, April 15, 2015

2015 Reads, Update #1

The first quarter of the year has passed, and so it’s time to assess how my reading is going.  Despite all the crazy computer problems I’ve had for the past several months, I am remarkably on track.  Three books read—one a novel and two non-fiction works—six short stories, and one Biblical book.  And I’ve made progress in the Julius Caesar biography, I’m half way through Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, and I’ve perused the Robert Lowell poetry anthology. 

The Goethe novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, is the first of several German novelists I plan to read this year.  I had started a post on it and it was one of the documents that got wiped out when I had to reinstall the operating system on this new computer.  Instead of recreating any analysis, perhaps I’ll just try to highlight a passage or two that were memorable for me.  I have to say the novel was rather melodramatic, but it did have some highlights.  I don't know if I'd consider it as great a work as its reputation but it was an important work in its day.  It's one of those classics that should be read.

I had also started a post on Pope Benedict’s third book in the Jesus of Nazareth series, The Infancy Narratives that also got wiped out.  It was one of my Lenten reads this year, along with Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, which I haven’t finished yet.  Perhaps I’ll post something from The Infancy Narratives around Christmas, if I can remember, since it will be more relevant.  Again, though I doubt I can reproduce what I had.  

Holly Ordway’s Not God’s Type memoir is a conversion story from a hardened atheist into a believing Christian, a general Protestant at first, and then ultimately into Roman Catholicism.  What makes this book so interesting is that she really documented her thought processes as she went from step to step.  It’s a fascinating read if you’re into philosophic thought processes.  My returned to the faith followed a different path.  For me atheism didn’t make scientific sense, or better put, God made much more sense than random chance.  So I got to see a different thought approach, and I love conversion stories.  They are so inspiring.

I had a really thoughtful post put together on The Book of Job, and that too disolved into the vapors of the virtual world.  The first two short stories (Oats’ “Give Me Your Heart” and Wharton’s “The Triumph of the Night”) I read were pretty much forgettable, but the rest were either excellent—Melville’s “Bartleby” is truly one of the best short stories ever written—or good.  I’m currently in the middle of a short story analysis of Sparks’ “The Portobello Road.”  I posted once on that and I’ll complete the analysis with another shortly.  I would like to do an analysis of “Bartleby” since it’s included in so many anthologies. 

My standing offer always is here: If there is anything I’ve read or plan to read that you want my thoughts on, just ask.  I’ll see if I can accommodate.  The post on my 2015 reading plans are here.  


The Sorrows of Young Werther, a novel by Johan Wolfgang von Goethe.
“Give Me Your Heart,” a short story by Joyce Carol Oates.
“The Triumph of Night,” a short story by Edith Wharton.
Not God’s Type: A Rational Academic Finds a Radical Faith, a non-fiction memoir by Holly Ordway.
“Master Misery,” a short story by Truman Capote.
Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, a non-fiction book of theology by Pope Benedict XVI.
“Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street,” a short story by Herman Melville.
The Book of Job, a book of the Old Testament, KJV Traslation.
“Little Miracles, Kept Promises,” a short story by Sandra Cisneros. 
“The Portobello Road,” a short story by Muriel Spark.

Currently Reading:

Julius Caesar: Life of a Colossus, a biography by Adrian Goldsworthy.
“The Book of Psalms,” a book of the Old Testament, KJV & NIV Traslations.
Orthodoxy, a non-fiction book of philosophy by G. K. Chesterton.
Robert Lowell: Collected Poems, an anthology of poetry edited by Frank Bidart and David Gewanter.
The Book of Psalms, a book of the Old Testament, KJV and Ignatius RSV Translations.

Upcoming Plans:

Vol 2 of Les Misérables, “Cosette,” a novel by Victor Hugo.
The Virgin and the Gypsy, a novella by D. H. Lawrence.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Matthew Monday: It’s Complicated

A couple of weeks ago after I had come home from work and I was changing into more casual clothes, Matthew was with me as is typical.  He waits for me to come home from work and then is tied to my hip.  So I’m changing and I asked him how his day at school was. 

“It’s complicated,” he says.  That in itself had me laughing.  His face was so serious when he said it, as if the weight of the world had been on him.  How’d he come up with that word? I’d thought.  Well it occurred to me that I’ve used that expression several times in answering him when he’d ask a tough question and I didn’t have a simple answer.  Perhaps my wife has used it with him too.  I wondered if he really understood what it meant, but perhaps he did.

So after I stopped laughing, I bit and asked, “So what was so complicated?”  I imagined a fire drill interrupting class and then had to get back to where they had left off, or some such interruption.  “What made it complicated?”

I could see him thinking.  “We had to count to twenty.”  Hahahahaha!

It's so hard to get him to be serious for a picture.

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.