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the ballad of peckham rye

1 august 2010

Among the books turning 50 this year is Muriel Spark's Ballad of Peckham Rye. I knew next to nothing about this novel till I picked it up on impulse in the library stacks recently. I had read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Spark's most famous novel, and the sinister novella The Driver's Seat, but my main knowledge of Spark's writing was fairly non-canonical: I became a fan of hers in the last years of her life, and read each of her last few books as it appeared in the 1990s and 2000s. By the mid-00s, Spark was something of an anachronism; like some other brilliant figures of the British 1950s and 60s (Alan Sillitoe, Arnold Wesker), it was difficult to believe she'd lived, and worked, so long. A great generational change passed over British literature during Spark's lifetime, leaving her on the far side of a cultural watershed. But time inexorably puts things into perspective: enfants terribles become whatever-happened-to's become neglected masters. Whatever the fate of Muriel Spark's critical reputation, her writing from a half-century ago is as fresh and provocative as ever.

The Ballad of Peckham Rye is by genre a "rainmaker" tale. A young Scotsman, Dougal Douglas, appears in the south-London district of Peckham. Dougal talks his way into a job in the personnel offices of two rival textile factories. He doesn't show up for work at either job, insisting that to bring new ideas to management he must research the social conditions of working-class Peckham. Instead, as we'd say in America 50 years later, he simply hangs out.

In the course of hanging out, Dougal brings out the best or worst in those around him. Like Professor Harold Hill or the title character in Richard Nash's old Broadway chestnut The Rainmaker, Dougal helps the people of a stagnant community decide what they really want, and lends them the determination to follow their drives.

Is Dougal the devil? He suggests as much. Following your drives is only a good thing for the drives themselves. It may land you in prison, beaten up outside a pub, or even dead. Dougal himself has followed a drive to a condition of isolation and loneliness. Unable to bear the sight of his beloved girlfriend suffering during her long illness, he has lost her forever. His callousness is his "fatal flaw": but it's also what charms his new friends the most. No matter how awful their lives, Dougal sees the humor of the situation. He passes the most unfeeling remarks – and everyone laughs.

In short, even if Dougal were Satan himself, you would like him and want him to succeed, largely because all he wants is for others to enjoy their own success. But the drives of the people of Peckham prove mutually incompatible. And even his greatest liberations don't take for long. The signature "Dougal" moment in the novel comes when the intellectually-minded tradesman Humphrey Place tells his bride Dixie at the altar that he'd frankly rather not take her as his lawful wife. Humphrey is both channeling Dougal (who would sacrifice anything for a good one-liner) and doing what he most wants to do. But he drifts back into marriage again after the main plot of the novel (told in one long flashback after the wedding scene) runs its course. Even the Devil can't have much of a lasting impact on Peckham.

The Ballad of Peckham Rye is told in a severe modernist idiom: little exposition, much showing, only the archest of telling, and a cinematic succession of scenes separated by quick cuts of white space. But that kind of modernist idiom, in the service of a basically realistic slice-of-life technique, would soon be superseded in British fiction by the labyrinthine narratives of Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan. Modernism like Spark's too quickly came to seem old-fashioned, and her vision of the white working class was made obsolete by the collapse of British manufacturing in the 1970s. But her keen eye for social anxieties and her acid language make her an heir to Jane Austen and E.F. Benson: a more bloody-minded descendant, true, but very much in their astringent tradition.

Spark, Muriel. The Ballad of Peckham Rye. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1960.