I think I read the first ten pages of the late fifties UK classic The Comforters about ten times over before I really got it. As it turns out, my reaction was not uncommon. The reader is supposed to be initially confused. Spark’s novel deliberately scorns omniscient narration, opting instead for a grand experiment in Bretchtian allegory. We learn about each character, each interaction, and each conversation as though we were observing it all passively, with no foreknowledge, like some persistent fly on the wall. As the novel progresses, a basic skeletal framework gradually develops into something grander, and within the concise space of two-hundred pages, Muriel Spark’s book reaches its conclusion.
The main character is Caroline Rose, a young, educated woman of around thirty. A writer, she is also a recent convert to Catholicism. As the novel opens, we realize she’s still very much on the mend from a nervous breakdown. A free spirit decades ahead of her time, she flaunts social conventions of the day, living unmarried with her boyfriend, Laurence. Conscious of the scandal produced, the two do at least keep separate bedrooms. Laurence believes that the conversion will do her much good, but eventually begins to have his own doubts, albeit influenced by the fact that he is a lapsed Catholic himself. Returning to the flat they share for the time being, it is here that the primary plot device of the entire work is set in motion.
Late one night, Caroline notices that her typewriter seems to be eloquently narrating her thoughts, daily activities, and even more disturbingly, future events. In time, sometimes disembodied voices serve the same purpose. Caroline dutifully dictates what is being said, while sometimes taking license with its insistence at resolutely setting unchangeable future before her. The notes and typewritten pages, when complied, grow to become a manuscript for her as-yet-unnamed new novel. To her frequent discomfort, she becomes author, active participant, and unwilling bystander in one. Feeling at times a little spiteful at the voices and Typewriter Ghost, as she puts it, Caroline feels compelled sometimes to deliberately sabotage the direction of her life, or rather her book. By now, it’s impossible to separate the two.
Disagreeing with the novel as to what means of transportation to take on her way elsewhere, she deliberately does the opposite of what has been commanded/predicted. Spitefully, the forces guiding the book’s construction cause Caroline and Lawrence to be involved in a terrifying car accident. The accident fractures Caroline’s leg, forcing her to undergo a lengthy period of convalescence. She narrowly escapes more serious injury. Lawrence has to spend a few days in hospital, but fortunately avoids the worst of it. And, observable to us, the reader, the book itself breaks neatly in two at this point, ending Part One, beginning Part Two. As the latter half of the novel starts out, the physical trauma creates psychological damage, driving a neat wedge between the two of them. The separation and distance created by the wreck has not yet healed by the end of the novel, something the author must have intended.
Muriel Spark deliberately never explains what these voices and all-knowing forces truly are. However, in an novel with its title taken from the Book of Job and crammed full of Catholic mysticism and references, a religious interpretation would seem to be invited. The Comforters, literally rendered, are people who, while purporting to give sympathy, succeed only in adding to distress. Job, stricken with a variety of unexplained illnesses, is finally granted the ability to have a exceedingly rare face-to-face dialogue with God in the end of the book. The puzzling entity Caroline struggles with might be the Holy Spirit itself, or a manifestation of Divine Providence. That its basic nature is impish, demanding, and sometimes even pettily punitive puts it more in line with the nature of the Old Testament Yahweh than the God of the New Testament. And, assuming it is, we are asked to question the nature of free will, God’s direct intercession in our lives, and whether or not every step we take is itself fully preordained.
A plot that competes fully with this one concerns the nature of whether there really is any such thing as a secret or a remark made in confidence. An elaborate network of amateur diamond smuggling sweeps up several people Caroline knows, many of whom are upper class, idly rich, and entirely bored with their humdrum lives. Several of them are also Catholic, though their devotion to the Faith is of an exceptionally superficial quality. If there is any common denominator uniting them, it exists in their fondness for elaborate games of secrecy. Each of these is paradoxically, and rather reliably defeated by the fact that none of them can ever manage to keep anything told to them in strict confidence. What becomes the intense interpersonal drama of brazen perfidy creates, at times, a confusing network of who said what to whom at what time. This is precisely the effect Spark intends to convey, since most of this portion is heavily loaded down with dialogue, with only the barest minimum of anything else, itself only put down to keep everything from being utterly incoherent to the reader.
The Comforters calls us to examine the distinction between objectivity and subjectivity, a construct that usually separates our conception of self from other. How much of what we think is really unique to us? Is it possible that we are part of some greater consciousness beyond ourselves? We have, over time, assigned different names to this sense that our perception stretches beyond the limits of our physical self. Some of them are religious, some more spiritual, and some scientific. Beyond individual preference and choice, something may well watch over us. It may determine the course of ultimate reality beyond our poor power to add or detract. We may all be writing our own novels, for all we know.