Back in print - Dreamtime

The Ballad of Peckham Rye

Muriel Spark <em>Penguin, 160pp, £6.99</em>

ISBN 0141181435

There is a photograph of Muriel Spark in her prime by Mark Gerson, which featured in an exhibition of his work at the National Portrait Gallery a few years ago. He spent a day with her in Peckham and Camberwell, where she had taken rooms, and found her great fun. He shows her, dressed to the nines, shopping at one of the many fruit stalls that distinguished, then as now, the area north of the Rye. Spark is in Peckham, but she is not of it.

A similar insouciant incomer stands at the centre of Spark's newly reissued novel, The Ballad of Peckham Rye, which she wrote in 1960. He is Dougal Douglas (or Douglas Dougal), an arts man from Edinburgh, attractive but picturesquely deformed, deserted by his lover north of the river, and now hired to shake up the lives of the workers in a nylon textile factory. Whether or not he is the Devil remains unclear. He is witty and capable enough. Although Spark's novels are cunningly non-autobiographical, each one contains an alter ego to embody the author's ferocious and detached view of life. The problem with this charming and lyrical book, if there is one, lies not in Dougal, but in the temporal world he easily disturbs.

Spark began her career with six brief novels, all but one of which were set in London, all written in an exceptionally short time, and five of them masterpieces. What gives classic status to books such as Memento Mori, The Girls of Slender Means, The Bachelors and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is the combination of a deep poetic involvement with the world and an absolute refusal to express empathy with anyone in it.

Such a balance could perhaps be maintained only during a golden time and, in The Ballad of Peckham Rye, it begins to break down. The involvement - although not the poetry - is less, and the working-class characters become less than human, as opposed to simply rendered without humanity. Again and again, we are directed to the cliches that underlie the ready fights of the men and the sly conventionalities of the women.

From here begins the self-love, capriciousness and flight from reality which have progressively vitiated Spark's later works, and which, in 1996, led her to publish Reality and Dreams, perhaps the most bizarrely bad book by a major modern author. The progress has its tragic side, because it must have once seemed that the early masterpieces would be followed by some of the greatest mature novels ever written.

The hubris of Muriel Spark is usually memorable, however, and there is always the distant hint of a Chopin nocturne. She dis- dains and mocks local colour, but midsummer night on the Rye ("feeling frail, nightingale?") has unparalleled charm and menace, just as the final view of it - Humphrey's after he marries Dixie - is among the most ethereal of the visions with which Spark characteristically concludes her novels: "He thought this a pity for a girl of eighteen. But it was a sunny day in November, and as he drove swiftly past the Rye he saw the children playing there and women coming home from work with their shopping bags, the Rye for an instant looking like a cloud of green and gold, the people seeming to ride upon it, as you might say there was another world than this."

The men and women among whom Spark lived are now old, and she is long gone to the converted presbytery in Tuscany. Peckham, too, is much changed, but the great empty squares north of the Rye, where the violent children walk, and the little factories and the overflowing fruit, still draw one to the place. They testify to this world as well as the other.

Did she do artistic justice to them, as she once did to the girls' hostel on the Park and the secretive bachelor chambers of Kensington? No, but a special attraction remains.

C A R Hills writes the Clapham Omnibus column in Prospect