Plato’s Symposium concerned a dinner party at which the theme was love, platonic and otherwise. Muriel Spark’s Symposium concerns a dinner party at which the theme is malice, aforethought and otherwise. As the guests gather at the elegant London townhouse shared by a wry American painter and a rich Australian widow, the butlers have already conveyed the guest list to a gang of thieves who are busy robbing their preoccupied victims; husbands and wives dream of infidelity and divorce; an apparently sweet young bride plots a murder that, unknown to her, will be committed before she is done with her salmon mousse, pheasant, and crème brûlée.

As in Spark’s numerous other novels, notably her masterpiece, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, along with the intrigue we get a cast of odd and sharply drawn characters; a witty, deadpan conciseness in description and dialogue that brings to mind Evelyn Waugh; and a dark, obstinately Roman Catholic sense of potential for evil lurking beneath the polite surfaces of life, also reminiscent of Waugh.

What we don’t get in this case is a finely finished ending. The pleasures along the way are delectably Sparkian: a Church of England convent full of foul-mouthed Marxist nuns; a canny lunatic Scotsman; a dim-witted lord and a bored young wife; and agreeably daft psychological theories. But the plot, which circles around the dinner table and detours in and out of the past, invites us in, whets our appetite, and then lets us go away hungry. The storm cloud of murderous mystery that builds around an opaque, possibly mad young Scotswoman finally doesn’t precipitate enough. The novel is still pure Spark, brief and bright, but this time the electricity is mostly static. B

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