The Comforters was Muriel Spark’s first book and it is instantly impressive, if meandering, inscrutable, and autobiographical in a delusional, surreal sort of way– like much of Spark’s best work.
The central plot is a sort of Ealing Comedy jewel heist, involving some unlikely characters just like an Ealing Comedy, and a young author, Caroline, who becomes entangled in their affairs. However, the interior character of the author is where most of the drama happens, since she is fairly delusional (or is she?) in a harmless way that people in one of the comfortable British classes were thought of. Caroline’s boyfriend Laurence would probably be the lead character in any other book written by a male author, and here he serves as a catalyst to many of the interactions in the book. There is also the literally larger-than-life Mrs Hogg, who is reminiscent of G K Chesterton’s Sunday in The Man Who Was Thursday. In the same way as that character she embodies a kind of cosmic inscrutability, yet she certainly has her flaws and bears feet of clay.
Spark, like Chesterton and Greene, was a Catholic writer who manages to combine the playful imagination and experimentalism of the former with the sharp insight into human nature of the latter. And of course all three, being Catholics, were well at home with mystery and philosophical tension.
Spark apparently had experience with hallucinogens in the form of dexedrine which was used as a dieting aid in the Fifties. She wrote the book and lent it to friend and author Alan Barnsley who passed it on to Evelyn Waugh (another fine Catholic novelist) and he sent it to Macmillan who published it that same year.
It’s not the first book of Spark’s that I would recommend someone to read (that would be Loitering With Intent), but if you are a fan of Muriel Spark, it would be a mistake to give this hard-to-find volume a pass.