Muriel Spark has always been the best arbiter of her own work. Each successive novel, no matter how hermetic the situation or setting, discreetly comments on what has gone before. Now 83, she’s still etching her curiously compact fictions, still springing surprises in her unabashedly bizarre plots. Aiding and Abetting, her 22nd novel, may not be her most rigorously composed, but it sheds light on the author’s career-long preoccupation with half-cracked charismatics, who, operating outside of traditional law and morality, impose their wills on credulous others with a near preternatural force.
The latest addition to this Sparkian club is Dr. Hildegard Wolf, an internationally celebrated, Paris-based psychiatrist with an unorthodox clinical approach. For the first three sessions, she monopolizes the therapeutic encounter with talk of herself, turning to her patient’s problems at the fourth meeting, but then only as a tedious afterthought. At $1500 per 45 minutes, her highly sought-after treatment teaches the unstrung how to listen while “luxuriating in the expenditure of money.” But it’s the shamanlike assurance of her personality that holds the key to her healing power.
Hildegard is one of those Spark heroines endowed with a priestlike capacity to engender belief—as blusteringly self-convinced as Jean Brodie, with the ruthless hauteur of the Abbess of Crewe. Her commanding hold on patients (even those who resent her narcissistic technique can’t resist writing her checks) has in fact little to do with her natural gifts. Not much is made of her appearance, and her intellect, while keen, isn’t so far above the common rung. Like most cult figures, Hildegard wins believers simply by believing in herself.
Fittingly, in the days before her garrulous medical practice, Hildegard was known as Beate Pappenheim, the stigmatic of Bavaria, who received cash-filled envelopes from people (largely from Ireland, “the great land of believers”) petitioning her to pray for their cause. When it was revealed that her “religious” wounds were nothing but menstrual blood, she was forced to flee Germany and enter a new line of faith healing in France. But as she insists to her devoted companion, Jean-Pierre, she really did perform miracles—and there’s no reason to think she’s lying. For the Catholic Spark, faith never fails to beget its share of genuine mysteries.
The novel daringly begins with a real-life fugitive from justice walking into Hildegard’s posh Boulevard St. Germain office. “Twenty-five years ago I sold my soul to the Devil,” the dapper elderly gent begins his analysis, revealing (when he can get a word in edgewise) that he is none other than Lord “Lucky” Lucan, the aristocrat who dominated the British tabloids throughout the ’70s after he murdered his young nanny and nearly bashed in his wife’s skull. Spark complicates matters by providing Lucky with a double: another of Dr. Wolf’s patients claiming to be the long-missing lord. After some narrative equivocation, it turns out the two men are in cahoots—one being the real killer, the other a decoy front. Though racked conscience and mental illness may have initially prompted both of them to seek counseling, it’s not long before they (exploiting a far-fetched backstory) blackmail their doctor with the knowledge of her own fraudulent past.
The story loses steam when it moves to England, where Hildegard puzzles out her method for dealing with the twin Lucans. Leaving Jean-Pierre without warning, she befriends Maria Twickenham, whose late husband and friends originally helped Lucky elude capture. Spark has satiric fun imagining the way the snobby elite protected one of their own, stonewalling the investigating detectives and making jokes about good nannies being hard to find. But the spiraling plot (which increasingly focuses on Maria’s more progressive-minded daughter and an old zoologist’s romantic investigation into Lucky’s missing years) takes us farther away from the book’s central enigma—the curious pull of Hildegard’s prophetic put-on.
Spark’s brusque high style, however, would rather motor through a dozen surreal twists than pause once to explain. Make that two dozen. The entire British jaunt is basically a comic red herring, flecked with snarky class commentary. The resolution to the Lucan menace hinges on Jean-Pierre (with an assist from one of Hildegard’s patients), in a credulity-straining finale that transports the mirror-image Lords to a small Central African kingdom, where cannibalism retains its ritual appeal. Not that the haywire plot isn’t impressively worked out (especially given how much the author tries to stuff into her novella-sized nutshell); it’s just that the ultimate effect is more one of legerdemain than vision. But when aided and abetted by the hypnotic presence of Dr. Wolf, the still-conjuring Spark can convince us of almost anything.