Surrealpolitik: The Only Problem

Author: Muriel Spark

Edinburgh: Canongate Books (2016, first published in 1984)

Quick Summary

The titular "only problem" is the one in the book of Job, i.e., why God authors suffering. The protagonist Harvey is obsessed with writing a monograph on Job, which conveniently places him in an analogous Job-like position in several ways: he comes under suspicion merely because of misfortune around his family, and is visited by comforters, etc. His estranged wife Effie becomes a righteous left-wing terrorist and eventually kills a policeman. Harvey demands evidence that it is his wife and will not accept that it is her until he sees it. The relationship matrix is a bit complex: Effie has taken up with another man and had a baby by him. Her sister Ruth, who looks just like Effie feature by feature but is not as beautiful in sum, ends up with the baby and comes to live with Harvey, leaving her own husband. Harvey is rich and everybody always wants loans and money. All his habits become suspicious, e.g., leaving baby clothes out on a line when he has no woman and no baby, just to keep women away, or buying a chateau suddenly just prior to a terrorist attack in the same town, as if he bought it as a safe haven for the group. Ubiquitous surveillance is one theme. Paranoia. His insistence on turning all questions into an opportunity to expound on Job and unjust suffering makes him seem increasingly like a crazed terrorist himself.


There are 18 quotes currently associated with this book.

'Elstree.' Harvey said it as if there was a third party listening -- as if to draw the attention of this third party to that definite word, Elstree, and whatever connotations it might breed. (page 335)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Literary/Poetic, Paranoia, Surveillance]
It seemed to Edward that Harvey always suspected him of putting on an act. (page 336)
Tags: [Literary/Poetic, Paranoia]
It seemed, it seemed, Edward thought; because one can only judge by appearances. How could Edward know Harvey wasn't putting on an act, as he so often implied that Edward did? To some extent we all put on acts. (page 340)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Literary/Poetic, Paranoia]
harvey was a rich man; he was in his mid-thirties. He had started writing a monograph about the Book of Job and the problem it deals with. For he could not face that a benevolent Creator, one whose charming and delicious light descended and spread over the world, and being powerful everywhere, could condone the unspeakable sufferings of the world; that God did permit all suffering and was therefore, by logic of his omnipotence, the actual author of it, he was at a loss how to square with the existence of God, given the premise that God is good.

'It is the only problem,' Harvey had always said. Now, Harvey believed in God, and this was what tormented him. 'It's the only problem, in fact, worth discussing.' (page 341)
Tags: [Terror, Literary/Poetic, Paranoia]
'Still, I'm convinced he suffered on. Perhaps more.'

'It seems odd, doesn't it,' Edward had said, 'after he sat on a dung-heap and suffered from skin-sores and put up with his friends' gloating, and lost his family and his cattle, that he should have to go on suffering.'

'It became a habit,' Harvey said, 'for he not only argued the problem of suffering, he suffered the problem of argument. And that is incurable.' (page 350)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Lead Quote Candidate, Literary/Poetic]
Effie, meanwhile, went off the rails, and when this was pointed out to her in so many words, she said 'What rails? Whose rails?' (page 362-363)
Tags: [Everyday Life, Truth & Real, Myth, Lead Quote Candidate, Literary/Poetic, Madness, Gaslighting]
'Job was a very rich man. He lost all his goods, and all his sons and daughters, and took it all very philosophically. He said, "The Lord gave, the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord." Then he gets covered with boils; and it's only then that his nerve gives way, he's touched personally. He starts his complaint against God at that point only. No question of why his sons should have lost their lives, no enquiries of God about the cause of their fate. It's his skin disease that sets him off.' (page 366)
Tags: [Humor, Apathy/Resistance, Everyday Life, Universality, Literary/Poetic]
He felt over-protected. How can you deal with the problem of suffering if everybody conspires to estrange you from suffering? (page 378)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Everyday Life, Culture, Disinformation, Literary/Poetic]
'It was a joke -- for the benefit of my brother-in-law who came to visit me. I brought some baby clothes and put them out on the line. He obviously thought i had a girl living with me. I only put them out a few times after that. I told my brother-in-law that I did it to keep women from bothering me with offers of domestic care. As they do. They would assume, you see, that there was a woman. I suppose I'm an eccentric. It was a gesture.'

'A gesture.'

'Well, you might say,' said Harvey, thinking fast how to say it, 'that it was a surrealistic gesture.' (page 395)
Tags: [Surrealism, Everyday Life, Literary/Poetic]
Harvey had been dreaming that his interrogator was one of those electric typewriters where the typeface can be changed by easy manipulation; the voice of the interrogator changed like the type, and in fact was one and the same, now roman, now elite, now italics. In the end, bells on the typewriter rang to wake him up to the phone and the doorbell. (page 403)
Tags: [Surrealism, Literary/Poetic, Dreams]
Ruth, Harvey thought as he did so, has been crying a lot over the past few weeks, crying and laughing. I noticed, but I didn't notice. (page 411)
Tags: [Surrealism, Everyday Life, Literary/Poetic]
It was a bulletin from FLE issued to a Paris news agency, vindicating its latest activities. The gang was going to liberate Europe from its errors. 'Errors of society, errors of the system.' Most of all, liberation from the diabolical institution of the gendarmerie and the brutality of the Brigade Criminelle. It was much the same as every other terrorist announcement Harvey had ever read. (page 413)
Tags: [Terror]
Most of the reporters were younger than Harvey. One, a bearded Swede, was old, paunchy. He alone seemed to know what the Book of Job was. He asked Harvey, 'Would you say that you yourself are in the position of Job, in so far as you are a suspicious character in the eyes of the world, yet feel yourself to be perfectly innocent?' (page 417)
Tags: [Terror, Literary/Poetic, Paranoia]
Job's problem was partly a lack of knowledge. He was without access to any system of study which would point to the reason for his afflictions. He said specifically, "I desire to reason with God," and expected God to come out like a man and state his case...Everybody talked but nobody told him anything about the reason for his sufferings. Not even God when he appeared. Our limitations of knowledge make us puzzle over the cause of suffering, maybe it is the cause of suffering itself...As I say, we are plonked here in the world and nobody but our own kind can tell us anything. It isn't enough. As for the rest, God doesn't tell.' (page 418-419)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Truth & Real, Terror, Myth, Media, Disinformation, Literary/Poetic, Gaslighting, Paranoia]
'I wonder,' said Stewart, 'why there's been so little in the press about Nathan Fox. I only heard on the radio that he'd disappeared suddenly from your house. And they don't include him in the gang. Maybe they couldn't find a photograph of him. A photo makes a gangster real.' (page 431)
Tags: [Postmodernism, Terror, Simulacra/Illusion, Media, Literary/Poetic]
And to his own amazement, Harvey found himself half-hoping she was wrong. Only half-hoping; but still, the thought was there: he would rather think of Effie as a terrorist than laughing with Nathan, naked, in a mountain commune in California. (page 473)
Tags: [Terror, Literary/Poetic]
But 'no one pities men who cling wilfully to their sufferings.' (Philoctetes -- speech of Neoptolemus)....I'm analyzing the God of Job, as I say. We are back to the Inscrutable. If the answers are valid then it is the questions that are all cock-eyed. (page 477)
Tags: [Terror, Disinformation, Literary/Poetic]
Harvey wondered again if in real life Job would be satisfied with this plump reward, and doubted it. His tragedy was that of the happy ending. (page 481)
Tags: [The Left, Terror, Myth, Lead Quote Candidate, Literary/Poetic]