Originally published in the New Yorker, “The House of the Famous Poet” is set in 1944 during the shelling of London and follows the narrator as she travels on the night train from Edinburgh to London to resume work at her civil service position. Aboard the train, she meets two other passengers: a soldier returning to his post and a domestic worker named Elise. The soldier’s generosity with his cigarettes forms a bond between the two women, and Elise ultimately invites the narrator to stay at the home where she is employed. Enchanted by the conversation, the desire to stay in London, and Elise’s aristocratic accent, the narrator accepts the invitation. However, almost immediately she regrets it. Viewed standing and in the light of day, Elise has a bearing of almost oppressive exhaustion, a quality that then permeates everything with which she is associated, including the home in which she works. As a result the narrator becomes increasingly uncomfortable with her promise to spend the night with Elise. This discomfort is heightened when the speaker discovers that the home in which she is to spend the night is, as the title tells us, the house of the famous poet. With new eyes, the narrator examines her surroundings. They no longer speak of Elise’s exhaustion but of the mind of the poet. The narrator’s discomfort now stems from the feelings of intrusion into the private world of this poet who is both known and unknown to her. As she prepares to leave the home the next day, she again meets the soldier from the train. The story then enters the world of magical realism. Short on funds, he sells her an abstract funeral in return for train fare. While she ponders the funeral and what it must look like, the soldier gets off the train only to reappear moments later as a notion of himself. Though intrigued by the concept of the abstract funeral, the narrator ultimately discards it, finding that it fails to meet her expectations; she desires a real funeral. At the close of the story, the narrator relates that not long after her stay in the house of the famous poet, it was bombed, killing Elise and the famous poet and destroying his house.
As many of her works are, “The House of the Famous Poet” is based on events from Muriel Spark’s own life. A civil servant during World War II, Spark had stayed with a woman working in the house of Louis MacNeice on her way back to work after a trip to Edinburgh. Though none of the events mentioned in the latter part of the story occurred, Spark points to this experience as the catalyst that inspired her to write. In fact, throughout the story, the narrator discusses her need to record these and other events. Not surprisingly, these particular events are also recounted in other Spark works, including her autobiography, Curriculum Vitae, and an essay titled “The Poet’s House.”
To a large extent, the primary theme of the short story is how perception mediates reality. As a result, reality is flexible and revisable. The overrun nature of the house changes from being indicative of Elise’s exhaustion to hinting at the mind of the famous poet. Moreover, this plastic reality allows for some of the postmodern play. The story shows a clear self-consciousness in the construction of the narrative and in the choice of detail. The latter parts of the story, most specifically the description of the house, the recurrence of the notion of the solider, and the poet’s death, evoke the gothic and magical realism in their associations with death and the supernatural. Furthermore, although “The House of the Famous Poet” lacks some of the characteristics of Spark’s larger oeuvre, especially the prolepsis found in works such as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Driver’s Seat, the narrator’s tone and the focus on descriptive detail hint at Spark’s experimentation with the nouveau roman found in her longer works.
MacLachlan, Christopher. “Muriel Spark and the Gothic.” In Studies in Scottish Fiction: 1945 to the Present, 125–145.
Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1996. McQuillan, Martin, ed. Theorizing Muriel Spark: Gender, Race, and Deconstruction. New York: Palgrave, 2002.
Rankin, Ian. “The Deliberate Cunning of Muriel Spark.” In The Scottish Novel since the Seventies: New Visions, Old Dreams, 41–53.
Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1993. Spark, Muriel. Complete Short Stories. London: Penguin, 2001.