The Public Image, Muriel Spark, Virago, 2014.
First published in 1968, The Public Image tells the story of Annabel Christopher, who is a movie star, and her husband, Frederick, an actor who never made it big. They have known each other since their youth, and it was only by chance that Annabel was ‘taken up’ by a PR expert and turned into a celebrity. Annabel has become very popular in Rome and her much-polished public image is that of an ‘English Lady-Tiger’, which I take to mean that she was rumoured to be be pretty hot between the sheets. Ho Hum. Plus ça change, and all that.
Spark’s tone is world-weary and cynical. How much more world-weary would she be now, having to deal with our ludicrous celebrity culture and a 24-hour news cycle that spews out headline after headline after headline. Anyway, when Annabel had a small part in an Italian film, the film-maker took a fancy to her and decided that she would be the next big thing. She is one of those actors who plays herself on the screen, but she does it very well. The public is intrigued by her manufactured image and before too long she is given better roles and a lot more money. Her husband is jealous because he thinks Annabel is stupid and he cannot understand how she got to be so rich and famous. Their marriage is on the rocks when Annabel decides that a having a baby would be a good PR move. Frederick does not have much say in anything any more, and the baby is duly born. Not long afterwards, something happens to throw everything into disarray, and we get to see the ‘real’ Annabel hit her stride as she does whatever is necessary to maintain her public image.
I felt rather ambivalent about this book. I like it, but the writing feels a bit detached, a bit cold, somehow. The Public Image was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1969 and critics had plenty of good things to say about it, but it did not really hit the spot for me. Maybe that is because in the nearly fifty years since the book was written, the world has changed a great deal and what was once fairly cutting edge – the idea of a woman taking control – was somewhat fascinating back then. Many famous actresses of yesteryear seem to have had a husband or manager controlling them, but Annabel is not putting up with that. Although she is objectified as a ‘Lady-Tiger’, she remains true to who she is and does what she wants to do. She is content to play the role of a ‘Lady-Tiger’ for the public, but she does not fall into the trap of believing she really is one. When the ordure hits the fan and things are looking grim, Annabel refuses to fall in with other people’s plans for her and plays her adversaries like the champion player she is.
Second-wave feminism was kicking off in the late 1960s, and Annabel’s actions can be seen as an awakening of her feminist self and a bid for liberation from male control. I think there are a lot of issues to do with identity construction, self-image and role playing that could be explored through this book. No one is quite what they seem – including a very creepy little girl who speaks as she finds and almost ruins everything. The main characters are scrabbling for fame and money but none of that makes them happy. There is a lot of outright lying, and some surprising twists as people behave in unexpectedly good ways. The narrative zips along and is funny, bordering on the farcical at times, but the only real warmth is in the relationship Annabel has with her baby. There is certainly not a lot of love lost between Annabel and her husband:
She smiled reproachfully, apologetically and conspiratorially all in one, a composite smile that infuriated Annabel. She went to look at the baby. On the way she heard a key in the lock. Frederick, it must be. She intended to hiss instructions to him to get rid of these tramps and queer louts at once, at once.
There are some zinging lines:
…in those earlier times when she began to be in demand in English films, she had no means of knowing that she was, in fact, stupid, for, after all, it is the deep core of stupidity that it thrives on the absence of a looking-glass.
I like Spark’s writing; The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is one of my favourite novels and I love the adaptation starring Maggie Smith. I am looking forward to reading this biography and some of her other novels. There are twenty-six Spark novels, I believe, so that should keep me going for a while.