The House Of The Famous Poet by Muriel Spark, 1966
The magic trick:
Using an element that hints at the surreal and supernatural to lower the emotional boom
Set in 1944 and published in 1966, this story has the sheen of nostalgia only made possible by the intervening 22 years. And it’s lovely as such.
Things don’t truly take a melancholy turn until the soldier reappears at the end selling an abstract funeral. It’s an odd bit of magic realism. Odd because, well, it’s an odd concept. But also because it never pushes the story all the way into the realm of fantasy. We remain very much in 1944 England. It’s just that suddenly we have a kind of supernatural element in the story that adds nostalgia, a touch of the macabre, and a whole ton of sadness. And that’s quite a trick on Spark’s part.
The train pulled up. The soldier leaped down and waved. As the train started again, I unpacked my abstract funeral and looked at it for a few moments.
“To hell with the idea,” I said. “It’s a real funeral I want.”
“All in good time,” said a voice from the corridor.
“You again,” I said. It was the soldier.
“No,” he said. “I got off at the last station. I’m only a notion of myself.”
“Look here,” I said, “would you be offended if I threw all this away?”
“Of course not,” said the solider. “You can’t offend a notion.”
“I want a real funeral,” I explained. “One of my own.”
“That’s right,” said the soldier.
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