“Sex is not to be mentioned…To do so would be to belittle their activities. In their sphere sex is nothing but an overdose of life. They will die of it, or rather, to all intents and purposes, have died. We treat of spontaneous combustion…one remove from sex.”
In this brutally satiric little novella, the “downstairs” servants of the aristocratic Klopstocks, living in Switzerland, have their lives all planned out for the immediate future. They will not be spending another day with the Klopstocks—at least not a day in which the Klopstocks are alive, and they are breathless with anticipation. Lister, who manages the household, knows that both the Baron and the Baroness will be meeting in the library that evening with Victor Passerat, “Mister Fairlocks,” someone with whom the Baroness is passionately in love but who is himself passionately in love with the Baron. Posting a “Not to Disturb” sign on the door, the triangle of lovers meets, determined to settle their issues, but these can be settled only one way—with gunshots. “The eternal triangle has come full circle,” one servant observes.
Convinced that death will be the result of the meeting, the servants are already referring to the Klopstocks in the past tense, and they have planned every aspect of their evening and their future lives so that nothing can interrupt the flow of the expected crime. Though the Klopstocks are, according to Eleanor “obsessed with sex,” with the Baroness having posed nude and all three having had innumerable dalliances, the “downstairs” inhabitants, are not exactly immune from this allegation, however more circumspect they may be. They will all, however, be able to do what they want after the Klopstocks are dead. They have separately signed contracts to give their stories to various news outlets for large fees, have agreed on the general press release, and they have numbered accounts in the Swiss Trust Corporate, which will make them wealthy beyond their dreams.
As the servants wait through the night so that they can be sure the crime has been committed, their own personalities come through. All are consummate servants, keeping to their assigned roles and running the “details” of the household better than the Klopstocks could ever have imagined. Between the noise from several loose shutters and a ferocious thunderstorm and rain, no one will hear any shots, something they plan to tell the police when they are expected to arrive the next morning.
Scottish author Muriel Spark is wicked in her satire of the sexual dalliances of the aristocracy, their “appropriate” marriages allowing for affairs with whomever they choose and as often as they choose. But she aims her mockery way beyond them. She also satirizes the desire of witnesses to events to land big contracts (those from English language magazines, newspapers, TV, and radio are the most prized), and the eagerness of the media to grant them—even when the “witnesses” have yet to witness anything at all. Several of the servants pose for photos in advance of the crime. When the press does show up the next morning, “the cameras flash. Microphones are thrust forward to their mouths like hot-dogs being offered to hungry pilgrims…” Interviews lead the well-prepared servants to expound, often in quotations borrowed from famous authors.
With vivid and hilariously dark dialogue, the novella becomes as much a riotous farce as it is a comedy of manners, with the roles reversed. Spark keeps the actions and the interactions moving non-stop, her use of irony, suggestion, and gallows humor at their peak, and the one-liners coming fast and furiously. Eleanor points out that “The press and the police are coming, and there are only sixty-four shopping days to Christmas.” Hadrian adds,” Death is that sort of thing that you can’t sleep off…” Even the word order of Spark’s title suggests a kind of arch message from the aristocracy to their servants—they have been asked politely “not to disturb,” instead of the bolder and plainer command, “Do Not Disturb.” Spark’s novella is word-perfect, her sense of irony honed to stiletto sharpness. Out of print in the US since its first publication in 1971, and out of print in the UK since 1984, Not to Disturb has just been released in a new edition by New Directions, an event to be celebrated by Spark’s long-time fans and those newcomers who will joyously discover Spark for the first time. (On my Favorites List for 2010)
A John Tusa interview with Spark is here: www.bbc.co.uk
Her Wiki page is here: http://en.wikipedia.org
The Klopstock family might have lived on a Swiss estate like this one (pictured): www.primelocation.com