I always find it interesting when I unintentionally read two books that compliment or tie in with each other in some way. That's exactly what happened when I recently read Snobs by Julian Fellowes and, continuing in the spirit of Muriel Spark Reading Week, followed it up with Symposium.
Despite what the cover design above seems to hint at, Snobs is a far cry from Downton Abbey, though no less enjoyable. Set in the 1990's (which, somewhat oddly, is a fact that is strongly reiterated throughout the book), it follows social climber Edith Lavery as she marries into, and then later falls out of, the British aristocracy. The true heart of the novel is its unnamed narrator. Through his eyes, we witness the social dramas that unfold during dinner parties and hunting weekends at a great country house (there's even a fun foreshadowing of Downton Abbey when a movie crew filming a costume drama enters into the plot). Well born and bred himself but now earning his living as a moderately successful actor, the narrator is both a part of and apart from the upper class world of the novel in a way that's quite reminiscent of Nick Carraway in Gatsby. He provides wry, sometimes even judgmental, commentary on the actions and motives of the other characters while at the same time acknowledging his own weakness in occasionally subscribing to the snobbish nuances of the aristocratic class. Despite his sometimes sarcastic tone, he brings a certain sympathy to all of the characters that, ultimately, made the novel for me. By the time I reached the end, I felt truly invested in characters who, at the outset, seemed like they might be nothing more than amusing caricatures.
Muriel Spark's Symposium also deals with the world of British dinner parties. Guests from all walks of life gather around the table of an artistic upper class couple renowned for their elegant dinners. After some innocuous small talk at the start of the meal, things take a darker turn when the action flashes back to reveal the past histories of some of the characters, including a young bride who has a track record of being in close proximity to an alarming number of mysterious deaths and an American student whose service at the dinner table is really a front for funneling information about wealthy dinner guests to a gang of violent robbers. All are treated with a satirical tone, but of a much more sinister variety than what was found in Snobs. While that novel had me caring more about the characters as the story progressed, Spark's characters actually become more repellent as more information about them is revealed. It was a very creepy take on a typical comedy of manners.