The Only Problem: A Novel

The Only Problem: A Novel

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by Muriel Spark

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A wealthy academic’s life shatters when his estranged wife becomes the suspected leader of a terrorist organization Having led a successful, comfortable life, Harvey Gotham retires to the French countryside to pursue bookish obsessions—namely, a long monograph on the Book of Job, the biblical narrative of faith in the face of extraordinary


A wealthy academic’s life shatters when his estranged wife becomes the suspected leader of a terrorist organization Having led a successful, comfortable life, Harvey Gotham retires to the French countryside to pursue bookish obsessions—namely, a long monograph on the Book of Job, the biblical narrative of faith in the face of extraordinary suffering. But Gotham’s intellectual interests soon bleed into his daily life when a series of misfortunes, from a destructive affair to his wife’s involvement with an extremist group, threaten to destroy everything he holds dear. Hailed by the New York Times as “an extremely sophisticated account of the perils that surround our unsuspecting lives in the world today,”The Only Problem balances Spark’s unique blend of razor-sharp satire and moral introspection in one fast-paced, absorbing novel. This ebook features an illustrated biography of Muriel Spark including rare photos and never-before-seen documents from the author’s archive at the National Library of Scotland. 

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The Only Problem

By Muriel Spark


Copyright © 1963 Muriel Spark
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-4504-0


He was driving along the road in France from St Dié to Nancy in the district of Meurthe; it was straight and almost white, through thick woods of fir and birch. He came to the grass track on the right that he was looking for. It wasn't what he had expected. Nothing ever is, he thought. Not that Edward Jansen could now recall exactly what he had expected; he tried, but the image he had formed faded before the reality like a dream on waking. He pulled off at the track, forked left and stopped. He would have found it interesting to remember exactly how he had imagined the little house before he saw it, but that, too, had gone.

He sat in the car and looked for a while at an old green garden fence and a closed gate, leading to a piece of overgrown garden. There was no longer a visible path to the stone house, which was something like a lodgekeeper's cottage with loose tiles and dark, neglected windows. Two shacks of crumbling wood stood apart from the house. A wider path, on Edward's side of the gate, presumably led to the château where he had no present interest. But he noticed that the car-tracks on the path were overgrown, very infrequently used, and yet the grass that spread over that path was greener than on the ground before him, inside the gate. If his wife had been there he would have pointed this out to her as a feature of Harvey Gotham, the man he had come to see; for he had a theory, too unsubstantiated to be formulated in public, but which he could share with Ruth, that people have an effect on the natural greenery around them regardless of whether they lay hands on it or not; some people, he would remark, induce fertility in their environment and some the desert, simply by psychic force. Ruth would agree with him at least in this case, for she didn't seem to like Harvey, try as she might. It had already got to the point that everything Harvey did and said, if it was only good night, to her mind made him worse and worse. It was true there are ways and ways of saying good night. Yet Edward wondered if there wasn't something of demonology in those confidences he shared with Ruth about Harvey; Ruth didn't know him as well as Edward did. They had certainly built up a case against Harvey between themselves which they wouldn't have aired openly. It was for this reason that Edward had thought it fair that he should come alone, although at first he expected Ruth to come with him. She had said she couldn't face it. Perhaps, Edward had thought, I might be more fair to Harvey.

And yet, here he was, sitting in the car before his house, noting how the grass everywhere else was greener than that immediately surrounding the cottage. Edward got out and slammed the door with a bang, hoping to provoke the dark front door of the house or at least one of the windows into action. He went to the gate. It was closed with a rusty wire loop which he loosened. He creaked open the gate and walked up the path to the door and knocked. It was ten past three, and Harvey was expecting him; it had all been arranged. But he knocked and there was silence. This, too, was typical. He walked round the back of the house, looking for a car or a motor-cycle, which he supposed Harvey had. He found there a wide path, a sort of drive which led away from the back door, through the woods; this path had been hidden from the main road. There was no motor-cycle, but a newish small Renault, light brown, under a rush-covered shelter. Harvey, then, was probably at home. The back door was his front door, so Edward banged on that. Harvey opened it immediately and stood with that look of his, to the effect that he had done his utmost.

'You haven't cut your hair,' he said.

Edward had the answer ready, heated-up from the pre-cooking, so many times had he told Harvey much the same thing. 'It's my hair, not your hair. It's my beard, not your beard.' Edward stepped into the house as he said this, so that Harvey had to make way for him.

Harvey was predictable only up to a point. 'What are you trying to prove, Edward,' he said, 'wearing that poncho at your age?' In the living room he pushed some chairs out of the way. 'And your hair hanging down your back,' he said.

Edward's hair was in fact shoulder-length. 'I'm growing it for a part in a film,' he said, then wished he hadn't given any excuse at all since anyway it was his hair, not Harvey's hair. Red hair.

'You've got a part?'


'What are you doing here, then? Why aren't you rehearsing?'

'Rehearsals start on Monday.'



'Elstree.' Harvey said it as if there was a third party listening—as if to draw the attention of this third party to that definite word, Elstree, and whatever connotations it might breed.

Edward wished himself back in time by twenty minutes, driving along the country road from St Dié to Nancy, feeling the spring weather. The spring weather, the cherry trees in flower, and all the budding green on the road from St Dié had supported him, while here inside Harvey's room there was no outward support. He almost said, 'What am I doing here?' but refrained because that would be mere rhetoric. He had come about his sister-in-law Effie, Harvey's wife.

'Your wire was too long,' said Harvey. 'You could have saved five words.'

'I can see you're busy,' said Edward.

Effie was very far from Edward's heart of hearts, but Ruth worried about her. Long ago he'd had an affair with beautiful Effie, but that was a thing of the past. He had come here for Ruth's sake. He reminded himself carefully that he would do almost anything for Ruth.

'What's the act?' said Harvey. 'You are somehow not yourself, Edward.'

It seemed to Edward that Harvey always suspected him of putting on an act.

'Maybe I can speak for actors in general; that, I don't know,' Edward said. 'But I suppose that the nature of my profession is mirrored in my own experience; at least, for certain, I can speak for myself. That, I can most certainly do. In fact I know when I'm playing a part and when I'm not. It isn't every actor who knows the difference. The majority act better offstage than on.'

Edward went into the little sitting room that Harvey had put together, the minimum of stuff to keep him going while he did the job he had set himself. Indeed, the shabby, green plush chairs with the stuffing coming out of them and the quite small work-table with the papers and writing materials piled on it (he wrote by hand) seemed out of all proportion to the project. Harvey was only studying a subject, preparing an essay, a thesis. Why all this spectacular neglect of material things? God knows, thought Edward, from where he has collected his furniture. There was a kitchen visible beyond the room, with a loaf of bread and a coffee mug on the table. It looked like a nineteenth century narrative painting. Edward supposed there were habitable rooms upstairs. He sat down when Harvey told him to. From where he sat he could see through a window a washing- line with baby clothes on it. There was no sign of a baby in the house, so Edward presumed this washing had nothing to do with Harvey; maybe it belonged to a daily help who brought along her child's clothes to wash.

Harvey said, 'I'm awfully busy.'

'I've come about Effie,' Edward said.

Harvey took a long time to respond. This, thought Edward, is a habit of his when he wants an effect of weightiness.

Then, 'Oh, Effie,' said Harvey, looking suddenly relieved; he actually began to smile as if to say he had feared to be confronted with some problem that really counted.

Harvey had written Effie off that time on the Italian autostrada about a year ago, when they were driving from Bologna to Florence—Ruth, Edward, Effie, Harvey and Nathan, a young student-friend of Ruth's. They stopped for a refill of petrol; Effie and Ruth went off to the Ladies', then they came back to the car where it was still waiting in line. It was a cool, late afternoon in April, rather cloudy, not one of those hot Italian days where you feel you must have a cold drink or an ice every time you stop. It was sheer consumerism that made Harvey—or maybe it was Nathan—suggest that they should go and get something from the snack-bar; this was a big catering monopoly with huge windows in which were arranged straw baskets and pottery from Hong Kong and fantastically shaped bottles of Italian liqueurs. It was, 'What shall we have from the bar?' —'A sandwich, a coffee?' —'No, I don't want any more of those lousy sandwiches.' Effie went off to see what there was to buy, and came back with some chocolate.—'Yes, that's what I'd like.'— She had two large bars. The tank was now full. Edward paid the man at the pump. Effie got in the front with him. They were all in the car and Edward drove off. Effie started dividing the chocolate and handing it round. Nathan, Ruth and Harvey at the back, all took a piece. Edward took a piece and Effie started eating her piece.

With her mouth full of chocolate she turned and said to Harvey at the back, 'It's good, isn't it? I stole it. Have another piece.'

'You what?' said Harvey. Ruth said something, too, to the same effect. Edward said he didn't believe it.

Effie said, 'Why shouldn't we help ourselves? These multinationals and monopolies are capitalising on us, and two-thirds of the world is suffering.'

She tore open the second slab, crammed more chocolate angrily into her mouth, and, with her mouth gluttonously full of stolen chocolate, went on raving about how two-thirds of the world was starving.

'You make it worse for them and worse for all of us if you steal,' Edward said.

'That's right,' said Ruth, 'it really does make it worse for everyone. Besides, it's dishonest.'

'Well, I don't know,' Nathan said.

But Harvey didn't wait to hear more. 'Pull in at the side,' he said. They were going at a hundred kilometres an hour, but he had his hand on the back door on the dangerous side of the road. Edward pulled in. He forgot, now, how it was that they reasoned Harvey out of leaving the car there on the autostrada; however, he sat in silence while Effie ate her chocolate inveighing, meanwhile, against the capitalist system. None of the others would accept any more of the chocolate. Just before the next exit Harvey said, 'Pull in here, I want to pee.' They waited for him while he went to the men's lavatory. Edward was suspicious all along that he wouldn't come back and when the minutes went by he got out of the car to have a look, and was just in time to see Harvey get up into a truck beside the driver; away he went.

They lost the truck at some point along the road, after they reached Florence. Harvey's disappearance ruined Effie's holiday. She was furious, and went on against him so much that Ruth made that always infuriating point: 'If he's so bad, why are you angry with him for leaving you?' The rest of them were upset and uneasy for a day or two but after that they let it go. After all, they were on holiday. Edward refused to discuss the subject for the next two weeks; they were travelling along the Tuscan coast stopping here and there. It would have been a glorious trip but for Effie's fury and unhappiness.

Up to the time Edward went to see Harvey in France on her behalf, she still hadn't seen any more of him. They had no children and he had simply left her life, with all his possessions and the electricity bills and other clutter of married living on her hands. All over a bit of chocolate. And yet, no.

Ruth thought, and Edward agreed with her, that a lot must have led up to that final parting of Harvey from Effie.

Edward deeply envied Harvey, he didn't know exactly what for. Or rather, perhaps he had better not probe deeply enough into the possibility that if Ruth wasn't Ruth and, if they weren't always so much in agreement, he would have liked to walk off, just like that. When Harvey talked of his marriage it was always as if he were thinking of something else, and he never talked about it unless someone else did first. And then, it was as if the other person had mentioned something quite irrelevant to his life, provoking from him a puzzled look, then a frown, an effort of concentration, it seemed, then an impatient dismissal of the apparently alien subject. It seemed, it seemed, Edward thought; because one can only judge by appearances. How could Edward know Harvey wasn't putting on an act, as he so often implied that Edward did? To some extent we all put on acts.

Harvey began to be more sociable, for he had somehow dismissed the subject of Effie. He must have known Edward would bring up Effie later, that in fact all he had come for was to talk about her. Well, perhaps not all. Edward was an old friend. Harvey poured him a drink, and, for the moment Edward gave up trying to get on to the subject of Effie.

'Tell me,' said Harvey, 'about the new film. What's it called? What sort of part are you playing?'

'It's called The Love-Hate Relationship. That's only provisional as a title. I don't think it'll sell as a film on that title. But it's based on a novel called The Love-Hate Relationship. And that's what the film is about. There's a married couple and another man, a brother, in the middle. I'm playing the other man, the brother.' (Was Harvey listening? He was looking round into the other room.)

'If there's anything I can't stand it's a love-hate relationship,' Harvey said, turning back to Edward at last. 'The element of love in such a relation simply isn't worthy of the name. It boils down to hatred pure and simple in the end. Love comprises among other things a desire for the well-being and spiritual freedom of the one who is loved. There's an objective quality about love. Love-hate is obsessive, it is possessive. It can be evil in effect.'

'Oh well,' Edward said, 'love-hate is a frequent human problem. It's a very important problem, you can't deny it.'

'It's part of the greater problem,' said Harvey after a while. Edward knew what Harvey was coming round to and was pleased, now that he was sitting here with his drink and his old friend. It was the problem of suffering as it is dealt with in the biblical Book of Job. It was for this, in the first place, that Harvey had come to study here in the French countryside away from the environment of his family business and his friends.

Harvey was a rich man; he was in his mid-thirties. He had started writing a monograph about the Book of Job and the problem it deals with. For he could not face that a benevolent Creator, one whose charming and delicious light descended and spread over the world, and being powerful everywhere, could condone the unspeakable sufferings of the world; that God did permit all suffering and was therefore by logic of his omnipotence, the actual author of it, he was at a loss how to square with the existence of God given the premise that God is good.

'It is the only problem,' Harvey had always said. Now, Harvey believed in God, and this was what tormented him. 'It's the only problem, in fact, worth discussing.'

It was just under a year after Harvey had disappeared that Effie traced him to St Dié. She hadn't been to see him herself, but she had written several times through his lawyer asking him what was the matter. She described to him the process by which she had tracked him down; when she read Edward the letter before she posted it he felt she could have left that part out, for she had traced him quite simply, but by trickery, of which Harvey would not see the charm; furthermore, her revelation of the trick compromised an innocent, if foolish, person, and this fact would not be lost on Harvey. His moral sense was always intensified where Effie was concerned.

'Don't tell him, Effie,' Edward said, 'how you got his address. He'll think you unprincipled.'

'He thinks that already,' she said.

'Well, this might be the finishing touch. There's no need to tell.'

'I don't want him back.'

'You only want his money,' Edward said.

'Oh, God, Edward, if you only knew what he was like to live with.'

Edward could guess. But he said, 'What people are like to live with ... It isn't a good test to generalise on.'


Excerpted from The Only Problem by Muriel Spark. Copyright © 1963 Muriel Spark. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Muriel Spark (1918–2006) was a prolific Scottish novelist, short story writer, and poet whose darkly comedic voice made her one of the most distinctive writers of the twentieth century. Spark grew up in Edinburgh and worked as a department store secretary, writer for trade magazines, and literary editor before publishing her first novel in 1957. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), considered her masterpiece, was made into a stage play, a TV series, and a film. Spark became a Dame of the British Empire in 1993. 

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Only Problem 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
From Eagleclaw
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Loked out