The Hothouse by the East River

Muriel Spark, The Hothouse by the East River (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2018)
First published: 1973

Paul’s attention is meanwhile eared to the voice at the other end and his free hand stretches forth with a helpless flutter to hush Elsa’s talk, like the hand of that king Canute who forbade the sea to advance in order merely to illustrate the futility of the attempt.
‘I can’t hear what you say,’ says Paul into the mouthpiece. ‘Your mother’s talking.’
‘Elsa!’ Paul shouts, but he hears only the sound of the receiver being placed on its side. […] ‘Elsa!’ he shouts. There is a click. ‘Have you finished speaking?’ says the operator from the American end.
‘I’m still talking,’ Paul says. ‘I’m holding on. My wife—’ But he is already cut off.
It takes more than half an hour for Paul to be reconnected. ‘Can you hold on?’ says the European operator.
‘I can bear to suffer,’ Paul says.

After working in secret propaganda in England during the Second World War, Elsa and Paul settle in hallucinatory New York. In a twist towards the end of the novel, however, we learn that Paul and Elsa both died during an air raid in 1944, and that their children therefore never existed. Paul’s attempts to negate such a reality have led to their present purgatorial nightmare, which Elsa continuously attempts to disrupt, aided and abetted by a telephone. By scrambling Paul’s conversation to his imaginary son, Elsa’s voice severs Paul’s affective longing for the continuation of the past in the present, thus negating their parenthood and forcing him to confront the delusory nature of their current predicament. However, Elsa is not the only scrambling agent in the novel. The switchboard operator, who recurrently disrupts Elsa and Paul’s conversation, either by disconnecting or intruding on the call, similarly draws attention to the precarious nature of their ontological existence. Paul clings to the line because telephony provides reassurance of his own material existence. Through direct voice communication, Paul’s sense of self can be perpetuated without the need to demonstrate his bodily existence.

by Beatriz Lopez