from The Mandelbaum Gate, by Muriel Spark

I recently finished The Mandelbaum Gate, an excellent novel by Muriel Spark. But then all the novels of Spark that I’ve read are excellent. And as in the others, she grafts quite a bit of her own life onto her characters—perhaps not unlike Rufus’ Roxanne, below. Here is an excerpt featuring the main character, Barbara, who has recently arrived in Israel to tour the Holy Land, and hopefully meet her fiancee, an archaeologist excavating sites around the Dead Sea.

She had hired a car early that morning and driven northward through the Judean hills to Gallilee. The scene with Freddy Hamilton resembled an alcoholic hangover. On the way, she began to feel a sense of her own identity, and realized that this in fact was what she had began to lose amongst the answers she had been obliged to devise to the questions of the Israelis since her arrival in the country. She recalled that day she had been driven by a guide along the road to Caesarea … It was eleven in the morning:

‘A half-Jew?’


‘Which half?’

‘Through my mother.’

‘Then you are a whole Jew. The Jew inherits through the mother by Jewish law.’

‘I know that. But one says half-Jew to say that to mean that one of the parents is a Gentile and the other—-‘

‘But the Jew inherits through the mother. You are then a full Jew by the law.’

‘Yes, but not according to the Gentile parent’s law.’

‘What was your father’s Law?’

That was a question indeed.

‘I’m afraid he was a Law himself,’ Barbara had said to the questioner, a large blond Pole. He laughed at that.

She told him of her father and  the wild upsurge of his middle age and downfall. ‘He broke his neck while fox hunting. The horse threw him. He landed in a ditch and died instantly.’

‘My father also died in a ditch. Shot by the S.S. Why have you made yourself a Catholic to deny your Jewish blood?’

‘I don’t deny it. I’ve just been telling you about it.’

‘You are brought up as a Gentile or a Jew?’

‘Neither. No religion.’

‘And your mother’s relatives and your father’s relatives, what religion?’

Barbara had felt displaced, she had felt her personal identity beginning to escape like smoke from among her bones. ‘What a lot of questions,’ she said. So they drove along the road to Caesarea through the fertile plain of Sharon, cultivated to the verge of the road on each side. They had found the car to be cooler with the window shut than open to the hot breeze. But not much cooler. ‘A lot of questions,’ she had said, with the dying-fall of a victim deprived of fresh air and civil rights.

‘I ask her a question, she makes a big thing of it that I am Gestapo,’ said the guide to some invisible witness.

Barbara said, ‘Well, it’s hot.’

He said, ‘I asked you, because you say you are half-Jew, you say you are a Catholic, and I ask you only what is the religion of your mother’s relations and the religion of your father’s relations. It is a natural discussion, if you would say to me, who are you, who is your mother, who is your father and how do you come to be an Israeli guide, and I would answer those questions. Then I should ask who are you, what is the family, your brothers and your sisters—–‘

Barbara thought, ‘Who am I?’ She felt she had known who she was till this moment: she said, ‘I am who I am.’ The guide spoke some short Hebrew phrase which, although she did not know the language, quite plainly signified that this didn’t get them any further in the discussion.


  1. Louise Orrock says

    I’ll read the new posts tomorrow.

  2. Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says

    I have… seen things you people wouldn’t believe…. Miss Brodie’s girls on a field trip in the Old Town of Edinburgh…. I watched girls of slender means loitering with intent near the Mandelbaum Gate….

  3. Gotta read this sometime. Thanks Quin

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