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The Public Image

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"All homage to Muriel Spark, the coolest writer ever to scald your liver and your lights" ( The Washington Post ). The Public Image , which the author has called "an ethical shocker," provides a scalding the reader is unlikely to forget, particularly as it is so enjoyable. Spark chooses Rome, "the motherland of sensation," for the setting of her story about movie star Annabel Christopher (known to her adoring fans as "The English Lady-Tiger"), who has made the fatal mistake of believing in her public image. This error and her embittered husband, and unsuccessful actor, catch up with her. Her final act is only the first shocking climax―further surprises await. Neatly savaging our celebrity culture, Spark rejoices in one of her favorite subjects―the clash between sham and genuine identity―and provides Annabel with an unexpected triumph.

144 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1968

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About the author

Muriel Spark

177 books1,031 followers
Dame Muriel Spark, DBE 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. In 2008 The Times newspaper named Spark in its list of "the 50 greatest British writers since 1945".

Spark received the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1965 for The Mandelbaum Gate, the Ingersoll Foundation TS Eliot Award in 1992 and the David Cohen Prize in 1997. She became Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1993, in recognition of her services to literature. She has been twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize, in 1969 for The Public Image and in 1981 for Loitering with Intent. In 1998, she was awarded the Golden PEN Award by English PEN for "a Lifetime's Distinguished Service to Literature". In 2010, Spark was shortlisted for the Lost Man Booker Prize of 1970 for The Driver's Seat.

Spark received eight honorary doctorates in her lifetime. These included a Doctor of the University degree (Honoris causa) from her alma mater, Heriot-Watt University in 1995; a Doctor of Humane Letters (Honoris causa) from the American University of Paris in 2005; and Honorary Doctor of Letters degrees from the Universities of Aberdeen, Edinburgh, London, Oxford, St Andrews and Strathclyde.

Spark grew up in Edinburgh and worked as a department store secretary, writer for trade magazines, and literary editor before publishing her first novel, The Comforters, in 1957. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, published in 1961, and considered her masterpiece, was made into a stage play, a TV series, and a film.

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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 126 reviews
Profile Image for Violet wells.
433 reviews3,229 followers
April 29, 2020
The Public Image is set in Rome and about Annabel Christopher, an English actress of the 1960s who has recently achieved success with an Italian director. Spark initially describes her as a "puny little thing." Her husband, an aspiring writer, grown jealous of her success, often corrects her grammar. And not in a pleasant way. For the first thirty or so pages Spark seems to imply Annabel is little more than an air-headed puppet, doing what she's told by the men around her. Her governing imperative is to conform to the publicity image that's been created for her. Central to this is that her and her husband share an exemplary relationship. Then, the husband devises a macabre plan to sabotage her public image.

It was slow to get going and I doubt anyone would claim this is her best novel but it soon became immensely enjoyable. Annabel becomes more and more likable and we see there's much more to her than what's being projected onto her by the hierarchy of men who control her career. At times I couldn't help imagining it as a Fellini film, had Fellini ever gone in for relatively straightforward narratives. It's always a joy to read Muriel Spark.
Profile Image for Steven  Godin.
2,496 reviews2,383 followers
September 7, 2022

It's been great, really great, reading Muriel Spark over the past month or so, and I could have easily read a few more novels on top of the five already done and never tire of her, but I think I'll put the brakes on for now and give her a rest. Two of those novels would, without question, get into my ten fave reads of the year, and one of the things I've loved about her, along with her sharp prose full of wit and irony, is that she has created some brilliant supporting characters that became as memorable or more so than some of her protagonists. As soon as the name Golly Mackintosh was mentioned - the twenty-two year old grey-tinted hair Philippine Islands heiress friend of Annabel - I thought to myself 'Ah, here we go again!, another one of those minor characters that is going to steal the show'. But, alas, she didn't actually come into the novel as I thought she would. Two that do are the conniving Billy O'Brien, and sleazy film director Luigi Leopardi (generally speaking the males in this book are shitsters).
Here though, it's all about the English Lady-Tiger - the tawny-eyed actress Annabel Christopher and her perfect public imagine that really stands out. She was both admirable and a bit of a bitch. She faces a ruined reputation after her husband's apparent suicide off some scaffolding in the Catacombs of a church (although she believes he was chased off the edge by adoring female fans), and the so called 'orgy' she held in Rome on the night of his death. Her misogynistic, arrogant, cheating husband, Frederick, who doesn't hang around in the novel that long, sets up some really wicked letters and suicide notes that would shock poor Annabel. And then there is Billy who would trick her for his own financial gains. It wasn't always easy to sympathize with Annabel, but compared to the antics of the men she would at least get a hug. Once again Spark is in fine form, and while the novel is darkly funny, she does look with all seriousness at the subject of maternal love, in regards to Annabel's baby, Carl, the only reality of her life, despite feeling more like an accessory than a son. Though set in Rome, there is no real feeling for the city, which is a shame for those who love places to come alive in novels, but I wasn't so bothered by that. Spark isn't interested in painting a realistic picture of Rome, but only of her characters, and she does a really good job of that, without throwing in all the usual clichés associated with stardom.
Profile Image for Jean-Luke.
Author 1 book394 followers
May 20, 2023
Once upon a time there was a foolish young upstart reader who called Muriel Spark's novels inherently silly. And then he picked up The Public Image and was quickly, and to his delight, proven wrong. I don't think I laughed once reading this, but I didn't need to. There was nothing silly about it--well, nothing too silly. No zany plot--no murder, no madness, no kidnappings--but not dull in the least. It's meets Notting Hill (minus the comedy - you know, media sensation and need I say it public image) meets The Talented Mr Ripley (Rome, duh, and a taut taut taut atmosphere) and I became so involved with the public image of actress Annabel Christopher, that I read this brief novel with the relish of a tabloid-addicted housewifehusband. Which is precisely the point, I suspect. I hope Miss Spark is somewhere cackling at my idiocy. Mea culpa.
Profile Image for Michael Finocchiaro.
Author 3 books5,635 followers
January 21, 2020
Maybe there are just authors that don't do it for me. I am sad to admit that I just cannot appreciate Muriel Spark. I suppose that The Public Image should be taken as a work of great humor and irony, with the actress/protagonist trying to maintain her public image despite being embroiled in scandal, but the whole thing felt superficial and contrived to me and I never developed any rapport with or sympathy for any of the characters. There was some OK writing, which saved it from a 2-star rating, but honestly, I was glad to finish it and put it aside.
Some snippets that were interesting, yet imperfect:
but still [the press] were deterred by the worthy scene, arranged as it was, with Annabel and infant in the midst, like some vast portrayal of a family and a household by Holbein. (p. 72) and yet Holbein did not paint "vast portrayals" of families. Perhaps she was thinking of Van Eyck? Mostly Holbein painted individual portraits; the one family portrait by Holbein the younger was not "vast" and was his own family. It is thus hard to quite pinpoint what image she was trying to convey.
The very last paragraph of the book was perhaps the most poetic. Annabel again:
Waiting for the order to board, she felt both free and unfree. The heavy weight of the bags was gone; she felt as if she was still, curiously pregnant with the baby, but not pregnant in fact. She was pale as a shell. She did not wear her dark glasses. Nobody recognized her as she stood, having moved the baby to rest on her hip, conscious also of the baby in a sense weightlessly and perpetually within her, as an empty shell contains, by its very structure, the echo and harking image of former and former seas. (p. 124-5). I have an issue with the redundant reference to pregnancy, I think the first mention could be striken to give the passage more power. Also, I am a bit mystified by "former and former seas" as again, other than a sort of mixed metaphor of empty egg shells and the sea of time, I am not quite sure what image she is conjuring.
I think it is problems like these that give me a hard time appreciating Sparks writing .
Profile Image for Julie.
555 reviews275 followers
December 12, 2017
An overabundance of banalities here about those who live in the spotlight. Not that Muriel Spark didn't paint them well, but what was the point? For me, this was akin to reading something from one of the offerings you pick up in most waiting rooms across the country: while waiting for the doctor/dentist/mechanic to call you, you use up some time flipping through the pages of an old magazine pretending there's a purpose to your time. The story draws you in while there because, momentarily, it helps soothe the anxiety of what's coming next. You've forgotten what you've read, half way through the parking lot, on the way out.

Wonderfully satirical some say. Hmm. Perhaps. Incisive. Huh. Well, maybe at one time this was cutting edge. But, if it doesn't withstand the test of time, it's hardly a remarkable incision.

Perhaps I'm a bit of a Grumpy Gus today about Muriel Spark. This is very early Spark, admittedly. Still, it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1969, beat out by Something To Answer For by P. H. Newby. Who is P H Newby? My point exactly. These prizes mean hardly anything anymore in terms of picking out the best literature; literature that lasts. In my very humble opinion *said Uriah* the Booker is a bust for picking out timeless, universal pieces currently; and it obviously wasn't any better in 1969, if these were top choices at the time.

Yep, definitely a Grumpy Gus today.

Sorry to say this is one to be avoided if you're looking for satisfaction. Not bad if you're looking for run-of-the-mill journalism. Well written, as always, with Muriel Spark.

Profile Image for Paul.
1,219 reviews1,962 followers
May 15, 2014
3.5 stars rounded up to 4
An interesting novella about an actress, Annabel Christopher, who lives in Rome and whose star is rising. Her husband is jealous of her increasing fame and begins to despise her, believing her to be vacuous and failing to understand her fame. It is difficult to avoid spoilers as the whole plot is written on the back of the book. Annabel appears to be rather unaware at the beginning, but by the end the reader begins to doubt this. The coup de grace is that her husband sets up a party at their flat without her knowledge, and whilst it goes on he takes his own life leaving damaging and accusatory notes. Will Annabel’s image survive?
It is a clever and amusing satire on celebrity culture and the tension between real and fake identity. It is also, incidentally the inspiration for the name of John Lydon’s post Sex Pistols band. Spark is quite clinical and detached, almost surgical as she lays out the unfolding events. There are few likeable characters apart from Annabel and there is a certain ambiguity about her. It’s a brief book and has a 1960s feel to it and mirrors a little of Spark’s own experience.
Although it is a comedy of manners, it is also a blast at the cult of celebrity and marriage. It’s a good read and most of the men are truly awful!
Profile Image for Hugh.
1,272 reviews49 followers
February 16, 2022
Another from my latest batch of library books, and another very entertaining short novel, halfway between a farce and a thriller whose central character Annabel is a successful but rather limited film actor. The plot centres on her jealous and vindictive husband, who conceives a plot to derail her career that includes his own suicide - the second half of the book describes her attempts to escape the traps he left behind.

It was shortlisted for the inaugural Booker Prize in 1969, and I liked it rather more than the winner Something to Answer For, but I am not sure it quite matches Spark's best work.
July 7, 2020
A heady romp in Rome, as film actress Annabel Christopher lets the rush of her public image go to her head when faced with a betrayal that only Spark can write convincingly. As is always the case with Spark, despite the short length of The Public Image, there’s a lot packed in here, and the narcissistic portrait of Annabel is as sympathetic and believable—despite some characteristic shenanigans, expected of Spark—as only the author of the flip side of life, the dark shadow of people, can execute.
Profile Image for Greg.
1,117 reviews1,877 followers
May 4, 2012
Introduction note: I fucked up the statistics cited in this review. I just realized that if I left the bookshelf page to check on an authors page and then clicked back to the bookshelf any changes I made to bookshelves didn't stick, so my percentage isn't quite as low, it's still low but the numbers aren't accurate, maybe I'll try to update this one day, but I'm too tired right now, but with my messed up way of doing it out of my last 600 books read 109 of them were written by women, which is 18.16%. The real number is actually a bit higher though.

Because of a little flame war (do people still use this term? Am I dating myself with this internets terminology?) over on Karen's Instant Love review, and specifically this comment, "also, you should go on your male friends' gr pages and see how many books by women they have read. i can already tell you that it's a ridiculously small percentage. why? because of the perception that women write chick lit! that's why,"I decided to see just how much of a sexist pig I am and made up a bookshelf inspired by the 1987 Motley Crue classic song "Girls, Girls, Girls" to added all the books by women I've read in the past couple of years to it.* I'd like my public image to be as a kind of non-judgmental good guy without prejudices, but the numbers are a little embarrassing, out of 300 books, only 15.33% of them were written by a woman, or 46 titles.** I can try to explain this dismal statistic but, as I sort of said in my lengthy and probably problematic footnote, I think this is mostly due to my reading tastes tend to lean towards older books, but if you just looked at contemporary books I think the number wouldn't be quite as awful. I could try to explain this also that in the past year I've gone on a hard-boiled crime novel binge, a genre with only two women authors I can think of off the top of my head (and both of them I've read most of their works), and I also went through my MMA reading binge, which is also dominated by male authors (except as noted in one of the notes, one of the two major ghost writers of MMA biographies is a woman, (and I would jump all over a Ronda Rousey memoir and either buy it or borrow it the day it came out, and with less enthusiasm but still with some urgency I'd read a Cris Cyborg, Gina Carano, Misha Tate or Marloes Coenen biographies. I'd also be very interested in reading any of the 'lazy loser to mma fighter' sort of book if it were written from a woman's perspective, a sort of genre I'm not that interested in reading another book of from a male, egalitarianism, baby***)).

But, I'm working on making some amends, and this is the second book by a woman I've read in a row! Woo-hoo!!

My public image will be fixed and any woman looking at my shelves will see that I'm the kind of guy who isn't afraid to read books from a female perspective. And it's all about public image, no matter what I actually am like, it's all about what it looks like I'm like.

Which brings me to the book.

(In the interest once again of sharing more details than you probably want to know about me, I just shifted in my chair and my left leg cramped up from way up high on my back inner thigh down to just above my knee. I've never had a leg cramp start almost at my butt before, and it made me think (once I stopped cursing and clenching my fists in pain) that this might be the closest thing (region wise) that I've ever had to a menstrual cramp, I know it's totally different, but it's what I thought so I thought I'd share, if I weren't writing about this topic right now I probably wouldn't have thought that at all.)

Right, the book. This little gem won the Booker Prize in 1968. And at first I thought wow, 1968 was a big year for works of art about Public Image or Persona, but a quick search showed me that the Ingmar Bergman classic came out two years prior. The works aren't really similar at all except that they both have an actress as their main character and they both deal with some topics in the same ballpark as one another.

The main character is a vapid movie star named Annabel Christopher who has fairly recently become something of a major star in the Italian film world and is looking towards world conquest. Descriptions of her made me think of a line from Pavement's "Gold Soundz"

and you're the kind of girl I like, because you're empty and I'm empty and you can never quarantine the past.

In an early early description of Annabel, Sparks writes, "But in those earlier times when she began to be in demand in English films, she had no means of knowing that she was, in fact, stupid, for, after all, it is the deep core of stupidity that it thrives on the absence of a looking-glass". She's the sort of stupid person that smart people all at least secretly despise, the one who lucks into things and doesn't realize that she's done very little to deserve it, that it wasn't talent or anything but just something about them that has allowed them to be a success. As she gets more successful the studios build an image for her that is nothing like how she really is, but she doesn't waste anytime falling into the role and even believing that this is who she really is.

Then something happens, the something is pretty strongly alluded to on the book's back cover, but I hate spoilers, so I'm not going to say what it is, but it threatens to destroy the manufactured persona and replace it with an equally false but negative persona.

In our present age of celebrity nonsense the gossip surrounding Annabel seems pretty tame, but with some amplification there isn't really much different probably from her and say any of the reality tv stars who may believe that they are actually important for being something more than just another disposable face on a tv screen. Like, this isn't a deep question or anything, but do the Kardashians (I'm not even going to google this to see if it's spelled correctly, maybe I got it right) think they have talent? Or do they realize they are just manifestations of an image that could be easily replaced by some other some other person with exactly the same result? Or say anyone from the Jersey Shore or any of the other celebrities that baffle me by their very existence (speaking of baffling celebrities, is that Heidi Montag person whose book I reviewed not knowing a single thing about her still a person of any notice in the world of celebrities?)

So, yeah, the book. It's good. The writing is quite good although the treatment of celebrities does feel a little quaint and in a good-old-days sort of way.

*As of 5/2/12 I have only gone through the first ten pages of my bookshelf doing this. I opt to show 30 books per page, so that is 300 books got looked through last night (5/1/12) and added I think all the appropriate books to the shelf. I didn't add any books where a woman wasn't the primary author, for example a few of the MMA memoirs I read were actually written by Loretta Hunt. I might have missed some. I also only made it through ten pages because I had hurt a finger during fighting class a couple of hours earlier and it was making it kind of uncomfortable to do this. It's feeling better tonight though, thank you for asking, although it's still sore. That I persevered for 10 pages shows the sacrifices I make for semi-full disclosure on goodreads (and in more details you probably don't need to know about my life, my cat just threw up all over my bed!).

**See, the thing is, I know I don't read that many women as compared to men, and I'm not that interested in being egalitarian about it. I read what appeals to me, maybe I'm missing out on some great books because of the way they are marketed as 'women books', and you know what? It doesn't matter. Seriously, it doesn't. If a book has a cover that looks light and sensitive I'm probably not going to be into it. If it has a beach scene with soft lighting? It's probably not going to draw me in. But, I can betcha a bunch of dollars that on the average these books are making more money than the average book that does catch my attention. Dalkey Archives isn't raking in the bucks that the average book targeted towards women is. I'm not the target audience for publishers that want to make money (which is a little weird, since I buy way above the average number of books a year, but the big money is spent selling the few books a year to the greater number of people). Now the point of this hole I've dug myself into, is that I know I don't read as many women authors as men, but it's not because of some gross stereotype that I think all women authors write chick-lit. Yes there is some inherent sexism going on, but it's the kind of thing that I can't be bothered to combat, it's because for lots of history men were published more than women, and a lot of what I read (until fairly recently) are non-current books. I think if I looked at more recently published books the numbers would be closer to equal, out of living writers that I would get excited about having a new book come out for the women might be ahead of the men, or at least very very close. My views on historical sexism / racism and any feelings of contemporary guilt to go along with that are pretty simplistically summed up by the Minor Threat song, "Guilty for Being White". I'm digging myself in deeper here probably. One day I'll try to make a list of authors I eagerly await new books by and see if I'm being accurate, but I'm pretty sure that I am.

***But do the number of MMA biographies I'd read about male fighters that haven't been but conceivably could be written out number the women? I don't know, I think a woman's perspective would be pretty fascinating here. After reading one or two though I might be tapped out (oh I kill me!) pretty much like I am with reading anymore MMA biographies in general. For male fighters I'd read a Wanderlei Silva bio, and if a book were ever written about how Evan Tanner went batshit crazy I'd probably borrow but not buy the book. If Forrest Griffin wrote another book I'd read that, and I think a Chael Sonnen book would be amusing, that kind of makes the women and men equal here, with four and four. Oh, I lied. If there were a Fedor memoir written I'd read that, too. And I'm back to male dominance.
Profile Image for Cat Tutt.
179 reviews12 followers
March 6, 2017
This is one of the more random reads I've had lately. My wandering eyes landed on it on the library shelf while I was browsing around, waiting for my husband. I'm not sure what it was that drew me to it, since I was not familiar with Muriel Sparks, and the title would've held no special interest either. Perhaps it was simply the understated black-on-white spine among all the more colorful ones that drew my attention.

The first thing I have to say about it is that the blurb on the back calling it "wickedly funny" is a bit misleading, in my opinion. There are some clever phrases in it, but I would certainly not call it wickedly funny. Most of it is just rather dramatic and heavy. I was expecting significantly more comic relief in it, based on that quote, but I didn't find much.

Otherwise, it was a good book. Short, and thus not in depth, but stylistically that is reflective of the public image of the character having very little depth herself. I thought keeping the book short and leaving out other story lines did a great job of focusing the book, and the reader, on the public image, as is intended by the character.

This would have been a 3.5 star book for me, but the writing pushes it up to 4. Ms Spark is a very talented writer, and though there isn't a lot of description in the book, she has lovely turns of phrase and her writing flows very easily. More than once I found myself nodding in appreciation of her words.

All in all, it was a good book, but not great. Not one I'd be eager to recommend, but only because there are so many books I would prefer to recommend instead.

4 stars

Visit my blog at www.booknerdcat.wordpress.com
Profile Image for Sketchbook.
679 reviews226 followers
January 21, 2020
Cinemactress Annabel must deal with a ragingly jealous and
crazy husband who wants to destroy her career in this
bracingly whacked, edgy comedy of manners. Spark, who was herself betrayed by an exlover and wanted to control her own 'public image,' writes a scalding novella that swats marriage and children (as did our Muriel) in an irresistible story of "ethics," as she puts it. Her style stays GraGreene-ishly unemotional and detached as Annabel mulls how to stop false reports that she hosted sexual orgies and more. Identity and celebrity culture get cooked. What's a Star to do?
Profile Image for Dhanaraj Rajan.
450 reviews311 followers
August 10, 2016
Three and half stars.

The novel began reading like a different book dealing with the film world and the media frenzy associated with it. For we get chiefly treated to a process of image building for an aspiring actress. The actress herself plays to the created image perfectly and later when it is threatened she goes to any level of limits to preserve it. The premise looks simple and straight.

But after completing the book and mulling over the climax and few other dialogues in the earlier part of the book, I came to regard it as a simple moral story. And the moral of the story is this: Be yourself. And do not be the image that you created for yourself, that is, if you have already created one for yourself. Also avoid playing to the image built for you by others. Spark came out as a splendid moral teacher! But her strength is that she does not say it on the face like an unsought and offensive advice.

This is my eighth book of Muriel Spark. And this will not be the last. Spark can never bore me.
Profile Image for Andrew Howdle.
495 reviews1 follower
August 31, 2021
Written in 1968, The Public Image must have seemed a lightweight novel for Spark. It is short, simple in plot, but characteristically acerbic. Annabel Christopher is a one-look actress who has drifted into celebrity. Her husband, Frederick, believes he is the depth in their relationship though no one else seems to appreciate his depths (gloomy Strindberg is his forte). As their marriage falls apart, Frederick plots the ultimate revenge on Annabel. The Public Image anticipated the future -- actors who become celebrities and find themselves stuck to their narcissism. Renaissance Men and Women of no real scope, yet loved by a vacuous fan base. Welcome to the C21 public image and a world where people are expected to look up to Instagram stars and Influencers. This novel, set in Italy, is a modern commedia dell'arte and whimsical attack on English foibles.
Profile Image for Anna.
1,742 reviews677 followers
November 4, 2020
Among Spark's novellas, 'The Public Image' reminded me of the concise sharpness of Not to Disturb and The Driver's Seat. All three are very short in length, cover a very limited period of time, and concern shocking behaviour in relation to death. Although Not to Disturb is definitely my favourite as the dialogue is so witty, each struck me powerfully. 'The Public Image' follows Annabel, a British actress staying in Italy. She has constructed a popular public image based on her relationship with her husband, but the private reality is very different. Spark depicts her reactions to a deeply nightmarish sequence of events that threatens to destroy this image. The tension is extremely high

The usual lofty and omniscient narrative voice tells us of Annabel's flaws, yet I nonetheless found her sympathetic. Although her public image is absurd and misleading, it gives her agency and helps her career. The other female characters likewise invited sympathy and displayed mutual solidarity. To call this a feminist book invites a lot of questions about what makes any book feminist, but it undoubtedly grapples very adeptly with the constraints, stereotypes, and roles women live within. While Annabel is popularly considered a sex goddess, her image cannot be tarnished with any immorality or infidelity. She is a devoted mother, while her husband seems barely aware of their child. The men in her life all talk down to her and consider her stupid, then become hideously defensive if she merely comments that their creative work is similar to something else. I think this says more about gender politics than celebrity culture, although the latter is undoubtedly also skewered.

I found 'The Public Image' less amusingly witty than most Spark fiction, but brilliantly insightful in its bleakness. The introduction to the Polygon edition also makes interesting comments on motherhood in the narrative.
Profile Image for Tania.
799 reviews74 followers
June 26, 2020
Annabel Christopher is a famous actress living in Rome with her handsome husband Frederick, a writer. In public, the two seem to lead a charmed life, happily married and successful, (at least, she is). In reality however, he hates her, is jealous of her success, and dreams of leaving her, but she is too concerned about her public image to allow this to happen for now. Eventually, he manages a scandal that Annabel spends the rest of this short novel trying to mitigate.

This is not the best Spark novel, but she is always fun to read.
Profile Image for Justin Evans.
1,553 reviews818 followers
June 11, 2013
This contains plot spoilers.

I was very much enjoying this one up until the last few pages, thinking it was a very smart take down of people who demand authenticity and realness in public. The actress whose public image the novel deals with is more or less completely fake, but also a decent human being and mother. Her husband, who is real and doesn't sell out or anything like that, is a talentless hack and awful, awful human being, so bad - plot spoiler - that he kills himself in such a way that his wife will be blamed for his suicide when the cause is obviously his own failure to produce anything worth watching, as she becomes a star. Cue much discussion about the way people adjust their own presentation of themselves for public consumption.

Unfortunately, or at least unfortunately from my perspective, the book concludes with the actress doing the 'right' thing (in this case, admitting to the world what her husband did and revealing the fake suicide notes she'd been collecting in order to, so she said at the time, keep them secret), then running off into the sunset with her beloved baby child. The book is set up in such a way that this can easily look like: the 'fake' woman becoming 'real' and thus earning her stripes as our hero. But the earlier chapters upset the very idea that those terms should carry any moral weight.

It's possible that the point of the conclusion is actually just that the men in the novel had been using the actress for money in one way or another, and revealing the suicide notes and fleeing Rome is her way of avoiding that abuse and manipulation; but she can only achieve this *via* manipulation of her own 'public image.' Then you could say the conclusion was more in line with the rest of the novel, rather than a weirdly unintellectual cop-out. You wouldn't have to read the actress as a hero, either.

In fact, I think I've convinced myself of that in the last three minutes, and upgraded the novel to four stars as a result. It has all the usual Spark excellences--concision, intellectual brilliance, a cold narrative distance--as well as the odd feeling I get whenever I read her novels, that I'm over half way through before they start. That comes with the concision, I guess. Not as good as Brodie, Slender Means, or The Only Problem, but not much worse, either. Also, it won the Booker in 1968.
Profile Image for JimZ.
1,064 reviews500 followers
December 2, 2019
Well, somebody didn't like it! TLS review from June 13, 1968: "...A short book by a concise writer, it manages, surprisingly, to ramble; it makes no mysteries, yet it manages to appear rather cryptic." "The use of grandiose language is sudden and incongruous..." Ouch.
Profile Image for Andrea.
37 reviews3 followers
July 28, 2014
Not really my favourite Muriel Spark, but I liked it extra because of the subject matter. Our protagonist, Annabel Christopher, is a new mother and an actress known as the English Tiger-Lady. Her public image is that of a lady in streets, a freak in the sheets (to borrow a contemporary descriptor). In reality, her husband, an actor of loftier pretensions, resents her success, which he thinks has come too easily to her. ("She doesn't know she's stupid.") He concocts a scandal meant to destroy her. The latter half of the book consists in Annabel's efforts to survive the scandal. Spark has you empathizing with and even admiring our supposedly vapid heroine. Annabel turns out to have a hard core of independence and a commitment to her freedom. About this, it's difficult to say more without spoiling the plot, and like all Spark novels, the plot is where the themes are. This is a book where the last paragraph really sealed the deal for me.
Profile Image for Lee Foust.
Author 8 books160 followers
January 17, 2020
Although not as sharply or beautifully written as the two Spark novels I read over the summer (The Bachelors and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) this one is still quite witty and rather dramatically pleasing in the end. I'll be writing an article for The Florence News about British writers, Rome, and Cinecitta' using this and Alfred Hayes's The Girl on the Via Flaminia and I'll post the article here once it's published.

Does anyone know if Spark wrote any other novels set in Rome or Italy?

English writers in Post-War Rome and Cinecittà

A couple of years ago in these very pages I reviewed Jess Harper’s then new novel Beautiful Ruins and praised its delightful postmodern blending of American family histories, the artist’s calling, and Italy’s dolce vita period, replete with American film stars making swords and sandals epics at Cinecittà by day while hobnobbing with the jet set on the Via Veneto by night. Well, it turns out that there were some American and British writers in Rome during that fabled post-war period whose works also bear reading today. Let me put a pair of these novels on you radar should that time and place pique your interest, namely Alfred Hayes’s The Girl on the Via Flaminia and Muriel Spark’s The Public Image.

Alfred Hayes was born in the Whitechapel neighborhood of London, in 1911. At the age of three, however, his family relocated to New York where he grew up and went to university. Twelve years too young to be an ambulance driver in WWI like Hemingway, and really a bit too old to be a soldier come WWII, Hayes was drafted anyway and landed in Rome in the morale division of the US Army Special Services. I would not say, however that moral was Hayes’s strong point since his writing is primarily empathetic and consequently tragic in tone. However, what might not have been so good for his army stint was certainly good for what followed for he left us three books of poetry, seven novels, and a bevy of film and TV scripts that while they never catapulted him to fame, bear up pretty well today.

Two of Hayes’s novels, All Thy Conquests (1946) and The Girl on the Via Flaminia (1947) take place in recently liberated Rome, where Hayes remained after the war, contributing his literary talents to the explosion of neo-realistic films that sprouted from the rubble of that city and took the cinematic world by storm, notably Rosselini’s Paisà and De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. Of the two novels, The Girl on the Via Flaminia remains in print (Penguin Classics, 2018) and is well worth a read. This novel takes its place alongside Italian journalist Curzio Malaparte’s excellent semi-fictional The Skin as an evocation of the uneasy alliance between liberator and liberated in post-war Italy. Like all of Hayes’s novels the accent is on solitude and loneliness, and the tension of the plot revolves around a lonely American soldier looking for love and a humiliated Roman woman who seems to have no other choice for survival but to sell herself to the highest bidder. Yes, the novel is bleak, yet also beautifully written in Hayes’s post-Hemingway hardboiled prose, and every page rings with the truth of the tragedy of the situation.

After his Roman experiences, Hayes found himself back in New York initially, and then in Hollywood where he continued to write for film and, finally television, and where he died in 1985. He shared an office with Mel Brooks at Columbia in the ‘50s and finished his screenwriting career by writing for TV. Two of his shorter novels of the Hollywood period, In Love (1953) and My Face for the World to See (1958) have been reissued by NYRB Classics and are still getting rave reviews to this day.

Muriel Spark, the Scottish-born quintessential female British novelist of the twentieth Century, also flirted with Rome—she moved there in the late ‘60s after some years in New York and before settling definitively in Oliveto here in Tuscany in the early ‘70s. The Public Image (1968) remains Spark’s Roman period legacy, a novel that charts the trials and tribulations of a British actress, Annabel, attempting to construct and maintain a number of selves: her real life as a wife and mother, her public image, and the tiger-lady that she portrays in films. Spark’s wicked wit really shines here, as in all of her novels, and The Public Image is a fun, short read from the much more decadent, latter end of Cinecittà’s heyday. Reading it I couldn’t help but wonder if the model for Annabel wasn’t scream queen Barbara Steele, the British actress who failed rather spectacularly in Hollywood only to carve out a career in quirky and kitschy Italian horror films beginning with Mario Bava’s stunning Mask of Satan (Black Sunday in the U.S.) in 1960.

And, yes, the novel apparently inspired the name of John Lydon’s post Sex Pistols group Public Image Ltd. and the lyrics to the song of the same name.
Profile Image for Julie.
1,582 reviews42 followers
April 12, 2023
I have to admit, I decided to pick this up this because I read once that John Lydon named his band PiL, (Public Image LTD) after this book. Also, I'm trying to read more mid twentieth century female authors and I liked, not loved, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

I thought Annabel Christopher, the main character, was amazing. What a fab creation! Not the typical depiction of a beautiful young woman. I feel like her attractive self absorption was what Spark was aiming for with her Jean Brodie character but didn't achieve. She was awful but also in a way relatable. I was rooting for her the entire story.

The scene with her new Italian neighbors surrounding her while she gave an impromptu press conference made me laugh out loud. Spark captured the scene perfectly. I got a real sense of the Italian location/era. Very Fellini. Very Jet Set. I kept imagining LIz Taylor and Richard Burton as Annabel and Frederick, her husband. I dunno, I just loved the whole vibe of this book. It's what I needed in a book right now. Maybe at another point in my life it would have bugged me?
Profile Image for Carla.
709 reviews101 followers
June 27, 2022
War zwischendurch mal ganz unterhaltsam aber hat sich trotz der nur 123 Seiten unterwegs ein wenig verloren.
Profile Image for Paul.
358 reviews21 followers
April 8, 2019
This is a funny take-down of celebrity in general, and the film industry in particular. But the character at its centre, English movie star Annabel Frederick, is more substantial than she first seems. She may be largely talentless, but she is quite self-aware, and by the end of the novel you feel a certain level of sympathy and admiration for her. Spark's writing is so sharp and concise, it's a real joy to read.
Profile Image for Clementine.
567 reviews13 followers
May 23, 2019
A novella combining two of my favourite literary themes: fame and unhappy marriages. Add in the context of the Italian film industry and you have something that is bound to appeal to me. The dark irony in actress Annabel's obsession with her public image is rendered precisely and almost clinically - even in the face of personal tragedy, Annabel's first thought is how to control the narrative. Her relationships are either superficial or dysfunctional. Her marriage has been terrible for years, she detests her husband's best friend, her own close friend is never actually present in the narrative, and her baby exists only as an excuse for her to get out of unpleasant social situations. There is quite a lot to unpack regarding gender roles, especially how integral an apparently loving marriage is to Annabel's image and star power. Her less-successful husband is jealous of her recent accomplishments; it is suggested that he may feel emasculated by the fact that Annabel pays all the bills while he sits around occasionally producing a mediocre screenplay. At the beginning of the book, Annabel's husband accuses her of faking her way through her career: she is not actually that talented, he alleges, she has simply fooled people into thinking she's a good actress. Such is the case of her squeaky-clean, much-adored public image, which begins to unravel over the course of a few eventful days in Rome. A short book packed with interesting ideas about fame, the distinction between the public and private, authenticity, and married life in the 1960s.
Profile Image for Tonymess.
459 reviews36 followers
July 9, 2013
I was lucky enough to stumble across my copy of this in a second hand bookshop, a first edition hardback in very good condition and for the bargain price of $30.

This one is going to be a hard one to review without giving too much away.

Certainly one for those who want a quick read, I managed to get through it in three days and with a bit more dedication could probably knocked it over in one or two sittings. Not a complex book, but one that could still be considered pertinent today, with the main character (Annabel) being an actress who has recently hit the big time and has had a public image created by a press secretary. 42 years later this could well be the story of any Hollywood starlet (in this novel Annabel’s a British star yet to make it in the USA but you get what I mean?)

For a full review visit my blog at www.messybooker.blogspot.com
Profile Image for Pamela.
1,359 reviews
February 27, 2018
A darkly comic take on fame and media manipulation that still has relevance today. Annabel has made several successful films and has been carefully cultivating her public image for her Italian public. She is presenting herself to the world as the perfect wife and mother. Her bitter and disillusioned husband Frederick decides that he will destroy her image, and conceives of a bizarre and cruel plot to undermine his wife.

This was not my favourite Muriel Spark novel - the plot is quite slow to get going for such a short work, and her characters don't have the joyous eccentricity of some of her other works. They are mostly unlikeable and self-indulgent. However, once Frederick's plot begins to be revealed, there are some wonderful comic moments, and pointed asides that mock the press and the film world in equal measure.
560 reviews12 followers
May 29, 2017
Muriel Spark is a wickedly good novelist. Her slim precise tales portray human beings at their best and worst. In this tale set in deftly described Rome we meet celebrity couple Annabelle, a rising actress and Fredrick her playwright husband. Both are locked in a lazy marriage of convenience until the malevolent Billy O'Brien begins to meddle in their affairs demanding money with menaces.

As so often in Spark the simple tale has sinister sometimes grotesque undertones as when the bunch of vacuous hangers-on invade Annabelle's apartment and there is a real sense of feminism in the final chapter when Annabelle makes her escape.

Spark is simply genius.
Profile Image for Rae.
279 reviews23 followers
March 20, 2018
This was chosen by my book group to celebrate Muriel Spark's centenary as most in the group had already read her more famous works including The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Driver's Seat. In many ways The Public Image feels contemporary, with the protagonist's primary focus being how she appears to others, which made it great as a book group read as there was plenty to discuss. However, I struggled to engage with the characters, a group of actors with egocentric tendencies, which made it difficult to care about the outcome of the plot. That said, Spark's writing was as brilliant and witty as ever.
Profile Image for Amy.
282 reviews4 followers
April 14, 2013
I suppose the book fulfills the promise of its title in its sketch of the careful management of celebrity persona, and the lengths gone to to perpetuate what is more product than personality. I just didn't feel this was a very ambitious project, perhaps measuring it against what I feel Ms. Spark achieved with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
Profile Image for Victoria.
115 reviews12 followers
July 23, 2012
A completely surprising book, at the outset by its traditional omniscient narrative, eventually by how that failed to define the book itself. Perhaps this is one of Muriel Spark's lighter works; I will be reading others to find out.
Profile Image for Frances.
27 reviews8 followers
April 21, 2013
The self-obsessed upper echelons of society implodes. I love these kinds of books.
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