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The Hothouse by the East River

by Muriel Spark


In 1944 Paul Hazlett is working in the Compound, a secret government department in Britain, which specialized in propaganda broadcasts over Europe. There he falls in love with Elsa Janovic who is also engaged with black propaganda and psycho-logical warfare in this particular Compound. Other members of the Compound are Miles Bunting, Princes Xavier, Colonel Tylden and several prisoners of war. Among those POWs is Helmut Kiel, a German who has chosen to work for the enemy and is now broadcasting for the Compound. Elsa and Kiel happen to have a love affair and after a few months Kiel is sent back to the prison camp. From there he goes on the air in a prisoners of war exchange-of-greetings programme betraying the identity of the Compound, which was supposed to be an authentic underground German sta-tion. Six or seven years after war Kiel dies in prison.
In late spring of 1944 Paul, Elsa and the other members of their intelligence unit gather in a hotel in London having just returned from a mission to the United States. Paul tells his colleagues that he has got a good job waiting for him in America and a place to stay for Elsa and him. The next day they get ready to go back to the country when a V-2 bomb hits them direct just as their train starts pulling out and Paul, Elsa, Princess Xavier, Miles Bunting and Colonel Tylden die.
Paul believes to be the only survivor of the bomb attack although he is dead and af-ter some time he imagines to live together with Elsa in an antiquated apartment by the East River in New York. He is convinced that he has dreamt up Elsa, who now is his wife, their children Pierre and Katerina and Princess Xavier. From a certain point on he is sure that those „imagined“ people have become real due to his imagination. In fact neither of them is real. They have risen from the dead or as in the case of Pi-erre and Katerina they never really existed. Nevertheless they live among  people who are real and alive. They are even considered to be real persons by everyone else. Though there seems to be something wrong with Elsa. Paul realises that she is casting a shadow in the wrong direction; her shadow falls in a different angle to eve-ryone else's shadow no matter from where the light shines upon her. In addition to that Elsa needs to meet he analyst quite often as she is departing from reason from time to time.
She spends her day mainly by sitting by window and looking at the East River.
Approximately 30 years after their death Elsa tells Paul that she has recognised a salesman in a shoe store to be Helmut Kiel. Paul does not believe her as he is cer-tainly put out that Kiel died in prison and knowing that his wife is mad. But after proving her statement and having seen the man himself  he believes  that this cer-tain person is Helmut Kiel although he ought to look  much older. Paul now feels in danger from Kiel because he thinks that Kiel has returned to haunt him in order to take revenge for his imprisonment. Kiel calls himself  Mueller and when Elsa goes back to the shoe store to talk to him he denies to be Kiel and claims that he was not yet born in 1944. Paul tells his son Pierre about Kiel but Pierre does not show any interest whereas Katerina is curious about Kiel as she had heard so much about him and her mother and that they had an affair back in 1944. As a result Elsa arranges a meeting and Kiel pays her fifteen hundred dollars in order to sleep with Katerina.

Pierre takes advantage of the general confusion and uses the fact that he figured out that his father gets psychiatric treatment to blackmail him as Pierre needs money for his own production of the play Peter Pan. During a visit of Elsa´s friend Princess Xa-vier their maid gets a fit and quits her job. That is a perfect chance for Elsa´s analyst Garven Bey  to get to know more about her unnatural shadow and her case so that he offers to be their butler.
Without any notice Elsa disappears one day and then phones her husband from Zürich saying that she is on vacation with Mueller and is sleeping with him to find out whether he is Kiel or not. Shortly after her arrival in New York Paul tells her that their son's play is opening that night and that they really ought to go there. Before they leave Elsa asks Garven to buy some rotten tomatoes. When they finally arrive at the theatre they recognise Miles Bunting, a former member of the Compound who died with them in the train, on a huge poster who is playing the part of Peter Pan. Pierre thinks that every actor in the play has to be over sixty to make it a success. During the performance Elsa suddenly stands up and starts throwing tomatoes at the actors whereupon an uproar begins and the police arrest several people including Garven and Paul. After that Garven and Paul decide to send Elsa to a clinic but she refuses to go. Paul now feels in danger from Garven as he has the feeling of being followed by him. Almost at the same time Paul tries to date Kiel for the evening because he is under the impression that he and Kiel had a sentimental encounter in the year 1944 and he wishes to repeat the affair as an experiment in order to establish Kiel's iden-tity.

In the end Paul is sitting in a bar watching a group of people consisting of Elsa, Prin-cess Xavier, Kiel and Miles Bunting. When another man heads towards the group he knows that it is Colonel Tylden, another person from the Compound. Then Paul gets up, grasps Elsa's arm and pulls her out of the bar heading towards a night-club. This is when Elsa tells Paul that he also died in the bomb attack in 1944. When they re-alise that the group are following them they continue their escape through several discos and clubs. In a hotel they happen to arrive at the golden wedding of two old friends and afterwards they visit Pierre and Katerina telling them that they (Pierre and Katerina) do not exist. Finally Paul goes to see his oldest friend once more and at the very end Paul and Elsa stand in front of their apartment block at the East River seeing that the old building is pulled down in order to be replaced by a modern one. Just at that moment Princess Xavier, Kiel, Miles Bunting and Colonel Tylden pass by in a car and take Paul and Elsa back with them so that they can have peace.


Paul is the main character of this novel. The narrator's omniscient point of view often switches temporarily to Paul's view so that one gets a close look at his character.
Paul is the only one who believes not to have died in the bomb attack and therefore thinks that he is simply imagining several people, especially Elsa. He assumes that she cannot be real and that there must be something wrong about her because of her shadow falling in the wrong direction (p.107 "She's not real [..] Haven't I been telling you for years? I dreamt her up. I called her back from the grave. She's dead, and all that goes with her. Look at her shadow!").
Paul feels superior to her but is unsure about whether she is sane or insane. He is terrified by her unnatural shadow and her strange behaviour which he cannot inter-pret or understand (e.g. that she is staring out of the window all day). Actually it is him who is mad as he is not able to cope with his delusions and has constant doubts concerning Elsa and himself (p.6 " 'Is she sly and sophisticated, not mad after all? But it isn't possible...' ", p.10 " 'She is looking for something out there.' [..] Silently Paul says to himself: 'It's not there.' [..] 'There's nothing there.' ", p.15 f " 'Help me! Help me!' cries his heart, battering the sides of the coffin. [..] 'Let me out!..' He will not sleep beside her in bed any more. Never again, never again. No man can sleep with a woman [..] who gets light or something from elsewhere. ").
The appearance of Kiel makes him even more insecure and he feels a danger to his life. Even the apartment itself seems to deteriorate Paul's state as it is too hot in winter and in summer (p87 " 'This apartment kills me,[..] It's antiquated. The heat's terrible. You can't control it.[..]' ").
He keeps his desperate condition and tries to hide it until the very end of the story. Only when Elsa tells him that he has died as well and when he is facing his former dead colleagues he believes her with a kind of relief so that his torture will come to a peaceful end (p.126 " '... I remember to many things to be dead.' [..] 'No, Paul', says Elsa. 'That was your imagination running away with itself.' ", p.133 " 'You can't kill us,' says Paul. ' We're dead already.' ").
Another trait of Paul is that he has got a tendency to homosexuality because he ap-parently had an affair with Kiel or at least had strong emotions for him during the war (p. 117 "...she will always wonder if Kiel was anything to me.").

Beside Paul Elsa is the other main character displayed in the story. She seems to be completely mad when one looks at her only superficially. But that is only due to the ignorance of the reader about what is actually going on. In addition there is some-thing mysterious about her so that one never knows what to think of her. Even in 1944 when she is still alive she claims to have "supernatural communications". After she has risen from the dead she casts a shadow that falls in the wrong direction. Though Elsa visits her analyst quite often she simply does it for fun in order to lead him to desperation, which she later manages with perfection (p. 83 " I don't want to be your analyst any more,' Garven says. 'It isn't a question of money, it's a question that you're eating away my life in nibbles. [..]' ", p.86 " ' You're all mad,' says Gar-ven...").
Elsa even seems to be in control of much more. She makes Paul feel inferior (p.19 " ' [..] and I'm only a little figure far beneath her and her thoughts.' "), sells Katerina to Helmut Kiel (p.98 " ' [..] I sold Katerina to Mueller for fifteen hundred dollars one night [..].' ", p.99 " '[..] She tosses in with everybody, so why not with him?[..]' "), ruins her son's play by throwing tomatoes at the actors and goes on holidays with Helmut Kiel and then tells her husband she is sleeping with him (Kiel). She is definitely en-joying to be careless and indifferent maybe because she knows that she is dead and not real anyway. The only person she is not fooling is her friend Princess Xavier to whom she talks honestly and in confidence. Not surprisingly Elsa is able to describe her real nature herself (p.85 " ' [..] My psyche is like a skyscraper, stretching up an up, practically all glass and steel so that one can look out over everything, and one never bends.' ").
When the story is about to end Elsa obviously changes her behaviour and becomes more understanding towards Paul and gives up her meanness.

Criticism, Judging

The novel "The Hothouse by the East River" written by Muriel Spark in 1973 is ex-tremely surprising and leaves many things to imagination of the reader. One can never really distinguish between reality and fiction for the narrator only shows one piece of the action at one time and the mysterious parts of the story are not com-pletely explained. There is no reason given for the resurrection of the originally dead characters, the existence of Pierre and Katerina and one will never know why espe-cially Elsa's shadow was falling in an unnatural direction and why no one else's? What was different about her? One may consider this challenging to one's mind but in my opinion the author should have given some more information in order to solve the mystery.
Another point is that there is a historical mistake in the story. It is said that the Com-pound members were killed by a V-2 rocket in late spring of 1944. But the historical fact is that the first attack with the V-2 rocket was on the sixth of September, 1944, when two V-2's were launched unsuccessfully against Paris. The first V-2 rockets against London were therefore launched after that date. Assuming that Muriel Spark wanted to write corresponding with real historical happenings (at least for the back-ground of her story) she has made a mistake.

Nevertheless in my opinion this novel is really excellent due to the mystic and his-torical components and the odd plot that provides many surprising and cheerful ele-ments. It is also a pleasure to observe the development of the madness of the two main characters.


Werner von Braun & Frederick I. Ordway "History of Rocketry and Space Travel" 3rd Edition Thomas Y. Crowell Company, New York 1975
Adrian Lohmann