>To take on the book of Job is a monumental task. To refute the book of Job — or at least to challenge some of the conventional thinking regarding the work, even suggesting that it shouldn’t be part of the Bible — is an equally daunting task. Yet, Muriel Spark, in The Only Problem does just that.
The Only Problem is a short novel (about 130 pages) about Harvey, a wealthy, self-proclaimed student (as opposed to ‘scholar’) who is writing a treatise on Job. He has abandoned his wife, Effie, about a year before the narrative begins, and can’t be persuaded by either his brother-in-law Edward or sister-in-law Ruth to provide a cash settlement in a divorce that both he & his wife want. Ruth travels to France with Effie’s illegitimate child Clara to convince Harvey to do the moral thing, but, instead, separates from Edward and becomes Harvey’s lover. Soon, all are caught up in events beyond their control when Effie joins a terrorist group that incites violence throughout the region where Harvey & Ruth are living. Harvey can’t reconcile the idea of the wife he used to love with the terrorist she has become; nor can he admit that while he doesn’t want to live with Effie, he loves her and while he doesn’t love Ruth, he wants to live with her.
Ruth flees the police surveillance and media-frenzy and returns to live with Clara’s father. Retreating from the scholarly, intellectual discussions common in her life with Harvey, Ruth adapts to the environment of her new lover, Ernie, even taking on his distinctive lower-class accent. Without Ruth or Effie, Harvey’s thoughts about Job become more obsessive, his perception of being tortured more pronounced. In the end, Ruth, about to give birth to Harvey’s child, moves back to France to raise Clara and the new child with Harvey. A year after the narrative begins, Edward comes to visit them, Harvey has finished his work on Job, a sense of harmony in the lives of all seemingly has been restored. With his writing on Job completed and his acceptance of Effie’s political actions having resulted in her death, he states he will live a 140 years with his 3 daughters — just like Job.
In the opening pages, Edward has a theory 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” (p 323-24). Like the comforters in Job, Edward believes that one’s actions affect one’s fate. Harvey, on the other hand, struggles with the ‘only’ problem — how can a loving omnipotent God also be the author of suffering? Why would such a Creator allow his faithful followers to suffer through no fault of their own? It is only Job’s faith that redeems him, despite the beliefs of the comforters and Job’s wife, that he should turn his back on the god who has abandoned him. This is the antithesis of Edward’s view: individuals don’t make their environment. As much as we seek to control it, it is out of our control.
Harvey does not ‘suffer’ in the same way that Job suffers, but he is a ‘tortured soul’. Harvey is very wealthy, yet chooses to live with only basic comforts. While he sees injustice in the world, he doesn’t take action to prevent it. He regrets losing his wife, yet he is the one who walked away — literally, on the autobahn — from his marriage. He doesn’t want people to be around him, yet cannot live completely as a hermit. He seeks to control others — telling Edward to cut his hair; telling a maid that it is her fault that he will not bring his guest to the lunch she has prepared; wanting to be alone, but unable to tell Nathan, an unexpected guest and unknown conspirator of Effie’s, to leave. Yet, the more Harvey seeks to control, the more the situation with Effie — a situation he has no power to control at all – gets out of hand. The fallout from Effie’s terrorist activities take over his life with everything from property searches, suspicions of wiretapping, constant police surveillance, lengthy interrogations, and a treatment by the media that makes him look more villainous than his terrorist-wife.
And, yet, Harvey could have controlled some of it, or at least influenced it’s effect, if he had taken different actions. If he had simply granted his wife a divorce, the media and police attention would have been different. If he wasn’t as self-centered as he is, he might have seen the harm he caused Effie and Ruth. He would have cared less about trivial things like the length of Edward’s hair, and would have cared more about inadvertently hurting Anne-Marie’s feelings by destroying a bouquet that was meant to cheer him up. If he had talked about Effie and distanced himself from her in a press conference, he wouldn’t have been portrayed as he was because he chose to talk about his scholarly work on the book of Job instead of terrorism. As a result, he not only harms himself, but Ruth and Clara as well.
It is difficult for the reader to see Harvey as suffering like Job. He does suffer, but not nearly as much as he thinks he does. But, maybe that is the point — one’s sufferings are one’s own. They may not be mythic like Job’s, but one’s miseries are one’s own to endure. And that is where faith comes in.
Spark, a convert to Catholicism, does not hit the reader over the head with her thoughts on Job and religion. Harvey struggles to engage most people he meets in discussion about Job. Mostly, this fails. As Spark often does in her work, she includes in the narrative a clever bit, so brief it almost could be missed, that the French do not understand who Job is. “It was difficult to get across to them what the Book of Job was. Harvey’s French wasn’t at fault, it was their knowledge of the bible of which, like most good Catholics, they had scant knowledge” (p 359). Elsewhere, there is a discussion regarding the correct translation of the Bible to understand whether Job’s wife admonished him to ‘bless’ or to ‘curse’ God. What Spark subtly does by including this, is to set up the difference between faith and reason. Harvey tries to figure out the ‘only’ problem by reason. Others don’t understand because of their faith, a belief in things not seen. One can choose to believe that one’s actions predetermine or influence one’s fate. Or, one can choose to believe that, despite a loving God and one’s faith in him, bad things can happen. The solution to the ‘only’ problem may be to not use Job as a moral yardstick. Rather, be ignorant of Job (or, at least ignore him), of the ‘only’ problem. Instead,choose to do what is right and moral, and choose to be content with it. As Harvey states at the end, he will live 140 years, like Job. He stated earlier that Job probably continued to suffer. Harvey will too, despite the sense of harmony in the final chapter.