In a tiny, walled cemetery in Tuscany lies the body of one of the most original writers of the 20th century. Inscribed on the simple stone slab are the words: Muriel Spark, Poeta, 1918-2006. Although she began her career as a prize-winning poet, she is best known for her fiction. The move from poetry to the novel, which she regarded as an inferior art form, “a lazy way of writing poetry,” coincided with her conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1954, after which she wove threads of theology into virtually everything she wrote. She always maintained that her artistic inspiration came from the Holy Spirit—for her, the most important person of the Trinity.
Spark published an autobiography covering the first 39 years of her life, called Curriculum Vitae (1992), which consists of a series of intriguing vignettes. While it is engaging, it is at the same time evasive, revealing very little about its subject. After reading Martin Stannard’s account of the life of Evelyn Waugh, she invited the author to write her biography, offering exclusive interviews and unrestricted access to her voluminous archives. She was, however, not pleased with his manuscript and withdrew her cooperation. Yet Stannard’s recently published rendition of her life, Muriel Spark: The Biography (W. W. Norton), is a sympathetic one. His scholarship is admirable, and his reading of her work is insightful. The use of the definite article in the subtitle of this well-written volume seems to imply that in the author’s opinion, his is the definitive biography of this grande dame of letters. And he is probably right.
Muriel Spark was born Muriel Camberg, in Edinburgh, of a Jewish father and a Presbyterian mother—or so she believed. Stannard’s research suggests that both parents may in fact have been Jewish. Her religious impulses seemed to be symbolized by her native city’s Castle Rock. “To have a great, primitive black crag rising up in the middle of populated streets of commerce, stately squares, and winding closes,” she mused, “is like the statement of an unmitigated fact preceded by ‘nevertheless.’” In the middle of worldly enterprises, she once remarked, “there is, nevertheless, the inescapable fact of God.”
At age 19 she sailed to the British colony of Rhodesia—now Zimb-abwe—to marry Sydney Spark, an expatriate mathematics teacher 13 years her senior, who proved to be mentally ill and prone to violence. The marriage, a disaster, was dissolved after the birth of their son, Robin. World War II was underway, but Spark managed to gain passage on one of the last boats to England, leaving six-year-old Robin behind in the care of nuns. The child arrived in Scotland a year and some months later and was deposited with Spark’s parents, who raised him, while his mother took a room at a London club for “ladies of good family”—later to appear as a boarding house in The Girls of Slender Means (1963)—and found work for a while in the Political Intelligence Department of the British Foreign Office, where her creative talents were put to use inventing bogus news items for propaganda broadcasts. This secret activity was later used in The Hothouse of the East River (1973). After the war she worked at various jobs while trying to establish herself as a writer.
Spark had an unfortunate love affair with the poet and literary journalist Derek Stanford, who worked with her on monographs of Mary Shelley, Emily Brontë and John Masefield, among others, and, significantly, on the editing of the letters of Cardinal John Henry Newman. (She was struck by Newman’s statement that a Christian view of the universe is a poetic one. Her intense interest in his writings is explicitly demonstrated in Loitering With Intent (1981). When she became seriously ill, Stanford ran her business affairs and gave her assistance in other ways. His is the first critical and biographical study of Muriel Spark. She gave him up as a lover when she entered the church, but they remained friends for many years until he “betrayed” her by selling her letters to a collector. In retaliation, she drew a caricature of him in A Far Cry From Kensington (1988).
Depressed and Delusional
Spark’s career turned a corner when she won first prize in a short story competition, an event that firmly established her as a writer of fiction. Grindingly poor with scarcely enough to eat, she experienced a mental breakdown brought on largely by drug poisoning: Dexedrine was sold over the counter to assist in dieting. She lost weight, economized on food, and her mind was sharpened for long sleepless nights of writing. But she began to hallucinate. She was adamant that T. S. Eliot was sending her threatening messages in code. Words on a page rearranged themselves into frightening anagrams. As she withdrew from Dexedrine, depression set in, but her treatment and the support of friends near and distant effected a steady recovery. Graham Greene, for one, sent her a small monthly allowance accompanied by a few bottles of red wine to alleviate the sting of charity.
Like many novelists, Spark used her personal experiences, even the most intimate, as grist for the mill; she plundered the lives of others as well as her own for material with which she constructed her fictional worlds. To varying degrees, her narratives mirror her thoughts and her history, including her delusions. Caroline, in the first of Spark’s 22 novels, The Comforters (1957), which is a novel about writing a novel, hears typing sounds in her head along with voices that either repeat or predict her thoughts, while the protagonist of Loitering With Intent discovers that what she is writing is becoming reality.
When she signed the contract for Robinson (1958), her second and more obscurely autobiographical novel, she laid down the ground rules: her punctuation, intentionally unorthodox, was not to be altered; no passages were to be deleted on the grounds of “mild indecency”; and she insisted on veto power over all publicity materials. Stannard relates that when a grammatical error was pointed out to her, she replied, “If I write it, it’s grammatical.” Writing furiously in longhand, she began producing novels at the rate of almost one a year, along with dozens of short stories, plays and essays.
It was, however, the publication of her most famous work, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), in which she drew upon the school she had attended as a young girl and the eccentric, charismatic teacher she had encountered there, that made its author a celebrity and financially secure for life. This legendary tale of an Edinburgh spinster school teacher—who devotes her middle years to her “gerrils,” her favored pupils whom she calls “the crème de la crème,” appeared in its entirety in The New Yorker and was subsequently adapted for stage, screen and television. Vivacious, affectionate and beautiful, Spark thoroughly enjoyed her success—dressed glamorously, kept apartments in New York and Rome, bought a racehorse from the queen and hobnobbed with the famous and illustrious.
Predictably she and Robin, her son, grew estranged, especially after he embraced Orthodox Judaism, insisting that both his grandparents were Jewish, and hence his mother as well. The dispute became a public feud. She accused him of seeking publicity to further his career as an artist. The estrangement continued into her later years, when she cut him definitively out of her will, leaving her entire fortune to her artist friend and companion of more than 30 years, Penelope Jardine, who had settled down with her in Tuscany, serving as her secretary. (Spark laughingly denied rumors that the relationship was a lesbian one.) While presenting the carefully researched facts, Stannard makes every effort to soften his portrait of a talented, charming but neglectful mother, ready and willing—like a lot of other great writers—to sacrifice everything for the sake of her art.
One of the most notable characteristics of her fiction is the metaphysical component. In Memento Mori (1959), for example, her characters, one after another, receive an anonymous phone call with the strange message, “Remember you must die,” a dramatic reminder of human mortality, the underlying theme being that life should be lived with death in mind. Her work makes the statement, she claimed, that there is a life beyond this one. Spark was intrigued by the Book of Job, “the pivotal book of the Bible.” In The Only Problem (1984) she explores, as in The Comforters, the mystery of ubiquitous suffering in the light of a benevolent, loving God. Her fiction, in general, depicts a world fallen from grace, peopled by characters with a damaged nature.
‘An Intellectual’s Novelist’
It has been remarked that Spark’s novels belong to some larger, transcendental plot that her characters are hardly aware of and that the novelist herself can only gesture toward. Often this gesturing is overtly religious. The Bachelors (1960), for instance, is a contemplation of the forces of good and evil, original sin and what it means to be a Roman Catholic. The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960), an examination, in part, of free will, is at the same time an assertion that Satan, the master of deceit and disguise, roams the world seeking the ruin of mankind. And the central character of The Mandelbaum Gate (1965) motivates another to commitment and action by quoting the well-known passage from the Apocalypse: “Being what thou art, lukewarm, neither cold nor hot, thou wilt make me vomit thee out of my mouth.” In interviews, she was wont to draw a parallel between the divine creation and the outpourings of the novelist.
Spark employs satire to great effect, her humor being both malicious and delightful. Known for her wit, her darkly comic—sometimes macabre—prose, her sedulous avoidance of sentiment, her economy of style and her penchant for creating bizarre characters that come and go as in a soap opera, her novels, for the most part, are slender and brilliantly plotted.
Scholars have difficulty categorizing Muriel Spark; she has no identifiable precursors. Some have labeled her a postmodernist. Many critics have called her “an intellectual’s novelist,” since her work provokes profound thought as well as an emotional response, often an unsettling one. Her conviction that literature should not only give pleasure but also be concerned with values places her firmly in the great moral tradition of British literature. David Lodge observes, with justification, that her writings illustrate the literary concept of the Russian fundamentalists that the function of art is to defamiliarize or “make strange” the world, so that the effect is sometimes surrealistic.
The recipient of a plethora of prizes and honors, Spark was named a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1993.
Martin Stannard’s biography (with 16 pages of black-and-white photos) of this grande dame from Edinburgh was 17 years in the making. As he summarizes: “She was first, last, and always, a poet.”