Dame Muriel Spark
b. 1918 – d. 2006
Dame Muriel Spark remembered – by Peter Kemp
‘Readers of novels were not yet used to the likes of me,’ Muriel Spark observed of Macmillan’s nervousness over publishing her first novel,The Comforters, in 1957. By the time she died in Florence almost half a century later on 13 April 2006, she had published 21 more novels but lost none of her striking uniqueness. Not the least surprising thing about her fiction is that it got written at all. For she always maintained she was essentially a poet. She produced two volumes of verse (and edited Poetry Review from 1947 to 1949). Though it was fiction that established her as one of the most distinctive and distinguished writers of her age, she insisted: ‘My novels are the novels of a poet. I think like a poet and react as one.’
Her route to literary success was characteristically individual. As Muriel Sarah Camberg – born in Edinburgh in 1918, daughter of a Scottish Jewish father and an English mother – she left James Gillespie’s School (immortalised in her best-known book, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) at seventeen. After taking a précis-writing course (whose fruits seem lastingly apparent in her elegantly pared-down prose), she did teaching and secretarial work before plunging into what she later called ‘the big disaster’ of her marriage: to Sydney Oswald Spark, thirteen years her senior and ominously known by his initials, S.O.S. The marriage took place in 1937 in Rhodesia (a world recalled in stories in The Go-Away Bird and Voices at Play). Within two years it broke apart because of her husband’s increasing mental instability (‘He became a borderline case, and I didn’t like what I found either side of the border’). Divorcing him but retaining his surname because ‘it seemed to have some ingredient of life and fun’, Muriel Spark returned to Britain in 1944. Robin, their son, with whom she was to have a troubled relationship, was left in the care of nuns, journeying to Britain after the War.
Postwar London saw her subsisting in bedsits by freelance literary work. During this period, she published studies of Mary Shelley, Emily Bronte and John Masefield. But in 1951 her career was nudged towards its true course when she won an Observer competition with The Seraph and the Zambezi, a short story that gave a first glimpse of her highly original talent. Inducements to write a novel followed. What eventually impelled her to do so was conversion to Catholicism (after a breakdown brought on by malnourishment and overwork) in 1954. Then, she ‘began to see life as a whole rather than as a series of disconnected happenings’; ‘the Catholic view’ seemed ‘very much more economic’.
Economy – of style and structure – proved integral to the eight novels she published in astonishingly quick succession from The Comfortersin 1957 to The Mandelbaum Gate in 1965, the years of her remarkable fictional prime. Small worlds are concentrated on. Characters share a common factor (obsession in The Comforters, old age in Memento Mori, solitariness in The Bachelors) or are geographically confined (on an island in Robinson, in a London suburb in The Ballad of Peckham Rye). Her best novels, among the most brilliant of the later twentieth century, add a further dimension. Period takes on appropriateness too.The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie turns events in an Edinburgh classroom in the 1930s into a fable about Fascism. The Girls of Slender Meanstransforms a Kensington hostel between VE and VJ days into a microcosm of human inability to live in concord. In The Mandelbaum Gate, the partitioned Jerusalem of 1961 (the year of the Eichmann trial) becomes an image of dividedness and split allegiances.
One Spark character writes a book called The Transfiguration of the Commonplace. All her novels aspire towards this. Ironic wit entertainingly impales falsity and fraudulence in her fictional worlds. Simultaneously – helped by the disrupting of normal chronology by flashbacks and glimpses forward – what’s satirised is also given allegoric significance.
In 1963, Spark left Britain, spending some years in New York, then Rome, before settling in rural Tuscany, where she shared a house for almost three decades with a staunchly supportive friend, the sculptor Penelope Jardine. The fiction of these expatriate years never quite matched her early work. Four novels experimentally turned lurid literary genres to her purposes: Italian scandal journalism in The Public Image, the torrid holiday romance and murder hunt in The Driver’s Seat, Jacobean tragedy and the Gothic novel in Not to Disturb, the ghost-story in The Hothouse by the East River. Relocating the Watergate happenings to a convent, The Abbess of Crewe toyed with contemporary politics. Two novels of reminiscence, A Far Cry from Kensington and Loitering with Intent, harked back to her jauntily frugal life in postwar London (and imaginatively complement the account of her early career in her autobiography, Curriculum Vitae). More plutocratic milieux, peopled by super-rich cosmopolitans, provide the settings for other novels of this late phase, which, despite unevenesses, still beguilingly retain her sharp wit, poetic flair and characteristic mix of insouciant tone and moral rigour.
Fittingly, The Finishing School, the final novel from an author always drawn to the apt, concludes with a memorable instance of her gift for making the everyday glow with meaning. In the last lines she published, the routine words of a TV weather-girl – ‘As we go through this evening and into tonight’ – are elegiacally suffused with intimations of mortality and immortality.