The Magazine

Dame Muriel Spark, 1918-2006

The novelist of identity.

May 1, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 31 • By KELLY JANE TORRANCE
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

MURIEL SPARK died April 13 in Tuscany, her home for the last 30 years. The Scottish novelist lived to the ripe old age of 88. But she had been thinking about death for years. It was the subject of one of her most accomplished novels, Memento Mori (1959). In this wildly funny black comedy, a group of elderly Londoners starts receiving anonymous phone calls with a very odd reproach: "Remember you must die." Each senior's reaction to the baffling calls--are they from some mysterious stranger, or from God Himself?--is different, revealing some fundamental aspect of character.

It was a strange book for a woman of 40, just three years into her career as a novelist, to write. But then just about every book Muriel Spark wrote was peculiar.

The world has lost a singular voice with the death of Dame Muriel. Her short, sharp novels are like those of no one else. Evelyn Waugh publicly praised her books, and Graham Greene's generosity allowed her to begin writing full-time. Her works have something of the biting wit of the former and the intellectual Catholicism of the latter; but in her ability to make the absurd seem everyday, and the darkest deeds deliciously droll, Spark was in a class of her own.

Both the woman and her talent are impossible to label. Was she a Jewish writer? She was born in Edinburgh in 1918, to a Jewish engineer and an English Anglican mother. Much of her work evidences an obsession with the Book of Job--particularly her first novel, The Comforters, which even gets its title from the Old Testament story. But her family wasn't particularly observant, and she converted to the Church of Rome in her thirties.

So was she a Catholic writer? Spark declared that her conversion gave her a voice and something "original to say." But she was always tight-lipped about the nature of her beliefs. Her books don't explore specific questions of faith the way, say, Greene's do. "I don't propagate the Catholic faith, but in a funny sort of way, my books couldn't be written by anyone except a Catholic," she told the Telegraph in 1997.

Many of her books are metafictional studies of what it means to be a writer. They changed notions of what the novel could be about. The Comforters tells the story of Caroline Rose, a recent convert to Catholicism who cannot get the sound of typing out of her head. She soon discovers that the noise is the work of a writer who has had the impertinence to make Caroline a character in her novel. Of the genesis of the story--which was based on her own hallucinations due to malnutrition and appetite-suppression pills--Spark explained, "Before writing a novel, I had to write a novel about what is a novel." The works that followed were often just as startlingly original. But unlike many postmodern writers, Spark knew her first task was to tell an entertaining story.

Her novels are autobiographical, but she guarded her privacy fiercely, moving to Italy for its seclusion. Her work is tight and controlled, with an uncanny grasp of character. But she seems to have been a bad judge of it in real life. She spent her marriage to Sydney Oswald Spark, undertaken at 19, miserably in Rhodesia. The man who gave her the name she made famous turned out to be mentally unbalanced. Some of the boyfriends that followed her divorce didn't prove much better.

It's no use trying to categorize her or her work. Indeed, one of the themes of Spark's oeuvre is how inadequately we know even ourselves, let alone others. Her most famous novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, shows the dangerous consequences of the schoolteacher's attempts to mold the identity of others.

Spark may turn out to be the 20th century's quintessential novelist. It was the century, after all, in which identity--whether racial, religious, political, or otherwise--was paramount, from Nazi Germany to Stalinist Russia, from affirmative action politics to the clash of civilizations. "How wonderful it feels to be an artist and a woman in the 20th century," rejoices Fleur Talbot in Spark's roman à clef, Loitering with Intent. And how wonderful for us that we had the artist and woman Muriel Spark explore the century's central preoccupation.

Even at her death, commentators still insist on slapping their own labels onto Spark. Reuters reported in an obituary that she "has lived with artist Penelope Jardine for 30 years." That's strictly true, but the insinuation that they were lovers is not. Spark laughed at the "impertinence" of journalists who implied the two had a romantic relationship. But two unmarried women sharing a home and a close friendship is a story more complicated to explain. Out of the ordinary entanglements such as that were just the stuff of Muriel Spark's life and work.

Kelly Jane Torrance is fiction editor of Doublethink, arts and culture editor of Brainwash, and books columnist for The American Enterprise Online. Her website on culture can be found at www.kellyjanetorrance.com.