A writer of minor masterpieces
Sep 27, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 02 • By BARTON SWAIM
I like purple passages in my life. . . . But not in my writing. I think it’s bad manners to inflict a lot of emotional involvement on the reader—much nicer to make them laugh and to keep it short.
So Muriel Spark once remarked to an interviewer. Her 22 novels are almost all short, some less than 40,000 words. Her fiction is crisp and laconic rather than imposing. But it’s not for that reason unserious; indeed the moral force of her best novels—The Comforters, Memento Mori, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Girls of Slender Means—derives in part from the sheer efficiency of their narratives. Not a word strikes the ear as superfluous or out of place.
Before she died in 2006, Dame Muriel Spark was widely thought to be among the three or four greatest living writers in the English-speaking world. Her autobiography, Curriculum Vitae, appeared in 1992, but it only covered the years up to 1957, when her career as a novelist began. Martin Stannard’s semi-authorized biography is therefore the first full portrait of the writer. And like most biographies of great writers, Stannard’s book doesn’t leave one with a heightened admiration for the subject’s personal qualities. She was not cruel or a liar, just a solipsist; and the unpleasantness of her personality isn’t of the kind to keep one from enjoying her books.
Muriel Camberg was born in Edinburgh, the daughter of a Jewish father and Gentile mother. She was an average student at the James Gillespie’s School, a respectable but not outstanding school in Edinburgh, and although she liked and admired her teacher Christina Kay—the woman on whom Miss Jean Brodie would be based—there was nothing like the “Brodie set” of Muriel’s most famous novel. She did not attend Oxbridge or even Edinburgh University. She attended Heriot-Watt, a kind of quality technical college in Edinburgh. There she took a course in précis-writing that, as she recalled in her autobiography, affected her prose style as much or more than the “broad, humane, poetry-loving approach” of Miss Kay and Gillespie’s.
Aged 19 she married Sydney Oswald Spark, who then took a teaching post in Rhodesia. It was only after the marriage that Muriel discovered that Ossie (as she called him) had some fairly serious psychiatric problems. The pair had a son, Robin, but the marriage fell apart and Muriel, stranded in Africa for a few years, at last attained a berth on a troopship headed for Britain. After the war she lived as a literary bachelor in London, doing a series of odd jobs, living in bed sits, and publishing poetry and books on Mary Shelley and Wordsworth, the latter cowritten with a minor literary critic named Derek Stanford, with whom she cohabited. In 1947, with Stanford’s help, she became editor of Poetry Review—a position carrying great esteem in those years—but was hounded out of it when she tried to make the journal interesting.
The break came in 1951. She had entered The Observer’s short story contest and won with a story—her first attempt—titled “The Seraph and the Zambesi.” Like all of her best fiction, the story combines a light, vaguely unworldly texture with the authoritative tone of moral seriousness. The story won, beating out nearly 7,000 competitors. Over the next two years she produced a book of poetry, a selection of the poems of Emily Brontë, a critical biography of John Masefield, and several impressive review essays. For a number of years she had been interested in Christianity and in 1952 had been baptized an Anglican. It was not for her a merely intellectual decision: She informed Stanford, whom she still loved, that they would have to live separately until married.
In December of the following year, however, she experienced one of the famous mental breakdowns of literary history. While taking Dexedrine as an appetite suppressant, she began to discern coded messages hidden within the text of T. S. Eliot’s new play The Confidential Clerk. Some of the messages, she told her friends in a tone of dead seriousness, were threats. This went on for months until, on the advice of a psychiatrist, she went off the drug.
Stanford, now more of a collaborator and friend than lover, wrote to Eliot sheepishly explaining the situation. “If there is any code concealed,” Eliot responded, “I shall be interested to know what it is.”