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.”
All this brought Spark to a crisis, and in 1954 she concluded that her only choice was to follow Cardinal Newman, whose writings she had been studying for several years, into the Roman Catholic Church. By the following fall her symptoms had abated, but she was an emotional wreck and clearly needed a change. Stanford had written to everyone he knew with money, asking for a donations to get his friend some sort of help. (Graham Greene contributed handsomely.) With Stanford’s help, Spark was able to check herself into a Carmelite retreat center, The Friars at Aylesford Priory, and used the next several months of tranquility to write a novel about her experience.
That novel was The Comforters, a wickedly funny story about a young woman, a recent Catholic convert, who eventually learns to deal with her psychosis—she hears voices in her head—by scribbling down what the voices say and turning the results into a novel. Reviewers loved it. Evelyn Waugh had just published The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, a novel based on his own breakdown, and said frankly in his review that he was “struck by how much more ambitious [than his own] was Miss Spark’s essay and how much better she had accomplished it.”
With The Comforters Spark entered a six-year period of bewildering creativity. She produced seven novels: all of them intellectually engaging, funny, and beautifully written; three of them masterpieces. In Memento Mori (1959) a group of loosely connected elderly friends begins receiving phone calls. “Remember,” the caller says, “you must die.” Sometimes it’s the voice of a man, sometimes of a woman. Sometimes the recipient responds aggressively, sometimes with fear, and in at least one instance with delighted equanimity. It’s never clear who or what is behind the calls; a retired police inspector concludes the caller is “Death himself.” In any case, the simple reminder of death’s inevitability has the effect of uncovering all manner of secrets: blackmail, forgotten adulteries, intrigues. There have been very few writers capable of producing side-achingly funny novels on deadly serious themes. Muriel Spark was one of them.
Two novels and two years later Spark would write her most famous book, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961). Jean Brodie is the cantankerous, unconventional schoolteacher who wins the affection of several of her girls, chief among them Sandy Stranger, and who attempts to put her “stamp” on them and so predetermine their life courses. The novel is an attack on the propensity to subsume human beings under facile and simplistic categories: a propensity most clearly pronounced, the novel suggests, in the various disciplines of psychology. But in order to understand the work, it’s necessary to get rid of the idea—frequently repeated by intelligent critics—that Spark was a “postmodern” novelist before that term existed. These critics point out, correctly, that the narrative voice of many of her novels, and particularly of her early novels, exercises an arbitrary control over the events they describe. What these critics miss, however, is that the narrators of Spark’s early fiction are not disembodied “omniscient” narrators; they are characters in the story.
This is the key to understanding The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, in which the narrator, in gentle euphonious prose, makes jarringly strange remarks about some of the story’s characters. “Speech is silver but silence is golden,” says Miss Brodie in the middle of one of her classroom discussions.
Now, it’s true that Mary would die in a hotel fire—although why the narrator mentions it at this moment is certainly odd. But what sort of objective or omniscient narrator would refer to a character as having “merely two eyes, a nose and a mouth like a snowman”? And was Mary really stupid? There is evidence in the novel that she was not. In fact, this is no omniscient narrator at all. It’s Sandy Stranger—who, as the narrative goes on to make clear, feels a compelling need to believe Mary was as stupid as she, Sandy, had always said she was. Once you realize that Sandy is the writer, you reread the book as a different story, almost as one might read the original text of a palimpsest. Otherwise The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is just another stylistically weird postwar novel to which academic critics may plausibly apply the term “postmodern.”
Spark did something similar two years later. In The Girls of Slender Means (1963), she drew on her experience in London just after the war. Again the narrative style strikes the ear as at once mellifluous and slightly odd, but the atmosphere is lighter and there is no hint of vendetta or self-justification. The novel’s famous opening paragraph is Spark at her subtle best:
The boarding house Spark had resided in, the Helena Club, becomes the May of Teck Club, which “exists for the Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years.” These young women are at that stage of life when responsibilities are coming, but haven’t come yet, and when it’s still possible to act foolishly and childishly and get away with it. (“Filthy luck,” one girl announces, “I’m preggers. Come to the wedding.”) The blithe world of the May of Teck Club comes to an end when an unexploded bomb detonates and the building catches fire. In the ensuing mayhem, the lover of one of the girls, a young anarchist poet, witnesses an act of avarice so inhuman that he is driven to instant and radical spiritual reflection.
The Girls of Slender Means is Spark’s best book. It’s not so intellectually dazzling as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, but it’s funnier, more plausible without being “realist” in any sense, and its conclusion knocks the wind out of you.
Spark had visited Israel in 1961 with the intention of writing a longer, more “serious” novel about her half-Jewish heritage. It took her four years to finish it. The Mandelbaum Gate (1965) is a competent and interesting work of fiction, but it lacks the graceful obliquity that had made her work famous, and in contrast to her other works, it takes longer to say less. A few critics praised the book, but mainly (one suspects) because by the mid-1960s critics were in the habit of praising her. In fact, she was no good at “big” themes on sprawling canvases. There would be no Brideshead Revisited. In the 1970s her productivity continued unabated, but something had clearly happened. It’s almost as if, after the failure of the thematically ambitious Mandelbaum Gate, Spark retreated into a kind of soulless quest for formal originality. It’s certainly true that her novels of the 1970s are often brilliantly original. In The Driver’s Seat (1970), a northern European tourist orchestrates her own murder in Rome, her death foretold near the beginning of an eerie present-tense narrative (“She will be found tomorrow morning dead from multiple stab wounds”). The Abbess of Crewe (1974) replicates Watergate in a monastery. But these and the other works from the 1970s—Not to Disturb (1971), Hothouse by the East River (1973), The Takeover (1976), Territorial Rights (1979)—for all their sleek technique and sophisticated suggestiveness, leave one wondering what on earth they’re about.
Curiously, it’s precisely at this point—the 1970s—that Stannard’s biography begins to bore. One sympathizes with literary biographers: The first half of their subjects’ lives are almost always more interesting than the second half. Spark’s life is no exception. In the early 1960s she had spent most of her time in New York and considered moving to America permanently, but had grown weary of it and moved to Italy, first to Rome, later to Tuscany. At least in Stannard’s account, from roughly 1965 to the end in 2006, Spark’s life consisted of little more than the writing of a novel every three or four years and a variety of quarrels with agents, editors, and friends. She seems to have fallen out with almost every friend she ever had, even cutting her son out of her will when he insisted that both her parents were Jewish, not just her father.
It’s impossible to say whether the contentiousness and unhappiness Spark felt throughout the second half of her life was the cause or effect of the unevenness of her writing. I had always assumed it had to do with geography: Clearly, she should never have left Britain. In fact, though, she wrote The Girls of Slender Means entirely in New York, in an office provided by the New Yorker. The real trouble with Spark’s later fiction is that she was too much of an innovator. She was not content to write more of the same. That is an understandable attitude, and a pardonable one in a woman who had written at least three minor masterpieces. Unfortunately, more of the same would have been better than the “experimental” Hothouse by the East River or the clever but thoroughly forgettable Territorial Rights or The Only Problem (1984)—the latter supposedly a reflection on the Book of Job but in fact a rambling academic snoozer.
Spark was always at her best, by contrast, when writing in the female voice. Her only works from the 1970s, ’80s, or ’90s to achieve indisputable critical success are the semi-autobiographical novels Loitering with Intent (1981) and A Far Cry from Kensington (1988). Both are narrated in the first-person and express aspects of Spark’s own personality; and although neither exercises the moral power of her early novels, both engage the intellect on multiple levels and both are hilarious. Spark’s strength as a novelist lay foremost in self-expression.
Martin Stannard had access to all of Muriel Spark’s papers and correspondence and has been conducting interviews in preparation for this book for more than 15 years. He offers a fair share of genuine revelations: For instance, that in 1963 she had a strong romantic interest in Lionel Trilling. But this is not the biography Spark’s admirers had hoped for.
There is the fact that Stannard is attitudinally ill-equipped to write a biography of Muriel Spark: Virtually all of her writings, in his view, are equally and unprecedentedly brilliant. He is, moreover, incapable of passing judgment on her sometimes-outrageous conduct. It’s easy to enjoy the tantrums and eccentricities of a literary prima donna—Spark once checked herself into a hospital in Rome because her refrigerator was broken—but even the most sympathetic of biographers has a duty to admit it when his subject’s behavior is manifestly culpable. Spark did virtually nothing to raise her son, leaving the job entirely to her parents and especially to her mother, for whom she had hardly a kind word. Stannard, for his part, never explicitly mentions this remarkable fact.
Equally irritating is Stannard’s almost total avoidance of direct quotations from Spark’s correspondence. He paraphrases throughout, directing readers to see manuscripts housed at the National Library of Scotland and elsewhere. Perhaps there was some difficulty with her estate; if so, Stannard or his publisher ought to have come to a satisfactory agreement before he brought out a full-length biography almost totally bereft of Spark’s unpublished words. Nor is any of this made any easier by Stannard’s intermittently awful prose. At any moment his sentences are apt to turn purple:
And on William Shawn:
I’m told on reliable authority that, before she died, Spark read a draft of this work and hated it. It’s not hard to see why. Still, after wading through 600 pages of Stannard’s bumbling verbiage, Spark’s understated, efficient prose delights more than ever.
Barton Swaim is the author of Scottish Men of Letters and the New Public Sphere: 1802-1834.
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