A writer of minor masterpieces
Sep 27, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 02 • By BARTON SWAIM
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.
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