The Magazine

Memento Muriel

A writer of minor masterpieces

Sep 27, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 02 • By BARTON SWAIM
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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:

Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions. The streets of the cities were lined with buildings in bad repair or in no repair at all, bomb-sites piled with stony rubble, houses like giant teeth in which decay had been drilled out, leaving only the cavity. Some bomb-ripped buildings looked like the ruins of ancient castles until, at a closer view, the wallpapers of various quite normal rooms would be visible, room above room, exposed, as on a stage, with one wall missing; sometimes a lavatory chain would dangle over nothing from a fourth- or fifth-floor ceiling; most of all the staircases survived, like a new art-form, leading up and up to an unspecified destination that made unusual demands on the mind’s eye. All the nice people were poor; at least, that was a general axiom, the best of the rich being poor in spirit.

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: 

The dutiful earnestness of the female students at Edinburgh University did not appeal. That was death. Art was life. .  .  . [Edinburgh] was the locus of conflicting memories: of those who had tried to impose guilt for the audacity of claiming independence, of the solid pleasures of a well-regulated, prelapsarian life.

And on William Shawn: 

a little big man, he was principled and devoid of arrogance. Complicated. Unknowable. A grave of confidences. 

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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