Muriel Spark, a Hundred Years in her Prime
On February 1st we celebrate one hundred years since the birth of one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, Muriel Spark. Two years after her death in 2006, The Times included Spark on its list of “the 50 greatest British writers since 1945.” The centenary celebration is being marked in a number of ways: Polygon is bringing out new editions of all of her novels, exhibitions on her life and work are being held in Edinburgh, and a new memoir has been published, titled Appointment in Arezzo written by her friend Alan Taylor. You can keep up to date with the events at Muriel Spark 100.
With such acclaim and celebration surrounding her, it’s worth taking a look at Spark herself, especially since she is something of a paradox in that she is enormously revered yet simultaneously has been flying under the radar for many readers, who know her for a single novel, if they know her at all. Spark was born in Edinburgh to Jewish and Presbyterian parents, she left the city at the age of nineteen when she married Sidney Oswald Spark, and followed him to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). There she give birth to her son Robin, but her marriage was fraught with problems particularly from her husband’s violent episodes due to his manic depression. This led Spark to leave both husband and son, returning to England in 1944. Eventually she was able to have her son join her in the UK, where he was sent to live with her parents. It was in England, following a stint working for British Intelligence during World War II, that she applied herself to the craft of writing and continued throughout the rest of her life. She soon earned the praise of many including authors Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. In later life she settled in Tuscany, with her friend and sculptor Penelope Jardin. She received a great number of awards during her lifetime including the Golden PEN Award for "Lifetime's Distinguished Service to Literature" as well as eight honorary doctorates, not to mention becoming Dame Muriel Spark in 1993.
Her most famous work remains her 1961 novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. While it is undoubtedly a masterpiece, it is a shame that its status is to the detriment of her other works; out of 22 novels it is certainly not her only masterpiece. From her metaphysical mystery The Driver’s Seat which was nominated for the Lost Booker Prize of 1970 to The Abbess of Crewe, an allegory for the Watergate Scandal set in a convent, Spark was prolific in a variety of genres and styles. Beyond her novel writing, she wrote extensively including plays, poems and essays.
For someone so prolific, it is amusing, if not ironic, that she is known for her brevity; her most iconic novel doesn’t even come close to 200 pages, and her other novels are similarly slim. And so we arrive at yet another paradox in her life and writing. Indeed these paradoxes are in fact a great way of understanding her, and so in the interest in celebrating this incredible author let’s take a look at the paradoxes of Mrs Muriel Spark.
First, there's her identity. For many, Spark gets to the heart of the English and even London psyche. A great number of her novels centre on small groups of people and their lives in London, a fact which is made evident in a number of her novels’ titles, such as A Far Cry from Kensington and The Ballad of Peckham Rye. This has led some to classify her as one of the great English writers. Not only is this untrue, but Spark herself heartily denied this portrayal. She insisted that although she left relatively early in life, “My foundation is entirely Scottish.” In this way, she is the natural successor of Edinburgh-born writer Robert Louis Stevenson, who also lived abroad, although Spark’s eventual retreat to Tuscany was somewhat closer to home than Stevenson’s Samoa.
As is so often the case with art and literature, it is the outsider looking in who can most clearly see and depict the world around them. Perhaps even more so than her nationality her conversion to Catholicism achieved this effect. It set her apart from her family and the majority of her contemporaries, and yet Spark claimed that without this conversion she could never have become a writer. Novelist Penelope Fitzgerald quoted Spark as saying that “it wasn’t until she became a Roman Catholic in 1954 that she was able to see human existence as a whole, as a novelist needs to do.” We’ll come back to the role her religion played in her writing, but for now it’s worth highlighting that sense of taking a step outside her surroundings in order to gain the perspective to clearly portray it.
This becomes clear in the way that she crafts the various characters of her novels. The paradox here lies in the fact that Spark had the incredible ability to show empathy for her characters while portraying them in an unsentimental way, even with a certain level of scorn. Her withering remarks are something to behold: in Memento Mori, Spark decimates two characters with a single blow: “Mrs Anthony knew instinctively that Mrs Pettigrew was a kindly woman. Her instinct was wrong.” Yet Spark manages to be damning and compassionate at the same time. Perhaps the best place to find this is in her most famous character, Miss Jean Brodie, the forward-thinking teacher at an Edinburgh girls’ school. When Spark introduces us to her, she is almost goddess-like, above the mundane thinking of mortals, and her selected set of girls adore and revere her. But Spark is never content to leave her as a glorified work of art, instead she slips in moments where we see Miss Brodie's fatal flaw, the fact that she too believes herself to be a nearly divine being. The more she believes it, the more considers herself to be above the pedestrian rights and wrongs of the world, and the greater her folly.
"So she went around the various non-Roman churches instead, hardly ever missing a Sunday morning. She was not in any doubt, she let everyone know she was in no doubt, that God was on her side whatever her course, and so she experienced no difficulty or sense of hypocrisy in worship while at the same time she went to bed with the singing master."
It is perhaps no great surprise that Spark should be at ease writing such contradictory characters. And yet when Miss Brodie has fallen from grace then she becomes more sympathetic in Spark’s portrayal; she becomes more human, and therefore eminently more forgivable in her faults. I’m reminded of a reflection made by fellow Catholic author Flannery O’Connor “I do not know... whether it is harder to love something perfect or something feeble.” In fact, much of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie can be summed up in this enigmatic question.
That Spark can achieve all this in her slim novels speaks to her skill in her craft. In fact there is something striking at the juxtaposition of the brevity of her prose, and the density of literary inventiveness in her work. As Rosemary Goring points out in her article marking the centenary, Spark had a "willingness to break as many rules as necessary in order to attain the effect she deserved."
The Driver’s Seat is one of the best examples of this. A truly unique novel, it is a metaphysical mystery in which we follow a young woman, Lise, as she takes steps that will bring her to her own murder, but we are led throughout to wonder why this is happening and whether or not our protagonist knows what she is doing. Spark tells the story almost all in the present tense, a trick few authors would attempt, but Spark pulls it off, giving us a sense that we are trapped in Lise’s present as she seems determined to arrive at a deathly future that we are depressingly aware of. There is a dreamlike quality to this psychologically unsettling book, made all the more so by the fact that we are never privy to Lise’s inner motivations or reflections.
With almost a directly opposite approach, in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Spark doesn’t differentiate between internal imagined conversations and reality, and so while we are blocked out of Lise’s thoughts, here we are treated to the daydreams and fantasies of Sandy, one of Miss Brodie’s school girls. Her thoughts, or more specifically the scenes she plays out in her head continually cut in and out of the conversations around her. We get a sense of the world from her perspective, but also Spark elevates the status of Sandy’s thoughts to the same level of importance as the world around her. What Sandy thinks, will ultimately impact the people around her in profound ways.
Despite their differences, a device which both of these books share, and one which characterises a great deal of Spark’s work, is her not-entirely -linear narratives. Instead, Spark ricochets across timelines, particularly in the form of flash forwards. Spark leads us along her story when suddenly we are projected into the near future and with a sickening lurch she reframes the present with inevitability of this future. In introducing Lise, Spark describes her:
"She is neither good-looking nor bad-looking. Her nose is short and wider than it will look in the likeness constructed partly by the method of identikit, partly by actual photography, soon to be published in the newspapers of four languages."
Even with such an extensive bibliography, you can never really be sure what you’re in for when you open a Muriel Spark novel. She uses a constricted place to play around with the conventions of literary writing to fascinating effect.
This sense of transcendence from the expected modes and means of storytelling can be explored in light of Spark’s conversion to Catholicism. As mentioned earlier, this conversion spurred her to writing, and Catholicism plays a large role in her writing, from the simple presence of numerous Catholic characters, to her wider approach to understanding the world. The Catholic viewpoint can be understood from two details in two of her novels, the first from the The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and the second from The Ballad of Peckham Rye. In the first, Sandy, the perceptive and psychologically interested schoolgirl grows up to become a Catholic convert and a nun, but most notably, she writes a treatise on psychology called The Transfiguration of the Commonplace. In the second, a neighbourhood of people are shown with all their flaws and inability to reach for greater things, yet in the final pages Spark describes the streets of this drab world, in a state of transcendent possibility; like Sandy’s treatise it is the transcendence of the commonplace. Spark’s Catholic faith is one in which a man reveals himself to be God incarnate, a crucifixion is revealed in the mode of triumphant victory, and bread and wine are consecrated into the body of God. It is the divine cloaked in the mundane and even the repugnant.
This seemingly contradictory approach to the world is reflected in Spark’s approach to genre. Spark, as we have seen, is renowned for her realism, her small domestic portrayal of tight-knit groups and the shifts in their relationships. At the same time, she is also famous for her surreal approach, in the unusual literary devices we have already explored. In some ways it’s hard to believe that the same author produced all these novels, so varyied is their style and genre. However, as always, Spark unites impossibilities, and so in her works, even the most surreal elements are dealt with in the same kind of unsentimental and sparse approach. Nowhere is this more evident than in her 1959 novel Memento Mori. In the typical fashion of her early novels, the story centres on a small group of people in London, not the young women of The Girls of Slender Means, nor the professional men of The Bachelors, Memento Mori focuses on a group of friends and relations who find they are reaching old age. In some ways, this could have played out in a similar fashion to her other stories, and in many ways it does. The past must be brought to the surface, and secrets are unveiled, there’s even the recurring theme of blackmail. And yet the motivating factor in Memento Mori has a clear surrealist element, as each of the characters begin to receive anonymous calls, all with the same message “Remember you must die.” The messages, addressed specifically to each person, affects them in different ways, but what is most interesting is how little a difference it makes in Spark’s style of storytelling. Her characters are as believable and realistic as ever, even as they encounter this supernatural warning. It can be easy to forget that anything strange is really happening. For Spark, surrealism has its place in the real world and her book is nearly prophetic. Memento Mori was one of Spark’s first novels, but there are elements in the story which bear a striking resemblance to Spark’s own life in later years.
Most notably in the character of Charmian Piper, the Catholic convert and novelist, whose relationship with her son Eric has fallen apart. These elements were clearly familiar to Spark even in 1959 when the book was written. However, it was still in the early years of Spark’s strained relationship with her own son Robin, yet it feels as though she could see how it would play out over the decades, down to the details of the son refusing cheques from his overshadowing mother. Here is the greatest irony, that one of her own novels, should act in its own mystical way to serve as her own memento mori. Sobering though this is, it is possible that Spark would find this reflection on death a very fitting way to celebrate her birth.
This article was originally written for Bookwitty.com and published on February 1st, 2018.