Muriel Spark died in Italy in 2006 at the age of eighty-eight. Her gravestone in a small Tuscan cemetery describes her simply as “Muriel Spark, Poeta.” She did indeed begin her literary career as a poet, and she continued to write poetry throughout her life, though her reputation rests on the twenty-two novels she published between The Comforters in 1957 and The Finishing School in 2004.

Spark did not regard writing fiction as an activity fundamentally different from writing poems. That is evident in the precision and suggestiveness of her prose, in which it is not only the words that count but the separate syllables and punctuation marks, the silences and spaces between words and sentences. In her novels, the things that are not said exercise a ghostly influence on the things that are. There is a nice example of Spark’s verbal precision in Memento Mori, an early novel that remains one of her finest achievements: “Mrs. Anthony knew instinctively that Mrs. Pettigrew was a kindly woman. Her instinct was wrong.” That chilling corrective is characteristic of Spark. It is directed at our habitual assumption, expressed in a virtual cliché, that what we know “instinctively” must somehow be right. The author reminds us that instincts can mislead, and warns us that something nasty is going to happen.

This gesturing toward futurity is characteristic of Spark; the calm omniscient commentator, who, like Blake’s Bard, “past, present, and future sees,” is a recurring presence in her novels. Spark is willing to surrender the pleasures of suspense, and she disregards Henry James’s influential dictum that the novelist should always dramatize—should “show” rather than “tell.” The deep originality and poetic precision of her writing made her stand out among the British novelists who emerged in the middle years of the twentieth century, and, unlike most of them, she went on to achieve an international reputation, even though some of the subtler effects of her writing would be lost in translation.

Martin Stannard tells Spark’s story sensitively and knowledgeably; he is thorough without losing sight of the narrative line, and his scholarship is exemplary. His subject was born Muriel Camberg in Edinburgh in 1918. Her father was Jewish, of East European origin, and worked as a motor mechanic. The family lived in shabby-genteel poverty, but Muriel went to a good school, enjoying the stimulus and challenges of life in the Scottish capital. She recreated her experience in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, the best-known and perhaps the best of her novels. She showed a precocious literary talent, which was early on rewarded with school prizes, and a determined and headstrong temperament. This led her into marriage at the age of nineteen to Sidney Oswald Spark, a much older man who was on leave in Edinburgh from his work as an expatriate teacher in the British colony of Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. Muriel joined him there and went on writing, mostly poetry. She had a son, Robin, in 1942.

Her years in Africa produced some fine short stories, such as “The Go-Away Bird” and “The Seraph and the Zambesi,” but did not greatly influence her later writing. The marriage came apart, and Muriel returned to the UK, undertaking a perilous voyage in wartime, leaving her son with caregivers. He returned after the war ended and was thenceforth brought up by Muriel’s parents, who were devoted to him perhaps more than his mother was. The bond between Robin and his grandparents had a long-term significance. Muriel believed that, although her father was a nonpracticing Jew, her mother was a Protestant; they were certainly married in a church. But Stannard’s research suggests that her mother may also have been Jewish; like her husband’s, her family was of East European origin. If that was the case, then Muriel herself would have been Jewish (since Judaism proceeds matrilineally) and so would her son. Robin Spark was convinced that this was so, and in later life he became an Orthodox Jew. Muriel retained the name Spark, not wanting to burden her son with a name different from his mother’s—though she may also have felt that its implications of brightness and energy were helpful to an emerging writer.

Living in London in the final years of the war, an experience she looked back on in The Girls of Slender Means, Spark rapidly acquired secretarial skills and for several years worked efficiently as a secretary and office manager, while devoting as much time as she could to writing. She found a lover and a literary collaborator in the poet and critic Derek Stanford, with whom she edited a number of books on nineteenth-century authors, including, significantly, a selection of Newman’s letters. She herself produced a couple of literary biographies and went on publishing poetry in little magazines. She was very hard up, living in cheap accommodations in unfashionable areas of London, a way of life later reflected in her fiction. She had good and supportive friends, but, as Stannard remarks in a melancholy reflection, “Muriel’s suspicion of betrayal remained with her for life. Nearly all those friends from her earlier lives became strangers.” Stanford, with whom she had enjoyed several years of comradeship, was excommunicated after he sold some of her letters and presumptuously published a book on her when she emerged as a novelist. He was caricatured as Hector Bartlett in A Far Cry from Kensington (1988), in which Spark recreated her literary struggles of the 1950s.

Spark’s breakthrough came in 1951 when her story “The Seraph and the Zambesi” was awarded first prize in a competition sponsored by a London newspaper, the Observer. This award and the publicity that went with it made her known as a writer of fiction. Her first novel, The Comforters, an immediate success, was helped on its way by words of praise from Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. Greene also gave Spark financial support. The novel’s heroine, Caroline Rose, is, like Spark, a recent convert to Catholicism, and the book reflects that experience in broadly comic terms, notably in the portrayal of Mrs. Hogg, a devout and bigoted cradle Catholic who regards converts as an inferior form of life.

Stannard writes about Catholicism with sympathy and understanding. It is not clear from his account just what brought Spark into the church from her origins in Judaism and Edinburgh Calvinism, though she said that if she had not become a Catholic she would have gone mad. Newman was certainly a strong influence. She was particularly responsive to the great passage in the Apologia that Greene used as an epigraph to his travel book on Mexico; it provides a harrowing account of human misery and depravity, and sees them as inescapable evidence that humanity is implicated in the “terrible aboriginal calamity” of original sin. Stannard remarks, “The concept of original sin colored her whole view of life, had released her from depression into a relish for human absurdity. But while this detachment allowed her the space to become a great comic artist of the macabre, it also separated her from the comfort of sentimental intimacies.”

Spark was notorious for subjecting her characters to great discomforts and sometimes horrible deaths, like Mary Macgregor in Miss Jean Brodie, whose death in a hotel fire—mainly, it seems, as a punishment for being stupid—is several times anticipated. In The Driver’s Seat the central character, Lise, carefully plans and undertakes a journey ending in her own murder. Spark was once accused of not liking her characters. She parried the charge, saying that she really loved them, as a cat loves its prey. There is an interesting contrast with another Catholic novelist, David Lodge, who admires Spark and has written well about her. He once told an interviewer, “When you are writing novels you are in a sort of godlike position, because you are dispensing fortune, you are putting characters in jeopardy, into situations of conflict, and you can reward or punish them.... I’m certainly reluctant to put my characters through really harrowing experiences.”

Spark was tougher-minded, and was perhaps more aware of original sin than of God’s love for the world. A significant influence on her work, particularly in novels such as The Public Image and The Driver’s Seat, is Alain Robbe-Grillet, the principal theorist and practitioner of the French nouveau roman. She proclaimed her admiration for him, and his influence shows in the reduction of experience to laconic, affectless notations, a method Spark employed to comic effect. But Robbe-Grillet wrote to a program: as a committed atheist he wanted to eliminate any sense of depth or interiority in human experience, which he correctly regarded as evidence of a potentially religious state of mind. Stannard does not discuss the implications for a Catholic novelist of adopting Robbe-Grillet’s technique while rejecting his view of life.

Lodge’s point about the novelist’s godlike role is very relevant to Spark: “creation” is a central concept in both aesthetics and theology. Novelists recur in her fiction, not in the self-regarding metafictional mode of Proust and Joyce, but as practitioners of organization and control. Indeed, Miss Brodie, in planning and organizing the present and future of her girls, is behaving like a novelist. (She also greatly admires Mussolini.) In The Comforters Caroline Rose hears a voice that anticipates passages in the novel she is writing, while in Loitering with Intent Fleur Talbot finds that her work in progress is actually influencing the course of reality.

Stannard’s biography makes it clear that there is a parallel between the patterns in Spark’s fiction and the way she conducted her life. After her establishment as a successful novelist, she insisted on total control of her books as they went through the press; not only resisting copyediting (even British spellings had to be retained in the American editions), but approving or vetoing publicity materials. Stannard reports that when it was suggested that something she had written was ungrammatical, Spark retorted, “If I write it, it’s grammatical.” One can’t be certain that this was a joke. In her personal life Spark regularly abandoned or repudiated friends she felt had let her down, and in her professional career she was quick to sack agents and publishers who did not seem to be doing enough for her. She brought her training in office-management to bear in furthering her career, and could be ruthless about it. Reviewing the British edition of Stannard’s book in the Tablet, Robin Baird-Smith, who was Spark’s publisher for ten years, remarked, “Spark was devoted to art and beauty, but she caused a great deal of human misery along the way.”

Baird-Smith believes that Spark “participated too actively in her own biography.” Spark rejected the first draft of Stannard’s biography when he sent it to her for approval. It is true that in the published text he appears happily to accept all aspects of Spark’s behavior, without critical comment. Nevertheless, it is part of his achievement to have provided enough material for readers to make up their own minds. Like other eminent Catholic novelists, Spark had her share of human imperfections. If, as biographers indicate, Waugh was a snob and Greene an adulterer, then Spark was a bully. I am reminded of lines from Auden’s great elegy for Yeats (who believed that humanity had to choose between perfection of the life or of the work), where time “worships language and forgives / Everyone by whom it lives; / Pardons cowardice, conceit, / Lays its honours at their feet.” Perhaps one can say of Spark what Auden says of Yeats in his poem: Time pardons her for writing well.


Related: "If Only..." by the Editors

Bernard Bergonzi is the author of A Study in Greene, among many other books of literary criticism.
Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the 2010-05-07 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.