One of the sadder aspects of a brilliant writer’s passing is thinking about the particular books he or she will never write. Certain subjects belong to certain writers as if granted by God, and when they die, they leave us looking around and lamenting, “If only Bellow or Waugh, Fitzgerald or Murdoch, were here to take on that!”
Eccentric, mordantly witty, and unapologetically religious, the Scottish-born Muriel Spark died last month at eighty-eight. Spark was the author of more than twenty novels—concise, elegant explorations of human self-deception, pretension, and frailty set against the mysterious workings of Divine Providence. She was best known for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which explored the malign influence of a charismatic and imperious teacher in an Edinburgh school for girls. “Give me a girl at an impressionable age,” Brodie boasts, “and she is mine for life.”
Many of Spark’s books took up explicitly metaphysical themes, but always in enigmatic and satirical ways. In The Comforters, an aspiring novelist hears the sound of a mysterious typewriter in her head, only to discover that she and her characters are also characters in someone else’s novel. In Memento Mori, a group of elderly friends is harassed by an anonymous phone caller whose only words are “Remember, you must die.” The Abbess of Crewe, a wicked parody of the Watergate scandal, is set in an English convent.
A convert to Catholicism, Spark was matter-of-fact about the reasons for that decision. “The simple explanation,” she wrote in her memoir, Curriculum Vitae, “is that I felt the Roman Catholic faith corresponded to what I had always felt and known and believed.” She was not, however, overtly pious or obsequious toward church authority, describing her approach to contested questions of church teaching as “relaxed.” “If the Catholic religion, to which I belong, can’t allow me to speak out frankly, it is no religion for me,” she said.
In that context, there was considerable excitement in the literary world at the recent discovery that Spark had finished yet another novel before she died. To be published next spring, it is tentatively titled Our Lady’s School. Surprising to many, the book is set in a Catholic university in the United States, an institution Spark describes as “an obsessively manicured monument to the aspirations of the nation’s once beleaguered immigrant Catholic community, and for many a miraculous sign, rivaled only by the splendors of Rome itself, of the church’s infallibility.”
The excesses and foibles of Catholic academia provide endless opportunity for wicked fun. In a nod to Miss Jean Brodie, Spark sets the university’s motto as “Give us a young person at an impressionable age, and he is Our Lady’s for life.” There follows a brilliant, if admittedly cruel, description of the “wave upon wave of berry-faced ‘football’ enthusiasts, dressed in every imaginable shade of green, swarming into what passed, with little thought or comment, for the Roman Coliseum on the plains of Indiana.” Spark’s description of Our Lady’s 2005 last-second loss to the University of Southern California is a brilliant meditation on the fallen nature of mankind.
The novel’s plot revolves around the efforts of the university’s idealistic young president—a priest and philosopher—to rein in a student production of The Vagina Monologues, a play Spark mischievously describes as “an affront to the school’s sexually demure, mostly male alumni, a scandal and torment to the local bishop, and a sop to the university’s perpetually aggrieved feminists and their downtrodden, ever obedient husbands.” Performances of the play include a moment when the audience is instructed to loudly chant a slang expression for the female sexual organ that Spark describes as “a word whose vulgarity is only surpassed by its literary pedigree.”
Amusingly, the action begins with the priest-protagonist being plagued by an anonymous phone caller whose only message is “Remember, you must ban the vagina...” Awakened in the middle of the night by the gentle sound of typing on his computer keyboard, he discovers on the glowing screen a five-thousand word statement (which Spark describes as “a bit of scholastic hocus-pocus”) triangulating academic freedom, Catholic sexual morality, the problem of violence against women, and the production of a play (described in the novel as “agitprop of a particularly gruesome American provenance”) that uses the word “vagina” 128 times. To the university president’s chagrin, the statement has been e-mailed to the entire university community—from his computer and under his name. That’s when the recriminations start.
As in all Spark novels, the betrayals are multilayered, the ironies manifold. “His familiarity with the body part in question was at best theoretical,” Spark writes of the priest-president, “and that lent a surrealistic air to his attendance at a performance where every gynecological fancy known to man, centaur, or midwife was pressed into the service of a therapeutic jargon spoken only in the most godforsaken redoubts of Manhattan.” Earnest miscommunication among the principal protagonists devolves into open strife, as the possibility of banning the play arouses atavistic longings in certain Catholic quarters bent on reclaiming the church’s once proud reputation for censorship, perhaps even torture, in order to clarify the university’s “Catholic identity.” Having raised such zealous hopes, the president becomes the object of contempt when he ultimately refuses to ban the play.
As Spark reveals, a larger struggle underlies the president’s problems. It seems that a group of vociferously conservative Catholics, closely aligned with the Vatican, the Republican White House, and an obscure order of albino monks, is trying to wrest the much-prized mantle of the university from the hands of those who, under the influence of the devil, are behind its “secular drift” (as well as its fall from the rankings of the Top Ten in football). “What are we fighting for in Iraq,” one of the rosary-bead-counting conspirators in the White House laments, “if Our Lady’s University is taken over by these women with their ‘talking’ vaginas?”
An equal-opportunity satirist, Spark spares no one. She delights in the spectacle of politically correct English department faculty turning from ritualized attacks on the “Western canon” to impassioned defenses of The Vagina Monologues as an indispensable text. What about characters who denounce The Vagina Monologues while proclaiming the superiority of John Paul II’s “New Feminism” and Theology of the Body? “If there was anything less likely to engage female students than The Vagina Monologues,” Spark writes, “it is talk about the complementarity of the sexes and the inseparability of the unitive and procreative dimensions of the conjugal act. When women read about the complementarity of the sexes, they see only a lifetime of dirty dishes and futile battles over the TV remote.”
OK, well... By now you have no doubt guessed that Muriel Spark did not in fact leave behind the manuscript described above. If only she had. Forgive our pastiche. But if ever a subject was made for a writer, this one was made for Spark, given her talent for dramas set in small communities rife with rivalries, where a single explosive incident can set off a chain of unpleasant, if perversely amusing, recriminations. As you may know, the University of Notre Dame has recently been through just such a wrenching debate about the appropriateness of allowing The Vagina Monologues to be performed on campus. John Jenkins, CSC, the university’s new president, launched a campus-wide discussion in January. In doing so, he raised hopes among some that he would eventually ban the performance.
Those expectations were dashed in April, when Jenkins announced that his talks with various sectors of the university community had convinced him that the play should not be banned. Instead, Notre Dame has reiterated its commitment to the free and open exchange of views—even views that explicitly contradict church teaching. Jenkins has also, however, committed the university to ensuring that Catholic teaching is presented fully and fairly in any venue on campus. In the case of The Vagina Monologues, panel discussions following performances of the play featured speakers who offered critiques of the play’s depiction of human sexuality and defended the church’s teachings on sexual morality. Notre Dame students also wrote their own play on women and sexual violence, which drew a packed house and may well serve everyone’s purposes by replacing The Vagina Monologues as an opportunity for discussion of these issues.
President Jenkins is to be commended for making the right decision. It is only by engaging the larger culture, not retreating from it, that the church is true to itself. Banning plays or films from Catholic campuses won’t change the distorted understandings of the human person and human sexuality that sadly dominate popular culture. More argument is needed. As Muriel Spark knew, there is no contradiction between being a Catholic and speaking out frankly.
Beyond this, one longs for someone to bestow the novelist’s blessing—namely, perspective—on the rowdy fracas of today’s Catholic university. “People say my novels are cruel because cruel things happen and I keep this even tone,” Spark once told the New Yorker, responding to accusations that she treated her characters with malice. “I’m often very deadpan, but there’s a moral statement too, and what it’s saying is that there’s a life beyond this, and these events are not the most important things.” Amen to that.
Related: "Be Not Afraid: 'The Vagina Monologues' on Catholic Campuses" by Cathleen Kaveny
Bernard Bergonzi reviews Martin Stannard's biography 'Muriel Spark'