W.W. Norton, $35, 656 pp.
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...