Staff Picks: The Novels of Muriel Spark

My project for 2015 was to read all twenty-two of Muriel Spark’s novels in chronological order. I like reading an author who intrigues me from first to last. It’s a good way to see her evolution as a writer and the leitmotifs or phraseology that recur, and to hear how a voice may or may not change over time. As of this post, I'm on No. 16: The Takeover, from 1976.

Spark’s novels span six decades. Her first, The Comforters, was published in 1957. It’s the story of Caroline, a writer who has recently converted to Catholicism. (Spark converted to Catholicism in 1954 and considered it a major factor in her becoming a novelist.) Caroline starts hearing the sound of a typewriter and voices speaking the words that she is thinking, and to complicate things more, her boyfriend, Lawrence, discovers his grandmother is a smuggler. It’s a dark tale of intrigue laced with irony and wit. (NB: Evelyn Waugh was her champion and instrumental in getting The Comforters published.)

Spark’s characters are rarely sweet and nice. Instead, they have sharp edges and ulterior motives, and sexual tension often plays a role. Several of her books are set against historical and political backdrops, including her most famous work, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), which takes place in Edinburgh in the 1930s. The unconventional Jean Brodie teaches at a school for girls, where she fills the heads of her impressionable young students with lessons on love, art, and the greatness of Il Duce. The theme of conversion appears once again, when one of Brodie’s students, Sandy, converts to Catholicism and becomes a nun. Another excellent novel with a historical backdrop is The Mandelbaum Gate (1963), the title of which refers to the checkpoint between the Israeli and Jordanian sectors of Jerusalem, and which takes place during the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann. A half-Jewish Catholic-convert Englishwoman, Barbara Vaughan wants to go on a pilgrimage to the Christian holy sites but must pass from Israel into Jordanian-held Jerusalem, which is dangerous because of her Jewish roots. Spark vividly depicts the Jewish-Muslim-Christian tensions in a way that humanizes all sides (for better and worse), and it’s striking how relevant and prescient her insights feel today.

Spark’s own favorite was The Driver’s Seat (1970). It’s a slim, action-packed story of a woman’s descent into madness—confounding, diabolical, and hilarious. It’s also my favorite, along with The Abbess of Crewe (1974), a satire about the Watergate scandal set in England at the Abbey of Crewe, which is in the midst of an election for a new abbess. There are wire-tappings by nuns, break-ins by Jesuits, and clandestine payoffs in public restrooms. It’s a vivid picture of abbey life, presented with great humor and affection and a heavy dose of irony.

The bottom line? All of Spark’s novels have so far proven excellent, well worth reading and up to the test of time. The problem is that I have only six more to go.

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Tiina Aleman is Commonweal’s production editor. Her translation of Estonian poet Doris Kareva's Shape of Time was published by Arc Publications (U.K.). 

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