The flight path of Muriel Spark is a wonder to behold. Her conviction was that the purpose of writing is to give pleasure, and in all her books she paid attention only to the innermost self that was her exclusive guide to that end. She had a poet’s instinct for the right form and a colloquial style all her own that allowed her to range the whole way from the comedy of manners up to the great unanswerable questions of the human condition. In an age when writers expect to be judged primarily by their sexual, social, and political commitments, and are therefore encouraged to be each one more shocking than the next, Muriel’s wit and independent mindset were conservative as well as revolutionary, that strange combination that surfaces when things go wrong. Since she was speaking for lots of people with hopes and fears like hers, she was successful—and deserved to be.
Born in Edinburgh in 1918, Muriel identified herself as a Scot. “All my ways of thinking are Scottish,” she liked to emphasize, explaining that this meant “being rather precise.” A faint Scottish accent sometimes crept into her speech. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is an ode to Edinburgh as Muriel remembered it from her youth: the haunted November twilight coming in across the Dean Bridge, Holyrood Palace where Mary, Queen of Scots had once slept, the churches in frighteningly dark stone, the “sober churchgoers and quiet workers,” and the mothers who call their children “dear” when English mothers say “darling.” Like many others in the late 1930s, Miss Brodie thinks Mussolini one of the greatest men in the world, and she says as much as she sets about shaping the personalities of the teenage girls who are her pupils in the Marcia Blaine School.
Close and mostly unexpected observation of detail gives Muriel’s prose its personal touch. An aside on the part of one of the several fictional writers in her novels notes how “a chance descriptive detail in the right place” brings a scene to life. A striking example occurs in Curriculum Vitae, her autobiography, where in the sentence that introduces her father, Bernard Camberg (known as Barney), she makes the major point that he was Jewish and the minor point that he wore the same clothes as other fathers and spoke as they did, too. Employed by a rubber company as a fitter and mechanical engineer, he appears to be someone about whom there is nothing of great significance to say. According to Muriel, her mother, Sarah (known as Cissy) Uezzell, had “a rather rare old English name.” In spite of, or perhaps because of, this surname, Cissy was wholly or partly Jewish, a mixed heredity for which Muriel coined the phrase “Gentile Jewess” and used it in the plural as the title of one of her earliest stories. Granted her acceptance of Jewish as well as Scottish identity, Muriel belonged to a minority of a minority.
Sydney Oswald Spark (known as Solly and later by his initials sos, the Morse code signal to summon help) put in a truncated appearance in her life. Born in Lithuania like Barney’s parents, he had emigrated with his mother to Edinburgh. Thirteen years older than Muriel, he had a contract to teach mathematics in Southern Rhodesia, nowadays Zimbabwe, and in 1937, at the age of nineteen, Muriel joined him out there. “Why I married this man,” she gives way to a rare burst of self-reproach in her autobiography, “I will probably never know. It was a disastrous choice.” A son, Robin, was born. Muriel did not care for the colonial company that was on offer socially; there she never met Doris Lessing, a Rhodesian by birth, a future novelist, and the same age. Moreover, Solly became alarmingly violent, showing more and more signs of a nervous disorder that was probably genetic and in any case condemned him to be a permanent hospital patient. Muriel saw no irony in retaining his surname on the grounds that the name Spark has “some ingredient of life and of fun” missing in Camberg.
Escaping, Muriel spent the last year of the war in Britain. Fortunate at last, she was taken into the Political Warfare Executive, a covert operation that, under the auspices of the bbc and the Foreign Office, was broadcasting to Germans what now is designated as “fake news.” One aspect of her job was to take afternoon walks with selected high-ranking prisoners of war and as prettily as possible extract stories from them for pwe to exploit.
“Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions,” is the opening sentence of The Girls of Slender Means, published in 1963, by which time nasty people were rich, allowing for exceptions, or, in the final words of that same opening paragraph, “the best of the rich being poor in spirit.” Muriel’s overriding aim at the time was to establish herself as a writer. The ruthlessness with which she did so is recorded by her biographer Martin Stannard, though he calls it dynamism. A single page of his lengthy book covers the period when Muriel decided to make whatever sacrifices were necessary in order to write full-time. This involved a parting of the ways with lifelong consequences that he smoothes over by showering her with select adjectives that have nothing to do with the turmoil of that moment, for instance: witty, irreverent, beautiful, placable, capable, courteous, teasing, and even sexy. First of all, she consciously cut loose from family life by dispatching Robin to be brought up by her parents in Edinburgh. Furthermore, she had no way of anticipating that solitary life in a London boarding house would inspire fiction. Finally, she joined the staff of the Poetry Society, a marginal and even moribund organization that was a blind alley as far as literary careers were concerned. She had a particular passion for the poems of John Masefield, the Poet Laureate, so old-school that he had been consigned to oblivion in his lifetime—which did not prevent Muriel from conducting an uncritical interview and writing a book about him. The poets and publishers whom Stannard picks out as Muriel’s colleagues or acquaintances were part of the crowd shuffling in virtual anonymity along Grub Street with nowhere else to go. The one exception was Derek Stanford, more a scribbler than a journalist, and he too would have been forgotten except that he had had an affair with Muriel during the years of her self-discovery and wrote a book about her in addition to his memoirs. There is evidence that people who ran into her felt pity for a young woman so dogged and so forlorn. The word went round Grub Street: “Please be kind to Muriel.”
The public at large first heard of Muriel in 1951 when The Observer, an established Sunday newspaper owned by David Astor and required reading for liberals, held a competition for a Christmas short story. The prize was £250, a large sum at the time, large enough to attract some seven thousand entries. Philip Toynbee, the paper’s lead reviewer and the most influential of the prize’s three judges, later claimed to have “the slightly satanic feeling” that he had called Muriel into being. “The Seraph and the Zambesi,” Muriel’s winning story, is a surreal tour de force as astounding now as it was then. The protagonist, Samuel Cramer, a pseudonym Baudelaire had invented for himself, was said to be going strong in Paris early in the nineteenth century and is still going strong in 1946. Half poet and half journalist, he is occupied keeping a petrol pump four miles south of Victoria Falls in the Southern Rhodesia that Muriel had experienced. The voice of Muriel can be heard directly when Cramer says, “The greatest literature is the occasional kind, a mere afterthought.” Appearing in a current of scorching air, the Seraph sets a destructive fire. Cramer’s initial friendliness turns into a hostile chase and the Seraph is last seen hurrying away “at about seventy miles an hour and skimming the tarmac strips with two of his six wings in swift motion, two folded over his face, and two covering his feet.”
The Seraph, then, is both real and visionary, a mysterious conjuncture that Muriel is exploring for the first time. Religious belief in invisible divinity is an act of imagination, and it seems probable that she deliberately left readers to discover meanings for themselves: perhaps this is an allegory about God and Man, a projection of hellfire, even a fairy tale told for the sake of its beauty. Discussing Muriel’s religious disposition, Stannard has this to say: “The will of God and human will were at odds,” and he immediately elaborates, “It was, she believed, the will of God that she should be a Christian and a writer.”
In 1954 Muriel converted to Catholicism. It so happened that the two outstanding British writers of that moment, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, were Catholics: the former supported her first by expressing in private letters his admiration for her fiction and then reviewing her exuberantly in The Spectator; the latter organized a fund large enough for her to live on. But Catholicism came between her and Derek Stanford. Increasingly critical of him, Muriel found refuge with the Carmelites at Aylesford Priory, a retreat for troubled Catholics. Perhaps she was not all that troubled, as she is quoted complaining of others there: “All these people hanging about, waiting for miracles.” The affair with Stanford ended in 1958, after which he came to represent in her mind the bad side of human nature. The iron entered into her soul when he sold to a university the letters she had written to him, and their lost intimacy was in the public domain. It is common knowledge that Hector Bartlett, scorned in A Far Cry from Kensington (1988) as a treacherous blackmailer and virtually cursed in dubious but memorable French as a pisseur de copie, is closely modeled on him.
Blackmail, betrayal, and violence in these novels are merely the ways of the world.
Memento Mori, published in 1959, questions reality altogether. Various elderly and distinguished people answer telephone calls, only to hear a disembodied voice that tells them, “Remember you must die,” the very words a handpicked slave allegedly had to whisper in the ear of a Roman general in the hour of his triumphal procession through the city. This parable, if parable it is, is left up in the air. The unidentifiable caller may be a villain or he may be God, and, if the latter, either benevolent or threatening. The Ballad of Peckham Rye, published the following year, is an equally brilliant existential parable, again if parable it is. Dixie and Humphrey are in a church to be married. In accordance with the conventional ceremony, the vicar asks Humphrey if he will have Dixie for his wedded wife. No, says Humphrey, “to be quite frank I won’t,” and he drives away on his own. Responsibility for this scandalous conduct is laid on Dougal Douglas, a friend and neighbor. Though he could be innocent, the bumps on his scalp where a plastic surgeon took away two horns are compromising. He says of himself lightly, “I’m to be one of the wicked spirits that wander through the world for the ruin of souls.” In short, here human happiness is at the mercy of evil.
Blackmail, betrayal, and violence in these novels are merely the ways of the world. A good example is the incident that moves Memento Mori to its close. “The man by the dressing-table hesitated nervily [sic] for a moment, then swiftly he was by Lettie’s side. She opened wide her mouth and her yellow and brown eyes. He wrenched the stick from the old woman’s hand and, with the blunt end of it, battered her to death. It was her eighty-first year.” Even brutal murder is matter-of-fact. In contrast to the run of contemporary novelists, Muriel is out neither to shock nor to moralize, only to record what confronts her. She spent a month of 1961 traveling in Israel and researching for The Mandelbaum Gate (1965). Like Muriel, its protagonist, Barbara Vaughan, is a Gentile Jewess, and she intends to sort out some final truth about herself and the country where religious revelation originated. Instead, two symbolic characters, Abdul the Arab and Mendel the Jew, reduce everything to nonsense: “My father, blah, blah. Long live Ben Gurion! Long live Nasser! Long live Islam! Long live all fat men! Israel! My mother goes quack-quack all day!” Barbara disappears in a cloud of unknowing.
Early in the summer of 1980, I was asked to interview Muriel. By then, she was either recognized and admired in literary pages as an original writer, or else held up in gossip columns as a paid-up member of the jet set. For several years she had lived and worked in New York, then in Rome, and now in Tuscany. A narrow, dusty track snaked through olive orchards to the house, actually a casa canonica complete with a dilapidated chapel, that Muriel shared with its owner, Penelope Jardine (known as Penny), an artist in her own right. As luck would have it, my father, Alan Pryce-Jones, was one of those who had been kind to Muriel. As the editor of TheTimes Literary Supplement, he had commissioned a lead essay from her. Known in the trade as a “Middle,” these essays were unsigned, but over the years she kept repeating how this piece had boosted her.
Like most writers, Muriel had various fetishes about pens and notebooks. She wrote in a quite readable longhand in ink with very few corrections and never a second draft. She had an expression about being “on the production side,” but believed in inspiration. Penny then typed, also taking care of correspondence with publishers, film producers, agents, and accountants. An extravagance was that Muriel shared ownership of a racehorse with Alan Maclean, the brother of the Foreign Office traitor Donald Maclean and her editor at Macmillan’s.
For six days of the week, Muriel would sit at her desk and write. The seventh day, not necessarily Sunday, was always set aside for relaxing. Italy was good enough for Byron and Shelley, she liked to say, so it’s good enough for me. Muriel had bought a bmw; Penny drove the two of them in it to lunch, usually in a restaurant in some isolated beauty spot. Occasionally they came to Florence, to Harold Acton or John Pope-Hennessy or us, the last representatives of the British who in previous centuries used to settle in the city for the sake of its culture. Penny refused to fly, so the two embarked on immense drives across Europe, often to accept some invitation. I live near Hay-on-Wye, a small town on the Welsh border that glories in a literary festival every year. In 1998 Muriel did a reading and afterwards came to lunch, bringing Doris Lessing, by then a friend of long standing and, more than that, an alter ego. They reminisced and philosophized, the one certain that human agency is decisive in this world, the other certain that it is not the whole story. Asking about a novel I was writing, she borrowed from Shakespeare to hope it would be “something rich and strange.”
During the frequent visits of Muriel and Penny to our family home in Florence, Muriel took great relish in hearing stories, especially those with Italian politics and conspiracy theories in them. One day I told Muriel how in the lobby of the venerable Winter Palace Hotel at Aswan on the Nile I had observed a respectable Scottish lady pick up a westernized Saudi wearing shorts and a baseball cap the wrong way round, boisterously telling one and all to call him Al. Here was raw material for the imagination. Muriel then sketched out the character and motivation of this unlikely pair, their past and present histories, and where this encounter would leave them. Another unwritten novel crystallized around an Italian aristocrat who died of aids without an heir, leaving immense properties to his faithful old cook, a woman who could neither read nor write. Some of my material made it into her novels: Lord Lucan murdered the nanny of his children by mistake, then vanished without a trace. I had done my military service in the same battalion of the Coldstream Guards as he and knew him reasonably well. The core of Muriel’s novel Aiding and Abetting (2000) is the improbability of this humdrum character, a British earl what’s more, behaving as he did. She quizzed me endlessly about correct details, only to invent a second Lord Lucan, false yet indistinguishable from the first, illustrating the mystery of the human condition. She could also rebuke in the manner of a judge passing a prison sentence. To someone praising Virginia Woolf she said, “She was just a spoilt brat.”
Muriel could rebuke in the manner of a judge passing a prison sentence. To someone praising Virginia Woolf she said, “She was just a spoilt brat.”
Her son Robin felt that his mother loved writing more than she loved him. The sacrificial element in their relationship was never resolved. The two rarely met, since Robin made his life in Edinburgh. The final break between them turned on a question of Jewish identity and Jewish law. Expressed simply, Robin, an Orthodox Jew, believed that Muriel had not done right by her Jewish heritage. Equally disturbing to her as the break with Robin was the question of her biography. Martin Stannard, a university professor, had previously written a biography of Evelyn Waugh, and initially Muriel had approved of him. Reading an early draft of his book about her, she was dismayed, then obsessively angry at what she alleged were misrepresentations. She need not have worried. A great deal of research had gone into the biography and with it a great deal of admiration. A sentence in the final paragraph is a summary of his viewpoint: “Her proper habitat, her art, lay in the age of the Holy Ghost. And there she remained, a ghost-writer for God, whoever He may be.” Going over to see her a day or two before she died, I found her saying, “I’m a soldier wounded on the battlefield.” And then some last words that are pure Spark, “I must remember to tell Doris that when one comes to die, one doesn’t give a damn.”
It is Muriel’s centennial now. Tributes include a statue in Edinburgh and a commemorative concert in London. It is phenomenal that at a time when Mrs. Thatcher was recharging British politics, Muriel was recharging British literature.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 1, on page 8
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