‘No two pictures of her look at all alike,’ Stephen Schiff wrote of Muriel Spark in 1993. ‘In one she may seem a sturdy English rose, in another a seductress staring down at her prey, in still another an intellectual prankster peeking wryly over her spectacles, and sometimes she looks merely square and oatmeal-faced, grinning wholesomely into too much flashbulb.’ It isn’t hard to imagine Spark’s feelings about being called ‘sturdy’ and ‘oatmeal-faced’, or indeed an ‘English rose’, and her biographer, Martin Stannard, seems surprised that Schiff wasn’t added to her extensive shit list. A male friend of Spark’s quoted in Schiff’s profile, who inadvertently misdated the breakdown she had in the early 1950s, was, she made it known, ‘an indescribably filthy liar (please quote)’, and, she suspected, ‘on the bottle again’. Still, Schiff can’t be faulted for underscoring the difficulty of capturing a stable image of his subject, a difficulty that’s continued to cling to her work since her death, at 88, in 2006.
Spark’s novels – she wrote 22 of them – aren’t easily mistaken for anyone else’s, and they’re unusually resistant to the labels and likenings through which writers’ afterlives tend to get sorted out. Though ‘certainly … of Scottish formation’, as she put it, she left the country early on and took a grandly tolerant stance towards moves to enshrine her as a great Scottish figure. ‘I don’t mind that,’ she said in 1998 while explaining that no one bought her novels in Edinburgh because bookshops there shelved them ‘under Scottish Literature’. As for Scottish nationalism, it was, like most varieties, ‘rather pathetic’. Her first novel, The Comforters (1957), written soon after her conversion to Catholicism, inaugurated a lengthy focus on the awfulness of the faithful, and being a Catholic writer didn’t, in her view, entail going to church too often or deferring to the Vatican. ‘Some of the Church’s teachings are very foolish,’ she told an interviewer. ‘Why not have women priests?’ She was also proud of her half-Jewish background and made her only foray into political journalism in order to rebuke Pope Paul VI for being tactless to Golda Meir. ‘All the more since I discovered myself to be a Catholic animal,’ she wrote in 1963, ‘am I a Gentile Jewess.’
When Spark was starting out, in the late 1940s, she was determined to avoid the ‘slop and sentimentalism’ she associated with the role of a ‘lady-novelist’. Her first sustained prose writings – she thought of herself, then and later, primarily as a poet – were works of what we’d now call feminist literary history. But to be put in any subcategory was always vaguely affronting. Her horror of dependence on men went hand in hand with a distaste of almost Naipaul-like intensity for anyone who found strength or comfort in victimhood. Male boasters, frauds, fools and resentful weaklings who lash out at stronger women make regular appearances in her books. But women who cling to a code of self-martyring femininity come in for an even more withering inspection, and the characters Spark likes generally give them short shrift. In Loitering with Intent (1981), the narrator, Fleur, turns the tables on her lover’s tiresomely needy wife, Dottie, who offers some impromptu criticism of the novel Fleur is writing:
‘You know,’ Dottie said, ‘there’s something a bit harsh about you, Fleur. You’re not really womanly, are you?’
I was really annoyed by this. To show her I was a woman I tore up the pages of my novel and stuffed them into the wastepaper basket, burst out crying and threw her out, roughly and noisily … ‘Get out,’ I yelled at Dottie. ‘You and your husband between you have ruined my literary work.’
After that I went to bed. Flooded with peace, I fell asleep.
A related Spark speciality – introducing a character as a pretext for a sequence of deadly pounces – is frequently deployed in an unsisterly manner. Take The Girls of Slender Means (1963):
Dorothy’s hips were 36 and a half inches; her bust measurement was only 31, a fact which did not dismay her, as she intended to marry one of three young men out of her extensive acquaintance who happened to find themselves drawn to boyish figures, and although she did not know about such things as precisely as did her aunt, Dorothy knew well enough that her hipless and breastless shape would always attract the sort of young man who felt at home with it. Dorothy could emit, at any hour of the day or night, a waterfall of débutante chatter, which rightly gave the impression that on any occasion between talking, eating and sleeping, she did not think, except in terms of these phrase-ripples of hers: ‘Filthy lunch.’ ‘The most gorgeous wedding.’ ‘He actually raped her, she was amazed.’
Fleur describes herself as writing with a ‘light and heartless hand’, something that was characteristic of Spark from the beginning. As a result, she was often bracketed with Evelyn Waugh, who helped to promote her early novels and, according to Stannard, ‘told his children to protect her because she was a saint’. Posh Catholics, Tory anarchists and American anglophiles of related leanings still make up part of her constituency, and less astringent productions like A Far Cry from Kensington (1988), plus memories of Maggie Smith as Jean Brodie, gave rise to a late-life idea of her as a treasurably naughty grande dame, all genteel camp and classily to-the-point prose. Others, however, saw her as a glamorous point of contact with developments on the Continent. She showed an interest in what no one then called metafiction even in her earliest short stories, and her favourite among her books was The Driver’s Seat (1970), the high point of a run of short, disturbing novels written under the influence of the nouveau roman. Was she a postmodernist? ‘I think so, probably,’ she told an interviewer, ‘whatever that means.’
One identity that Spark inhabited less equivocally was that of a businesslike working writer. She took no nonsense from publishers but understood the need to keep her name in circulation and wasn’t snooty about accepting well-paid commissions. (She recruited Stannard as her biographer after reviewing the second instalment of his Life of Waugh for the Daily Mail in 1992.) Her postwar years as a hungry bedsit-dweller on ‘the grubby edge of the literary world’ were central to her myth of herself, often returned to, and are well represented in The Golden Fleece, a selection of essays, reviews and reminiscences put together on her instructions by Penelope Jardine, her assistant, friend, housemate and literary executor. The publishing history alone tells a story of unblushing professionalism: the earliest piece was written in 1948 for Argentor, the house journal of the National Jewellers’ Association, while others appeared in such outlets as the Journal of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, the Hansard Society’s internal publication and the Church of England Newspaper. It’s heartwarming for any freelancer to see how many of the pieces were later resold, often several times over. As Spark writes: ‘The commercial point of view is not necessarily the adversary of art.’
In her introduction, Jardine explains that she’s left out a lot of material: principally, it seems, many poetry reviews and ten years’ worth of weekly write-ups for the Observer, including notices of Not Waving but Drowning and The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. (‘It was tempting to include these here for their charm, like credits in early films which “introduce” Shirley Temple, Marilyn Monroe or James Dean. But they didn’t in the end quite merit selection.’) The book is organised thematically, and if it isn’t immediately clear why a piece in praise of cats comes under ‘Religion, Politics and Philosophy’ instead of, say, ‘Autobiography and Travel’, that’s because, Jardine says, ‘there is no end to where cats might not pop up.’ Jardine’s hope is that the book will, ‘in some measure, fill the gap of Muriel’s unwritten memoirs’, meaning the book Spark meant to write as a follow-up to Curriculum Vitae (1992), a scrupulously impersonal autobiography which took the story up to 1957. Finishing that job was outsourced to Stannard, but Spark objected to his first draft and his biography was published, three years after she died, only after being tweaked in consultation with Jardine. So this book is, in some sense, the portrait that Spark would have preferred to see.
And as an intellectual portrait it works pretty well, eccentricities of presentation not excluded. It’s helpful to have Stannard to hand to explain the context of various pieces, and to flesh out the London scene in which Spark’s mature worldview took shape: a scene peopled by Apocalyptic and Neo-Romantic poetasters, mostly, with Edith Sitwell and Roy Campbell as potential allies, Geoffrey Grigson lurking threateningly in the wings and T.S. Eliot a very distant god. The former Muriel Camberg joined this cast in 1944 after a stint in southern Africa, where she’d ended a short marriage to the unstable if catchily named Sydney Spark. She was armed with an education from James Gillespie’s School for Girls in Edinburgh, secretarial experience and a head stuffed with everything from the Border Ballads to Penguin New Writing. People with university degrees didn’t overawe her, and in 1952 she wrote that Emily Brontë had been lucky not to have her ‘natural discrimination’ spoiled by a formal literary education. In a piece on Burns that’s otherwise memorable only for its unscandalised take on the poet’s sinful ways (‘Burns adored women. Whenever he had sex, which was often, he wrote a song about it’), she wrote: ‘His schooldays were short in years but his extraordinary intelligence made up for that.’
Spark spent an early phase of her London life using a mixture of charm and extreme efficiency to smooth out disputes at the Poetry Society. Neo-Georgian versifiers and poetry-fancying grandees like Field Marshal Wavell began to mobilise against her after she took control of the society’s magazine in 1947. Both then and during her subsequent explorations of freelance life with Derek Stanford, a boyfriend and collaborator who became one of her major irritants, she turned out criticism that staged lively arguments in an idiom seemingly designed not to ruffle ageing bookmen: lots of ‘the diction is felicitous and pure’ and so on. Among her appealing period snapshots are notes on a visit to the poet laureate, John Masefield, ‘an absolute poppet’ whose dining room was so cold that she stopped for a double rum on the way home. And here and there you can see her sharpening her ideas in unlikely places. Her notion of a style ‘which makes its impact a fraction later than the literal meaning’ – the delayed punch effect her fiction gets from lines like ‘He looked as if he would murder me and he did’ – was formulated in 1950 in a piece on Andrew Young, a Scottish-born nature poet and Anglican clergyman.
The anti-humanist thinking that underpins Spark’s writing seems to have grown from a feeling that meliorative, rational-materialist enterprises were an inadequate answer to the problem of death and to the crisis of meaning and values occasioned by the war. Three pieces – and a short story, ‘The House of the Famous Poet’ – describe her sudden feeling of writerly vocation while sheltering from V-1 bombs in Louis MacNeice’s house in 1944. Her calling was ‘intensified by … the knowledge that destruction might fall at any moment’. Her first book, Child of Light (1951), a biographical study that more or less singlehandedly rescued Mary Shelley from being dismissed as Percy Bysshe’s excessively pious and/or difficult widow, views Frankenstein and The Last Man as – in Spark’s approving words from a Third Programme broadcast – ‘unconscious satires’ of Mary Shelley’s father William Godwin’s reforming ‘brand of humanism’. A postwar ideal of ‘ethical, germ-free citizens’ became a bit of a bugbear. ‘The Ballad of the Fanfarlo’, a narrative poem written during an access of Baudelairean dandyism ‘c.1951’, is filled with such obscurely menacing lines as ‘And in there came a bandage-roll/And a bottle of germicide’ and ‘The glory of each man will glorify/Man and destroy him for ever.’
After a spiritual crisis, and a Dexedrine-fuelled breakdown during which she believed that Eliot was beaming coded messages at her, Spark joined the Catholic Church in 1954. Then she launched herself as a novelist with astonishing speed and assurance. Her project was, in many ways, deeply conservative: she seems to have associated state-directed public-mindedness, however well meant, with the bossily predestinarian god of old Edinburgh. It isn’t much of a jump from the germicidal ‘sanatorium’ in ‘The Ballad of the Fanfarlo’ to the NHS ward that serves as a site of spiritual desolation in Memento Mori (1959). In ‘The Black Madonna’, a story published in 1958, a Catholic couple’s creed, it’s suggested, is at odds with their materialist smugness, a smugness that’s given a very specific satirical colouring:
The Parkers were among the few tenants of Cripps House who owned a motor car. They … went to the pictures only when the Observer had praised the film; they considered television not their sort of thing; they adhered to their religion; they voted Labour; they believed that the 20th century was the best so far; they assented to the doctrine of original sin; they frequently applied the word ‘Victorian’ to ideas and people they did not like – for instance, when a local Town Councillor resigned his office Raymond said, ‘He had to go. He’s Victorian. And far too young for the job’; and Lou said Jane Austen’s books were Victorian; and anyone who opposed the abolition of capital punishment was Victorian.
Though she was rarely so explicit, Spark didn’t stop disliking innovation of the Cripps House kind. The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960), in which she test-drove the trick of withholding the characters’ thoughts entirely, is partly a very strange satire on would-be enlightened industrial relations. In The Driver’s Seat – in which a young woman, Lise, travels from her home in a Danish or German-style ‘North’ to a Rome or Naples-like city in ‘the South’ with the intention of getting herself stabbed to death – there’s a faint suggestion that she has been driven mad by the rational efficiency exemplified by her stylish pinewood-lined one-room flat. ‘Get this thing off me. Off me, at once,’ she says on being told that the dress she’s trying on is made of an exciting new fabric that ‘won’t hold the stain’.
Spark thought her religion was a private matter, and the most important pieces from the time of her conversion – an excited review of Eliot’s The Confidential Clerk and an attempt to explain Proust to a Christian readership – are interesting primarily as biographical documents. But there’s no darkly punitive side to her beliefs: as Hélène Cixous wrote, it’s more a ‘macabre cheerfulness’ in the face of a ‘complete absence of values’. ‘I have had to put up a psychological fight for my spiritual joy,’ Spark wrote in 1962. She was reflecting on ‘the puritanical strain of the Edinburgh ethos’ she’d imbibed in her childhood, but Stannard makes it clear that there was plenty of fighting done in London too. As well as providing a way of living on friendlier terms with existential worries, Catholicism helped her to disentangle herself from Derek Stanford and, more generally, from men, whom she wasn’t good at picking. (Although she appreciated sexiness, in herself and others, she seems not to have been greatly bothered by sex, and ended up living with Jardine in a companionable relationship best described – by David Lodge – as a ‘Boston marriage’.)
Another effect of her conversion was to bolster the formal daring she’d shown in her first short stories. Broadly speaking, her novels are eager to puncture the conventions of realist fiction, though careful to throw in just enough plausible detail to keep the scenery from collapsing. It’s fine for characters to be types rather than rounded individuals, and the reader’s access to their inner lives is often sharply limited. There are many flash-forwards and manipulations of time, the better to imply the extra-temporal perspective of eternity, though the reader is also encouraged to admire the skilful use of meta-suspense – we’re often told a character’s fate early on and left to wonder how the narrative will bring it about – and the contrivances of the plots woven by the author and her characters. The aim, Spark told Frank Kermode, is to remind you that what you’re reading is ‘a pack of lies’ that might point to a mysterious truth; non-mysterious truths are to be treated with suspicion. Though that truth will be ‘Judaeo-Christian’ in content, John Updike got Spark’s God about right: ‘As in a photograph of an eclipse, a corona of heresy and anxiety surrounds a perfectly blank, black disk.’
Take out a few nuns, in other words, and what you’re left with has at least a family resemblance to the non-theologically-minded gestures of Calvino or Robbe-Grillet, written by a maestro of tersely spiky English sentences. Spark took an interest in Robbe-Grillet, and in The Driver’s Seat it’s as if one of his creepily observed, interiority-free female figures has abruptly taken charge of the situation – hence the title? – and set about goading the creepy observer, who’s starting to look a bit sheepish, into doing his worst. (Like other of her novels from that period, it was found dismaying and baffling at the time, though it’s now seen as splendidly enigmatic by serious Spark-fanciers.) Perhaps there are further clues to her intentions in ‘The Desegregation of Art’, an address Spark gave at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York in 1970, which Jardine reprints in full. Stannard reports that this talk caused some bemusement: there’s an ill-judged joke about American tourists, and few in her audience would have been likely to applaud a call for,
in all forms of art and letters, ranging from the most sophisticated and high achievements to the placards that the students carry about the street, a less impulsive generosity, a less indignant representation of social injustice, and a more deliberate cunning, a more derisive undermining of what is wrong. I would like to see less emotion and more intelligence in these efforts to impress our minds and hearts.
Stories that wring pathos from the plight of victims, Spark says, let the reader ‘go to bed feeling less guilty … He has undergone the experience of pity for the underdog. Salt tears have gone bowling down his cheeks.’ But in the morning ‘he rises refreshed, more determined than ever to be the overdog.’ (She takes it as read that readers are of the overdog class.) In short, ‘the literature of sentiment and emotion’ must be replaced by an art of ridicule that’s authentically tragic too. The Driver’s Seat, some in the audience might have noted, ends with the words ‘fear and pity, pity and fear’.
It’s a superbly uncuddly performance. It’s also the only instance in Jardine’s compilation of the vicious satirist in Spark having her slightly unhinged say: elsewhere, even when dealing with otherworldly matters, she rarely sounds less than sane. A less confrontational corollary of her doctrine of victimhood shows up in an appreciation of a Madonna by Piero della Francesca: ‘In no way is she the sort of Italian girl whom anyone might want to help with her problem: this lady has no problem, she has a purpose.’ There’s a very funny piece about the Brontës as teachers written for the New Yorker, with which she had a good relationship in spite of William Shawn’s insistence, when printing The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), on cutting the joke about ‘sexual intercourse’. And in a piece from 1992 she says that much of Eliot’s later programme for Western culture can’t be accepted ‘by any reasonable, educated and full-blooded human being’. (Perhaps there’s a further repudiation in a sentence whose tone is difficult to judge: ‘I feel it to be a pity that T.S. Eliot did not live to see his famous Practical Cats performed as a world-stirring musical.’) By the end of the book you feel you know her pretty well, cats, hats and all. As she’d have wished, though, there’s a niggling sense of a personality ‘like spilled sugar’, to pinch a line from Memento Mori: ‘However much you swept it up some grains would keep grinding under your feet.’