Muriel Spark (1918-2006) was a spirited, mischievous and subtly subversive writer - the author of biographies, stories and poems, as well as 22 pungent and tickling works of long-form fiction. It would be curt simply to call these works "novels", because they so excel at making the reader ask, "What is a novel anyway?"
The existing definitions tend to answer a question about length. E M Forster suggested a minimum of 50,000 words, a high bar that excludes his own first "novel", Where Angels Fear to Tread. And though Randall Jarrell came up with a definition that outsmarts most difficulties - "a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it" - he did not count on Spark's wriggling act: most of her books are short and perfect.
Yet the complication with Spark's attempts at long-form fiction is not that they are too short or too true, but that they are not true enough. "I have a strong sense that fiction is lies," she said, and though this seems a banal statement, the implication is that fiction is "only lies" and should not even be presented as the truth.
The question "What is a novel?", which calls for a consensus, blurs into the inquiry "What should a novel be?", and here Spark fell short. In her essay "How I Became a Novelist", she remembered novel-writing as "the easiest thing I had ever done", and explained that "because it came so easily . . . I was in some doubt about its value". The reader might harbour a similar doubt. We expect the modern novelist to be like Icarus, not Zeus, to fail spectacularly rather than succeed serenely. But in toylike contraptions such as The Bachelors and Symposium, Spark's virtuosity is suspiciously sweatless - brilliance as a form of complacency.
For Spark, the novel was a frivolous, earthbound endeavour - in the words of her contemporary Philip Larkin, "a quite unlosable game". And while it would be preposterous to argue, in the face of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Ballad of Peckham Rye, that Spark's gifts were in any sense unrealised, the shortcomings of her work ought to disqualify her from being even an interesting writer. She was incapable of picturing real heartbreak or malice; she preferred types to characters, and telling to showing; she was excessively fond of formulae and gimmicks; she offered little in the way of verbal reward; she was manipulative and coercive; she alerted the reader to how little was at stake in reading a novel rather than encouraging what Coleridge called "the willing suspension of disbelief".
But to level these familiar charges is to miss the radicalism of her work. Spark's distinction as a writer has everything to do with "fiction" - shaping, fabulating - and nothing to do with what she called "truth" and sometimes "reality", and what F R Leavis called "life". She wrote about her characters with untender curiosity, as if she had heard a lot about human beings but never actually encountered one; her satire - of youth culture and bourgeois bureaucracy in The Ballad of Peckham Rye, of the Italian film-world in The Public Image - is the stuff of fantasy. Accordingly, we should not demand that Spark's fiction correspond to something verifiable, merely that it cohere. It is only by recognising the irrelevance of our normal criteria that we can properly value her peculiar achievement.
Martin Stannard has written a diligent biography of Muriel Spark. At its best, it is a brilliant work of scholarship and a testament to its author's graft (he got to work in 1992). Stannard nimbly negotiates the familiar peaks of his subject's rangy life: the Jewish upbringing in 1930s Edinburgh; the young marriage, miserably endured in Rhodesia; the breakdown and Catholic conversion; the self-imposed exile in New York, Rome and Tuscany. The book also contains fascinating detail about Spark's "long and fruitful association" with the New Yorker and her fanatical industry and single-mindedness (she abandoned only one novel).
Stannard repeatedly compares Spark to Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, describing them as "a grand triumvirate of Catholic-convert novelists", but this grouping obscures an important fact: that Spark was also a postmodernist. At one point, he quotes a notably eloquent passage of Spark's study of John Masefield, commenting that it is "almost a little manifesto of postmodernism" and "also a theological statement". This is not as contradictory as it seems. Spark's recourse to devices such as frame-breaking was her ideal solution to the theological problems of writing fiction (parading lies as the truth, playing God). Her disdain for chronology and surprise is the narrative equivalent of the idea of predestination. Spark's seemingly incompatible third attribute - her popularity - was the happy product of her skill at plotting and her quick, silly wit.
Spark was a tricky woman - a bully with publishers, a capricious friend, an errant and uninterested mother - but oddly, Stannard presents the evidence to prompt this verdict without delivering it himself. There are contingent reasons for this. He explains that Spark instructed him to treat her "as though I were dead" and demanded "no favours, no flattery, no veto". However, A S Byatt gave the game away in 2007, revealing that before her death, Spark had been going through the book, "line by line", in order to make it "a little bit fairer".
The book that has now been published contains almost no censure of Spark's character. The result is that the reader is spared the kind of petty griping that James Atlas directed at Saul Bellow, but at the same time is made to work rather too hard to decipher the biographer's attitude to his subject. Stannard wittily explains that Spark's "'pram', her domestic responsibilities, were to remain in someone else's hall"; whole chapters go by without mention of her son, Robin. But, rather than withholding judgement altogether, Stannard wants to present Spark as an essentially jolly, amenable woman who just happened to spend a lot of time writing.
Stannard claims that Spark's fiction is "her life reconstituted". This would suggest that he is going to offer biographical readings of Spark's work, in defiance of her T S Eliot-ish comments about the discreteness of art and artist. But on the contrary, his approach is determined by one of these comments: "There's nothing I can tell the public about my life that can clarify my books, it's rather the books that clarify my life." Stannard follows the example of Spark's partial and evasive autobiography, Curriculum Vitae, regularly informing the reader that she "drew on" a certain experience. This may help to explain why, say, The Girls of Slender Means takes place in a women's club, but not why it is, like so many of Spark's books, a brisk, amusing novel too racked by the philosophical problems of fiction-making to be anything more than brisk and amusing.
Instead, Stannard might have taken the opposite approach - using the life to explain the work - where both the risk and the potential reward are larger. Despite her claims, Spark is unusually open to this treatment. For instance, she studied précis-writing at Heriot Watt College; her fiction is full of digested narrative. This is not an outlandish connection - no more outlandish, in any case, than Spark's claim that Alain Robbe-Grillet's experience as a gunsighter during the Second World War accounted for the "obsession with exactitude" displayed in his work. Colin Burrow neatly illustrated the sceptic's attitude when he said, with regard to John Donne: "Many people entered the Inns of Court in the 1590s . . . only one of them wrote 'The Sun Rising'." But I wonder how many women born to a Jewish father in Edinburgh studied précis-writing, converted to Catholicism and edited a poetry magazine before becoming a novelist at the age of 39? Probably about the same number that wrote The Only Problem.
A biography worthy of Muriel Spark the writer would have to countenance the possibility that Robbe-Grillet or Marcel Proust was of greater significance than Derek Stanford, her one-time lover and collaborator, even though he formed the basis for more of her characters. A biography that placed emphasis on the form and quality, rather than the dramatic substance and detail, of her fiction might come closer to explaining how she became the most stimulating and singular British writer since Henry Green. Indeed, it is a typical disappointment of this book that even though Stannard quotes or paraphrases Elizabeth Jane Howard, Evelyn Waugh and Philip Toynbee to the effect that Spark's fiction resembles that of Green, he never investigates the truth of the comparison.
Yet this is finally an anecdotal rather than a literary biography. Stannard lists Spark's correspondents, but does not quote or paraphrase any letters she received from John Updike, David Lodge or Frank Kermode, her cleverest critics; he writes that Spark went "lunching" with Iris Murdoch, as if the two were idle housewives rather than - along with Doris Lessing - the dominant female writers of the 1960s.
It is characteristic of Stannard that he has so little to say about A Far Cry from Kensington, Spark's most trenchant, evocative and mournful book, simply because it is less autobiographical than Loitering With Intent. Until he discusses its reception, it arises on only two occasions - once when he misattributes a detail from it to Loitering With Intent, and the other time when he makes nudging allusion to its title (at 48, Muriel's brother was "a far cry from the shambling adolescent of his Edinburgh days"), an irksome habit that he frequently indulges. (If he had a pound for every time he used the phrase "public image" . . .)
When Stannard engages directly with the work, it is not always a happy collision. His remarks are often indistinguishable from the blurbish praise he quotes from newspaper reviews, and he tends to resort to caricature. He calls Spark "the high priestess" of "female Gothic surrealism", which strikes me as completely inaccurate. And as the author of a two-volume biography of Evelyn Waugh, he is liable to see similarities everywhere. This comparison, although apt to an extent, is finally limiting: Spark's work was notable for its constancy of achievement but variety of character. In her brusqueness and brutality, she sometimes resembled Roald Dahl; she had something of Nabokov's unfeeling mastery; her trademark mixture of cool social portraiture and anxiety about fiction suggests the beady, troubled and troublesome offspring of Jane Austen and B S Johnson. Like Austen, Spark worked in the ironic, rather than the italic, tradition of English comedy; she kept a straight face for 50 years.
It would be churlish to note the disparity between Spark's fastidious energy and the pedestrianism of this book, were the disparity not
so glaring. Stannard employs one of Spark's favoured devices - the flash-forward - but where she used it to explore the idea of predestination or playfully point towards events beyond the scope of the narrative, Stannard is constantly undermining suspense by revealing what "ultimately" happened.
Where Spark had precise control over her effects, Stannard's writing is sadly lacking. When he attempts to be pithy - pith and cheek being Spark's defining traits - the effect is smugly anachronistic: "They were certain that they had discovered a unique voice. And they were right." Spark liked to pierce cliché, but Stannard proceeds as if familiar language were the only kind: her early novels were "brilliantly original works which stormed the literary citadels"; she was "a blazing new talent in the literary firmament"; she "accelerated into the literary stratosphere". And his attempts at verbal play range from really rather silly ("Nicholson, a great communicator, was a non-communicant") to lunatic: Jay Presson Allen, who had adapted The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie for the stage, "perpetually set Muriel's teeth on edge but this was not the reason for Muriel spending largedental surgery". Most of all, it is absurd that Spark should be the subject of such a flat-footed, 600-page book.
In all those pages, there is only one description of Spark's working practice: "A sentence would form, a title, and a network of metaphors would crystallise around it." This is a Catholic conception of how an ordinary girl from Morningside became a great writer. It strips Spark of agency - of authorship. Life furnished the details, "a sentence would form". There is no point, it seems, in even trying to guess at the sources of literary achievement; it was all predestined anyway.
Leo Robson is the New Statesman's lead fiction reviewer