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20 April 2021

From the NS archive: The Prime of Miss Muriel Spark

27 September 1963: Such novels assume the reader’s sympathetic participation in muddle.

By Frank Kermode

In this piece, the literary critic and theorist Frank Kermode considers the work of Muriel Spark in her most prolific era, as a new book about her is released by Derek Stanford. Spark is known for the lightness and wit with which she wrote about serious themes; Kermode also considers how Spark conveys fundamental truths. Reading her novels is, he writes, “a work of the imagination”; they are shaped by the subjectivity of her characters (and also, therefore, her readers). Spark’s first novel “The Comforters” “looks into the question of what kind of truth can be told in a novel” – it is “an inquiry into the way fictions work”. Her new novel “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” “[fuses] tone and material” to become “the best written of these superbly written books”. In this appraisal, Kermode is incisive not only on Spark’s unique style and merit but on the fundamental premises of fiction.

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Muriel Spark – as Derek Stanford rather quaintly observes in his new book about her – is in her prime; like her own Miss Brodie she has a set, and to it should belong anybody who takes an interest in the ways fiction can body forth the shape of things unknown. This remarkable virtuoso being in her prime, new books are happily frequent, and the latest, called The Girls of Slender Means, is, like nearly all the others, in some ways the best. They are all pretty alarming, and the reasons why they are also funny are very complicated. Some literate people dislike them, though not, so far as I know, for decent reasons. It’s true that there is an unfashionable element of pure game in these books – they are about novels as well as being novels – but this is simply part of their perfectly serious way of life. It won’t do to call them bagatelles. And there is another rather moral objection, quietly voiced by Mr Stanford in a footnote, to the effect that Mrs Spark lacks charity. This also misses the point, since the concept, cleared of cant, may be entertained in precisely the gratingly unsentimental way in which this pure-languaged writer understands it.

There is certainly a remoteness, a lack of ordinary compassion, in her dealings with characters, but this is part of the premise of her fiction; if we feel sorry in the wrong way, it’s because our emotions are as messy and imprecise as life, part of the muddle she is sorting out. In her story “The Portobello Road” one of the characters says of a murdered girl: “She was at Confession only the day before she died – wasn’t she lucky?” And she is described as “speaking from that Catholic point of view which takes some getting used to.” The Spark point of view is like that, not only because she is an unremittingly Catholic novelist, committed to immutable truths, but because she is uncommonly interested in the shapes assumed by these truths as perceived in the tumult of random events and felt upon insensitive fallen flesh. The question for the reader is not at all whether he accepts the truths, but whether the patterns are made good and recognised. Reading them, like writing them, is a work of the imagination, fallen or not. What establishes their validity is not the “sharp reminders of eternity” mentioned in the blurb, but imaginative cohesion, a rightness in the shapes, a truth sensed in the fictions.

The easiest way into this kind of fiction, which shows the world as bearing obscure figurations of the meaning of the novel, is by way of The Comforters, the first of the series. Here is a novel which looks into the question of what kind of truth can be told in a novel. It creates a quite powerful sense – still not absent from later and less openly experimental stories – that to make fictions is in a way a presumptuous thing to do, because the novelist is, unlike God, free at the expense of his creatures. Of course the characters fight back: Caroline, the heroine – who as a Catholic convert knows about absolute truth and is also expert in theory of the novel – does her best to resist manipulation by the mind of the unseen novelist who is putting her into a story and trying to shape her life. So she tries to spoil the plot by an exercise of free will: “I intend to stand aside and see if the novel has any real form apart from this artificial plot. I happen to be a Christian.” And later, when the writer tries to make her lie low in hospital and let her get on with other parts of her pretty complicated plot, Caroline forces her way back into the book by saying that she’s being left out only because the writer can’t cope with a description of the hospital ward. There follows a deliberately perfunctory description of the ward. The voices Caroline hears recounting or prophesying her actions are novelistic: they are one voice differentiated into many, always speaking in the past tense. (Later Mrs Spark is often, as a novelist, devious about tenses.) The novelist arbitrarily arranges fantastic and pointless coincidences. Mrs Hogg, standing for a singularly odious piety, vanishes when not in the story, having no other life.

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The tone of The Comforters is civilised and often frivolous, but it is naggingly about something serious, and the difficulties of saying such things in terms of a convention so absurd and arbitrary as a novel. The plot is deliberately complicated, since the question asked is, how can such an organised muddle of improbabilities, further distorted by the presumptuous claims of the writer on space and time, say anything true or interesting? One of the answers, if one may abstract it, is that even among the falsities of a novel, as among the shapelessness of ordinary life, truth figures; and it does so because the imagination, in so far as it is good, is bound by categories which stand in relation to absolute truth. This shows up in a certain repeated atavism in Spark plots – the assumption must be that the ancient patterns have a more certain relation with the truth. Thus Caroline deals with her demon while crossing water; but this is only an early instance of a device very important to Mrs Spark. And it doesn’t detract from the frivolous pleasures of flux.

None of the other books is so obviously an inquiry into the way fictions work, but by now it’s plain that Mrs Spark will not relinquish the investigation. In this, as in other ways, she remains a poet, for poets have always bothered more than novelists about the exact nature of their chosen mode. A Sparkian aphorism, “There is more of everything than poetry,” is quoted with some show of disagreement by Mr Stanford, but it seems very pregnant, and an accurate if queer account of her novels. Of these Memento Mori (there is more of everything than holy dying) seems the best known. Certainly it has a superb morbid accuracy, a poetic concentration on a narrow society of people and ideas. The ancient characters are all different, united only by the common summons of death, as in the danses macabres; and the most notable of them is not the evil Mrs Pettrigrew but the revitalised Charmian, a novelist within the novel, still giving “to those disjointed happenings a shape”, and well aware that this shape is a deception, like all fiction. “In life,” she says, “everything is different. Everything is the providence of God.” This is the simple point; the scientist’s notes perish in a fire, like the dross they are (Mrs Spark often burns a building for parabolic purposes). He knows how death comes, but it is Jean Taylor who knows what to do about it, its right place among the four last things. Memento Mori may be slightly overloaded with incident; at this stage Mrs Spark wants swirling activity as well as subtle dialogue and occult figuraton.

[see also: From the NS archive: Staying human]

The Ballad of Peckham Rye is nearer to fable and shorter. It has so many heavy hints about the diabolic nature of Dougal Douglas that it could be made to look like a more fictional Screwtape Letters, but it is really a subtle book. The typing ghost of The Comforters now roams arbitrarily about interfering in everyone’s life. The devil as father of lies is the patron of novelists; Dougal is writing a highly fictional biography of an old woman, and he records in his notebook lists of useful if low novelist’s commonplaces, useful blunters of truth and sharp perception. Like a novelist, he seduces people into wanton or even self-destructive acts: the bridegroom who says “I won’t,” the head of the typing pool who is murdered. Again there is an intense concentration on a small society, again there are tell-tale atavisms (Dougal’s dread of water, the cysts on his head). There are also chill Edinburgh high spirits; the novelist herself wantons with the story of the tunnel and the dead nuns.

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The last of the heavily plotted books (so far) was The Bachelors; but the world has the same arbitrary limitation, a world of bachelors, their friends and mistresses. Just as, in The Comforters, we are asked to consider the analogy between the writing of a novel and a temporary loss of sanity, we are here made to see an affinity between novel-writing and mediumship (fraudulent and authentic in indeterminable degrees, but fundamentally alien to the truth) and between mediumship and the disease of epilepsy. Mediums, like novelists, speak in a variety of voices, depend on stock responses in their audiences; yet they are no more their own masters than epileptics, who suffer (as all stories do) from atavism in the central nervous system. Yet, like writers, they are sometimes thought very wise. The Bachelors is a comic performance, although it is, as the hero notices, “all demonology and to do with creatures of the air”. Its comedy arises from the corruptions it deals with; and these imply a primal innocence, which later became Mrs Spark’s central topic.

Thus The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie treats of the loss of innocence. It may well be the best written of these superbly written books; there is a fusion of tone and material. There is a characteristic Spark voice, slightly pedantic, produced in Scotland’s good schools. In The Comforters she can write that Father Jerome “had used to send the lay brother to her” – a usage probably not to be found in other living novelists. This faint pedantry suits Miss Brodie, and the book should ideally be read aloud by a lady who has preserved the Edinburgh accent in all its soft severity. The tone is now more important than the plot: ordinary expectations are flouted by skipping to and fro in time from the Thirties and the schoolgirls to the present time of their maturity.

The unpredictable and often absurd acts and assertions of Miss Brodie are precisely what amuses us; but they also have unpredictable consequences (one girl burnt in the fire, being Miss Brodie’s notion of dross; another, taught to transfigure the commonplace, herself uncomfortably transfigured). Miss Brodie fancies herself one of the secular elect, a modern justified sinner; and she assumes a novelist’s, or God’s, power over character. But her life assumes penitential patterns familiar to the instructed, and repeated with pain by the treacherous Sandy. Hindsight is liberally provided from the outset; but the dominant image is of the justified Miss Brodie presiding calmly over a lost innocence.

The new book is rather on the pattern of Miss Brodie; it is about a group of young ladies living in a genteel hostel near the Albert Memorial, during the months between the end of the war in Europe and the end of the whole thing. As in Brodie, the history of the time is touched in, neatly and with full relevance. The girls are poor though not in want, like the English generally at the time; they are beautiful in poverty, slender (some of them) in means and figure alike. They have a Schiaparelli dress, held virtually in common, and have dealings with an anarchist poet, Nicholas Farringdon, who sleeps with the most beautiful of them, Selina, We know all along about Nicholas’s later martyrdom, but the focus is on the days just before the hostel is destroyed by an old bomb and a fire.

The arrangements are such that slender means and bodies become figures of beautiful poverty;  but it is Selina’s slenderness that enables her to destroy the image of paradise by a breach, as it were, of the rule of the order, so providing Nicholas with the vision of evil which leads him to the Church, and in the end to martyrdom. While they exist, “the graceful attributes of poverty” are enhanced by Nicholas’s anarchism, and by the poems intoned by the elocutionist Joanna. These are relevant because paradisal, or sometimes quite fortuitously, as with Drinkwater’s “Moonlit Apples” or Shelley’s “West Wind”; most relevant to the crisis is “The Wreck of the Deutschland”, and the Anglican liturgy proper to the day of the disaster.

It may seem that the parable element bulks rather large, that the novel is itself trying to get through the eye of a needle. But Mrs Spark uses all her power “to love and animate the letter”. The commonplace may show the operation of these figures, and others, but it is still represented with an arbitrary novelistic richness; and if “charity” is a word to be reserved for the future of Nicholas, it might still be said that the society of girls is handled with cool tenderness.

Such novels assume the reader’s sympathetic participation in muddle, they assume a reality unaware that it conceals patterns of truth. But when an imagination (naturaliter christiana) makes fictions it imposes patterns, and the patterns are figures of the truth. The relations of time and eternity are asserted by juxtaposing poetry and mess, by solemn puns about poverty. None of it would matter to the pagan were it not for the admirable power with which all the elements are fused into shapes of self-evident truth – the power one looks for in poems. Mrs Spark, in her prime, is a poet-novelist of formidable power.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)