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A look at the long prime of novelist Muriel Spark on the centenary of her birth

Catholic and rational, profound and comic, Scottish and international: the novelist squared circle after circle.

Martin Amis, displaying his customary terror of the first person singular, once described Graham Greene as the first serious writer “you came across”, the one “we happened to read” before “we read anybody else”. Greene, Amis wrote – stepping marginally closer to confessional territory – had served as “an awakener”, and what he awakened was a taste for Literature, a property that his writing embodied in a pleasing, plotty form.

Assuming this role for later generations looks an immeasurably taller order. Greene, by cross-breeding the novel in its earnest and ethical mode with the devices of the thriller and the yarn, helped to create an appetite for the Catholic tradition as well as for godless existentialism, and for such heroic forebears as Conrad, James, and Dostoevsky. But who could prepare the budding reader in the 1980s or 1990s or today for such multifarious challenges as, say, the po-faced nouveau roman, the postmodern jeu d’esprit, the whodunit that shows its working, the medieval mystery with a semiotic treatise tucked inside?

The leading and only obvious candidate is Muriel Spark, who was born in Edinburgh just over a hundred years ago, and who now more than ever looks like the standout British novelist of the later 20th century. Spark’s novels – 22 in all – are the product of a ruthlessly confident, even clairvoyant sensibility, and fuse an impossible range of tones and strengths. “For a soi-disant parable-writer, she is surprisingly social in her comedy,” the novelist Ronald Frame writes in his superb introduction to The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960), part of a complete reprinting of Spark’s novels by the Edinburgh-based publisher Polygon. Her prose is icily impudent and briskly profound, “cruel and lyrical at the same time” – to borrow her own description of the Scots Border ballads that she read as a girl, which provided her earliest model in straddling other borders, such as being both dense and spare. (She later took a course in précis-writing.)

The Spark centennial has been an almost exclusively Scottish affair. The main event is an exhibition – small but heaving – at the National Library of Scotland, which holds Spark’s papers. The only new book to appear, apart from Virago’s ill-judged compendium, The Observing Eye: the Sayings of Muriel Spark, is the memoir, Appointment in Arezzo, by Alan Taylor, founder of the Scottish Review of Books and the series editor of the new collected edition. BBC Scotland commissioned an hour-long documentary, presented by Kirsty Wark, and featuring Val McDermid, Janice Galloway and Ali Smith, three of the contributors to Radio 3’s week-long series of Essays. During an event at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall in January, Nicola Sturgeon talked of her love for Spark, and there have been calls for a Spark statue and banknote.

“She always said that she was Scottish by formation,” the novelist Ian Rankin told me recently, when we met at the National Library. But he views Spark more specifically as a product of Edinburgh, “the city of haves and have-nots, where a New Town had to be created because the Old Town was ridden with slums”. Rankin recalled the scene in Spark’s best-known novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), in which Miss Brodie, a teacher eager to develop a cult of personality, leads her class on a tour of streets whose names “betokened a misty region of crime and desperation”, a virtual “foreign country” which “intimates itself by its new smells and shapes and its new poor”.

The idea of division was a challenge to be faced down. Writing in the New Statesman in 1962, Spark said that the Edinburgh “habit of thought” could be summed up in the word “nevertheless”, pronounced “niverthelace” and delivered with a gleam of the eye. Spark left Edinburgh when she was 18, but she confessed to being “fairly indoctrinated” by what she called “the nevertheless idea”, the belief that contradictory ideas might co-exist, or have equal validity. Rankin pointed out that Jean Brodie had been named after one of the great examples of the embodiment of contradictory impulses called the “Caledonian antisyzygy”: Deacon Brodie, a celebrated local politician who was hanged after being exposed as a burglar.

Class act: Maggie Smith stars in the 1969 film version of Spark’s book The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Credit: AF Archive / Alamy

I first learned of Spark’s existence in my early teens. A review of The Truman Show noted the film’s debt to The Comforters, the novel about a critic – and Catholic convert – trapped in a novel, which Spark published in 1957 when she was 39, after her own conversion to Catholicism and fiction-writing from a Jewish upbringing (her father, Bernard Camberg, had been born in Lithuania), a traditional Presbyterian education and a long apprenticeship as an editor, biographer and poet. I remembered the name some years later – how could you not? – reading David Lodge’s elegant primer The Art of Fiction, where the use of flash-forwards in Jean Brodie was characterised as “a typical postmodernist strategy, calling attention to the artificial construction of the text”. Here, these references seemed to say, was a writer interested in the nature of what she was doing, possibly at the expense of the doing itself.

But Lodge – on this occasion, anyway – missed the intricacy of Spark’s approach, her ability to have it both ways. “Make it a straight old-fashioned story, no modern mystifications”, one character advises in The Comforters – the first of a run of keen-eyed, fleet-footed comedies, published between 1957 and 1963, which proved that this novelist wasn’t subject to the usual limitations. (The same could be said of Thomas Pynchon, another comic, and Catholic, explorer of the world as a legible, plotted place.)

The occasional hint of things to come hardly prevents us from “‘losing ourselves’”, as Lodge put it, “in the temporal continuum of the fictional story or in the psychological depth of the central character”. The knowledge that Miss Brodie will die, broken-hearted, aged 55, cannot erode her vitality, or the ringing pathos of her plight. And Spark’s text is no more artificial, no more a product of language, than the world she presents. The narrator tells us repeatedly that Miss Brodie’s pupil, Rose Stanley, was “famed” or “inescapably famous” for sex, before revealing that Rose “did not really talk about sex, far less indulge it”. The reason that Rose and company cannot “escape” being the Brodie set was that they had become “the Brodie set” in the eyes of the school. You could even say that the “prime” in the novel’s title should be in quote marks, since it identifies nothing more than Miss Brodie’s formulaic-robotic assurance that, “I am in my prime”.

But then Spark undermines the idea of the scare quote. Words, in her handling, are as “real” as acts, as hard as sticks and stones: at one point, we read that the girls’ group identity “had worked itself into their bones, so that they could not break away without, as it were, splitting their bones to do so”. An exchange in Ian McEwan’s would-be Sparkish novel, Sweet Tooth, tried to carve her work along realist/experimental lines, into novels with “tricks” and those that “recreate life” – Jean Brodie being placed in the latter camp – and only succeeded in showing how effectively she outwitted the binary-hugging temperament. (Frank Kermode once began a sentence in this magazine, “Mrs Spark, who can do anything…”)

But Spark’s fiction doesn’t stop at providing a critique of the novel alongside a masterclass in novel aesthetics. She also delivers a serial portrait of the writer as a human type – the dualist who seeks to make a whole. (It’s a trick that McEwan attempted in Atonement as well as Sweet Tooth.) In Jean Brodie, the teenage novelist Sandy Stranger conducts a “double life”, a phrase whose various applications include her uniting of Miss Brodie’s much-trumpeted categories of “instinct” and “insight”. Dougal Douglas, also known as Douglas Dougal, the writer-figure in The Ballad of Peckham Rye – a sort of vatic farce – is at once devil and exorcist, someone whose lies produce “a kind of truth”, as Spark said of her own writing.

An adherence to Catholicism, the religion of paradoxes, is frequently allied with the creative temperament. Sandy becomes a nun; Dougal a Franciscan monk; Nicholas, the poet in The Girls of Slender Means (1963), the last of the early novels, is martyred on a Jesuit mission in Haiti; while at a lower level of commitment, Fleur, in the best of the later novels, Loitering with Intent (1981), is also a convert. (Sandy turns against Miss Brodie because she conducts herself like “the God of Calvin”, enlisting Rose as a sexual go-between, persuading a naïve new pupil to fight for Franco.)

****

Ian Rankin told me that he had been heartened by the recent celebrations because, as he put it, Scotland hasn’t always been so good at celebrating writers, such as Robert Louis Stevenson, “who didn’t stay”. The National Library show, entitled “The International Style of Muriel Spark”, is devoted to a life spent far afield. On leaving school, the author married Sidney Oswald Spark. It was supposed to be her dash for freedom, though she soon found herself living in Rhodesia with a depressed husband and a dependent child. In 1944, she left Sidney, sent her son Samuel to be raised by his grandparents, and moved to London, where she lived through the experiences that helped to furnish three decades’-worth of books – staying in a hostel in west London (The Girls of Slender Means), serving as the embattled editor of the Poetry Review (Loitering with Intent), falling in and out with the sinister hack Derek Stanford, her sometime lover and collaborator (A Far Cry from Kensington, 1988), and suffering a nervous breakdown before finding God and the Novel (The Comforters).

In the late 1960s, following a stint in New York, Spark moved to Rome and then Tuscany, where, apart from a long-running epistolary stand-off with Samuel – who had changed his name to Robin and become an Orthodox Jew – she passed four markedly conflict-free decades with her companion, the sculptor Penelope Jardine. (When Spark died, aged 88, in 2006, she left Jardine her entire estate, and her son nothing.)

One of the show’s many starry moments is a letter from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, in her capacity as a Doubleday editor, offering $100,000 for “world rights” to Spark’s memoir, Curriculum Vitae. Spark declined, and no wonder – the exhibition’s first display is emblazoned with images of Spark’s books from every imaginable “territory”: La Plenitud de la señorita BrodieFrøken Jean Brodies beste alder, etc. The critic Jenny Turner, who was born in Aberdeen, told me that it is easy to be at once very Scottish, as Spark called herself, and utterly continental, pointing to the relationship between Scotland and France in philosophy, during the Enlightenment, and in diplomacy, with the Auld Alliance. (Miss Brodie tells her set, “We of Edinburgh owe a lot to the French.”) Spark found much inspiration across the Channel in the work of “the new French writers” led by Alain Robbe-Grillet, who, as she wrote in The Mandelbaum Gate (1965), depict “repetition, boredom, despair, going nowhere for nothing” in “a tight, unbreakable statement of the times at hand”.

In the decade following The Mandelbaum Gate, which itself marked a kind of border, Spark wrote a series of novels in the new French mode, including The Driver’s Seat (1970), though Turner believes any borrowings underlined “a convergence with what she had been doing anyway”. Spark herself was eager to remind people that when she started writing fiction “there was no Robbe-Grillet”. It seems a case less of parasitic influence than of a shared impatience with what Spark called “slop and sentimentalism”, “wadding and claptrap”, as well as a shared allegiance to the work of writers such as Proust, Gide and Charles Baudelaire, who, Turner told me, was the inventor of the outsize dancer-figure, “the fanfarlo”, which Spark borrowed for a long narrative poem and her first story, “The Seraph and the Zambesi”, which beat 7,000 other entries to win an Observer competition in 1951.

id Spark have any kindred spirits among British writers of her time? The usual comparisons (Ivy Compton-Burnett, Iris Murdoch, Evelyn Waugh) tend to acknowledge her chosen milieux, or use of gargoyles, or her use of arch and brittle dialogue. How about Pinter? “What a little beauty of a play!” Spark wrote in 1961, reviewing a TV version of The Dumb Waiter. “He can do pathos, humour and tragedy, all in one piece.” Later that year, both writers were storming America. In the October 14 edition of the New Yorker, you could read the whole of Jean Brodie, then turn the page and find Edith Oliver heralding Pinter’s arrival as a Broadway playwright (“The Caretaker, at the Lyceum, simply cannot be as good as I think it is”).

Between them, Spark and Pinter liberated post-war English writing from its Angry Young impasse with a formally severe, continental-flavoured regime, dogged in its clarity and jet-black in its comedy, of scheming bachelors, haughty geriatrics, eloquent phantoms, frenzied showdowns – and a fascination with what Spark, in her paragraph on Pinter, called “the relevance of irrelevant talk and action”. (Kermode said that Spark was concerned to show that characters in novels “must say things that transcend simple relevance, and so may appear irrelevant”.)

At a certain point, the analogy breaks down. Watching Ian Rickson’s sharp new production of The Birthday Party, at the Harold Pinter Theatre (until 14 April), you realise that, without a narrator-figure to mediate, the play cannot really distinguish its perspective from the thing observed – a contorted world (here designed with chilly flair by the Brothers Quay) is what you get. In The Comforters – another tale of enigmatic visitors to a south coast cottage, published the year Pinter’s play was written – Spark was able to be both clarifying and cryptic, rational without denying the irrational.

The advantage to Pinter was dramatic intensity; a single aim, pursued with unwavering focus. Spark spent half a century resolving contradictions, squaring circle after circle. It’s an achievement that seems less like a product of a biographical recipe (the nurturing city, the inspiring conversion, the years of Grub Street toil, and so on) than some phenomenon of nature or the supernatural, or possibly both – like the sunset in Jean Brodie that, in its mixture of gold and blood, seems to suggest that “the end of the world had come without intruding on everyday life”. 

“Muriel Spark at 100”, an event featuring Alan Taylor, James Campbell and Ali Smith, takes place on 15 April at the Cambridge Literary Festival

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Delusions of empire