Merciless merriment

The Complete Short Stories

Muriel Spark<em> Viking, 407pp, £20</em>

ISBN 0670911720

Somewhere between the third and eighth offering in this collection of Muriel Spark's complete short stories - there are 41 in all - I found myself transformed from a casual fan into an ardent admirer. From "The Seraph and the Zambesi", written in 1951, to "Christmas Fugue", written in 2000, there is not a single disappointment. The early stories set in South Africa are hard-edged, harshly lit compared to the shaded, fading interiors of the later "London" stories; but however familiar the terrain may seem at the beginning, each tale craftily weaves its way into something startling.

Fate unfolds with calm inevitability. Tragedy is mundane. Lives brush against each other carelessly, but with devastating impact. In "Bang Bang You're Dead", a woman watches reels of cine film shot 18 years earlier and recollects the events that took place behind the composed happiness on screen. Her memories are framed as much by the inane comments of the other guests in the room as by the falsifying camera. "The blacks look happy enough," the hostess remarks. "Did you have any trouble with them in those days?" "No," says Sybil, "only with the whites." Everyone laughs. Except, one imagines, Sybil herself, who alone understands that they are watching a murder unfold.

Death comes casually in these stories. However, it is not death that's casual, but the way people live their lives. Spark is constantly teasing out the ironies of our self-deceptions and vanities, our stubborn ability to miss the point and not get the joke. Writers, artists, house guests and third parties - not to mention an array of the most delicious ghosts - stalk these stories, all needling the reader into being aware that there is a joke, a game, an act of invention going on. In "The Twins", the narrator is a writer who goes to stay with old friends and finds herself in a perilous den of far more accomplished storytellers. In "The Executor", the ghost of a famous novelist haunts his dishonest young niece out of her plans to make money from an unfinished manuscript by completing it herself. Spark's fictional observers invariably occupy uncertain moral ground. Neutrality, she lets us know, is at all times questionable.

If cauterising human folly is Spark's mission, her bible is an irreverent, mischievous humour. "The Snobs" is a fantastic bit of comic social anatomy, in which the dreadful Ringer-Smiths are drawn with merciless merriment. The real and surreal often jostle in these stories, and Spark moves effortlessly between the two. In one story, a man realises he is taking tea with a ghost only when a cut finger yields no blood. Another character narrowly escapes death when a soldier fails to con him into buying an abstract funeral.

Clearly (and unusually) this collection has been carefully arranged. These stories have been placed not in chronological order - logical yet dull - but in a loosely thematic sequence. The overall effect highlights all the elements that unify Spark's writing - the sharp ear, the savage eye, the playful imagination - and at the same time displays her impressive range.

Above all, the trademark of her fiction, novels and short stories alike, is its deceptive lightness, the way it seems almost to shrug its shoulders at the people and lives it so piercingly brings to life. Every word discreetly steers the reader's mind towards Spark's goal, but it's all done with inspired casualness.

Truman Capote once commented that "too many writers seem to consider the writing of short stories as a kind of finger exercise . . . in such cases, it is certainly only their fingers they are exercising." Spark is entirely exempt from such criticism.

Rebecca Abrams's most recent book is Three Shoes, One Sock and No Hairbrush (Cassell, £9.99)

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2001 issue of the New Statesman, A nation in panic