Intellectual Monster: The Life and Work of Muriel Spark

I’m in a state of grief, gratitude and excitement over Muriel Spark’s death. This reflects the fact that I only really discovered her for myself six months back. Yes, I had read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie some time ago. But it was rereading The Prime last November that catapulted me into Dame Muriel’s universe. Since then I’ve been reading her closely and studying her marvelous spidering method.

As a fresh devotee (the zeal of the convert), it seems to me I might perform a service now by telling others about her. I’ll do so in two entries. First my general take on the life and work. And then a more specific treatment, of how The New Yorker magazine created Dame Muriel’s international reputation in 1961.

Muriel Spark was born Muriel Camberg in 1918 in Scotland. Her father was Jewish and her mother a quarter Jewish. The precise Jewish fraction would prove to be controversial late in her life, when her Jewish son Robin attacked her publicly. And as with other key biographical details, in her own telling, Spark created a fastidious and protective vagueness about her life. What matters, though, is she grew up with both gentile and Jewish relatives, and a keen ear for her ancestors’ ballads.

Two resonating impressions of Spark’s girlhood are that she was wickedly insightful and had body issues about chubbiness. Her insights frightened people. You get the sense that even early on teachers were afraid of things that came out of her mouth, justly. After all, that’s the devastating plot turn of her most famous work, Miss Brodie. And in her best work she could see where others couldn’t see, see psychological and psychic events clear as day. As for the body issues, they’re important because Spark hung out with girls, was bad at men. She was drawn to older men, and was a poor judge of them. Thus her marriage in Rhodesia, at 19, to a 32-year-old teacher: Sidney Oswald Spark, or SOS, whom she soon left, saying that he was mentally ill.

SOS gave Spark two important things. The name Spark, a great improvement over the original. And Southern Africa. Leaving Scotland for Rhodesia at 19 forced Spark to take care of herself (she later wrote). She spent seven years in Africa, and the toughness, racism, and murderousness of the culture affected her. When she came back to England in 1944, she left her young son behind at a boarding school, and when he came to England a year or so later, she promptly parked him with her parents in Edinburgh (who raised him Jewish). She had her own important work to do. These events touch touch on a prominent quality of Spark’s work: her coldness.

The years after the war were the turbulent mills that gave her her literary grist. She plunged into London’s bohemian and literary world. A gifted scholar and editor, she took part in poetry wars. It appears that she had several affairs with married men that blew up. Anonymous letters, that kind of thing.

She also appears to have had a number of spiritual crises, culminating in her conversion to Catholicism in 1954. These crises convinced her of her solitary nature, her need to withdraw from society. My “creative crackerdom,” she once described her temperament. Her rapacity for experience/material and her eye for human flaws seem to have made her impossible to live with.

Or as Sibyl admits in the great story, Bang Bang You’re Dead: “Am I a woman, she thought calmly, or an intellectual monster? She was so accustomed to this question within herself that it needed no answer.”

1951 was the great early turning point in her career. In that year she submitted a story to the Observer (of London) for a story contest, and it won out over 6000 other entries. The Seraph and the Zambesi is about a fiery angel disrupting a staging in Rhodesia. The Observer thought the piece was written by a man, and it demonstrated Spark’s gifts in miniature: sharp turns in action, intense feeling for character and speech, a haunting sense of place, and supernatural surprise.

In 1957 Spark began to publish fiction. The books came out of her one after the other. She said that it took her eight weeks to compose a novel. These early works are staggering because they are such successful experiments. The Comforters, her first novel, describes the spiritual crisis of a young writer who is having visions, and may be her best book, for it is sincere and generous. Robinson, an outlandish and religious survival story followed. Then The Ballad of Peckham Rye, a masterpiece of misanthropy set in a factory town, and Memento Mori, a crushing novel of old age and spiritual dawning that might be her most beloved work, containing the famous line, uttered to the oldsters when they pick up the phone, “Remember you must die.”

She wasn’t done. Three more novels came quickly, notably The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, (which launched her international reputation) and maybe the best of them all, The Girls of Slender Means. Throw in two books of short stories, and you have nine books in seven years.

Those seven years from age 38 to 45 were Spark’s prime. Yes she would go on writing forever. (A thin book, The Finishing School, came out a couple years ago).Yes, she would touch her early achievements with stories like The House of the Famous Poet in 1966 or the novel Loitering With Intent in 1981. But the dark rich devastating story that poured out of her like blood would never be matched. She wrote so much hogwash later on (and no I haven’t read half of it). She was played out. She had used the turbulence of her youth to great effect. Now she was a famous writer living in New York, London and Italy. How boring can you get?

What are the qualities that make Spark so stunning? Let me count them!

To begin with, her style is natural, effortless. The words are genuine and real and artful, like an idle flute. And the mood and time of one sentence can be completely different from the mood and time of the one before it. “I opened the door and my sadness left me at once. With a great joy I recognized what it was I had left behind me, my body lying strangled on the floor,” she writes in The Girl I Left Behind Me. That moment gets us toward the savage wit. Spark knew her job was to entertain, and she could be wildly humorous. Finally, she was a storyteller. She told dramatic tales in 220 pages, lightning narratives that rank her in Scottish eyes with Robert Louis Stevenson

Spark gave away one of the secrets of her magic to the Scottish writer Janice Galloway in an interviewl in 1999.

Yes, lies do interest me because fiction is lies. Fiction is lies. And in order to do this you have got to have a very good sense of what is the truth. You can’t do the art of deception, of deceiving people so they suspend disbelief, without having that sense very strongly indeed… Of course there is a certain truth that emerges from a novel, but you’ve got to know the difference between fiction and truth before you can write the novel at all. A lot of people don’t – a lot of novelists don’t – and what you get then is a mess….people run away with the idea that what they are writing is the truth.” She puts her gaze on full-beam. “You must be all the time aware it’s not.”

Writer to writer, that is Spark’s big lesson. She never went in for Jungian hooie about her unconscious taking over, but that’s what she means. Writing is to the page what sex is to the bed: Anything you do there is alright, so long as you are making it all up in your imagination, and know that it’s not the real world.

Now her themes. The concern of her best novels is spiritual knowledge. The character of the spinster Jean Taylor in Memento Mori who serves by explaining to others what is really going on in their lives and gradually withdraws from life is Muriel Spark herself.

Better example: The Girls of Slender Means. This book is pure fun. It seems to be all about girls and their bodies and a passed-around Schiaparelli dress. A bunch of young women at the end of the war, living in a place like the Barbizon Hotel but in London—it’s all very diverting till the end, when the house blows up because of an overlooked bomb, and survival means squeezing through a narrow window, and the issue of whose hips are under 36-1/2 inches makes all the difference.

What lifts the story from black farce is the conversion of the poet Nicholas Farringdon by his witnessing the suffering and death of Joanna Childe. Farringdon is dashing and brilliant. He has been fucking the incredibly beautiful Selina Redwood on the roof. But he is drawn to Joanna because of her spiritual gifts, made clear by her elocution lessons, her study of poetry and religion. Her death converts him. He becomes a priest, and is murdered in Haiti 15 years on.

The belief that good people are condemned to remove themselves from life: that is one of Spark’s limitations as a popular writer. She didn’t think much of people. Her world was snobs, liars, hypocrites, killers, and seducers. As I wrote a few days ago here, her basic understanding of human relations comes down to one word: blackmail. In proving this point of view, Spark showed cruelty to her own characters. She tends to rub them all out like ants. I went through a stretch of four Spark novels in four days once, and I emerged feeling desolated. It’s not a happy picture.

The absence of love, and smidgen of forgiveness, kept her from a wider audience, I think deservedly. (As it brought down Mark Twain’s popularity late in life). The other thing that limited her was her fine brush. Spark was Little England. She didn’t care for big international story, or when she tried it failed. The Mandelbaum Gate was her effort to spread her wings, and she couldn’t do it. She was best in a small social setting, and one whose manners she knew well. That meant Britain, the Edinburgh of Miss Brodie, the London of Loitering With Intent. In that small space, she was a spellbinding vengeful Austen.