Thursday, December 14, 2006

Muriel Spark

Muriel Spark

2006 saw the death of Muriel Spark (February 1 1918 to April 13, 2006).

One of the leading Scottish novelists, she was also regarded as a "Catholic writer".

Spark collapsed, emotionally and physically, in 1954. The crisis was in part brought on by diet pills, which the struggling writer was popping in place of regular meals. And it was in part brought on by TS Eliot, whose verse Spark started believing was full of secret messages encoded in ancient Greek. But the crisis was also profoundly spiritual.

The year before, Spark had been baptised into the Church of England, heading straight for Eliot's Anglo-Catholic wing. Yet her crisis was resolved only when she converted onwards to Roman Catholicism, a decision whose ramifications would be felt in her life and art. Her convalescence was financially supported by fellow convert Graham Greene, who sent money and red wine, on condition that Spark would not ever, ever pray for him. And a priest found Spark the Camberwell bedsit from which she wrote her early novels.

Spark always said she found it impossible to explain exactly why she had discovered religion at that point in her life. "The simple explanation is that I felt the Roman Catholic faith corresponded to what I had always known and believed; the more difficult explanation would involve the step by step building up of a conviction."

Matters of morality and metaphysics were directly or indirectly referred to and examined in her fiction.

She did not, however, evangelise or preach to those who did not share her faith. "I don't propagate the Catholic faith, but in a funny sort of way, my books couldn't be written by anyone except a Catholic," she said in 1997. "It's the only religion I view as rational – it helps you get rid of all the other problems in your life. There really is such a thing as beauty of morals." "I don't like messages in novels. I don't like them being used as a propaganda machine, although what drives a novelist to deal with such situations is to improve the human race's understanding of itself."

With conversion came her freedom to write. “Everyone said that I would be so restricted, but in fact the very opposite happened,” Spark said. “I didn’t get my style until I was a Catholic,” she explained, “because you haven’t got to care and you need security for that. That’s the whole secret of style in a way. Its simply not caring too much, it’s caring only a little.” Her fiction was to reflect her religious beliefs in its fierce sense of good and evil. And faith provided a framework for her surreal, even grotesque, inventions as well as her discomfitingly acute awareness of the folly of human life.

Her first novel The Comforters describes the spiritual and psychological crisis of a Catholic convert called Caroline, who hears a phantom typewriter tapping out her thoughts, writing a third-person novel about her life, even as it happens.

In The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960), the Devil is sent to live in one of the boroughs of South London.

In Loitering with Intent (1981), her heroine - a novelist- is inspired by an opposed pair of textual masters: John Henry Newman's Apologia pro Vita Sua, a spiritual autobiography; and the exciting secular Life of Benvenuto Cellini, which provides Talbot with her signature line: "I am now going on my way rejoicing."

Sparkian characters bicker, part and come together; unnerving nuns, subtly threatening servants, the malevolent and nearly mad walk on and off the stage; casual violence, ritual suicides, macabre martyrdoms and summary dispatches take place, and there are anonymous letters, blackmail and lunatic telephone calls, all recounted with a detached and apparently simple irony.

Her novels are partly autobiographical. The prose is spare. The irony is sharp. It can be brutal. It can lacerate.

She was a mistress of the acerbic or quixotic one liner, always uttered with deliberate and steely composure. "I used to think it a pity that her mother rather than she had not thought of birth control," she said of Marie Stopes. "A spoilt brat," was her verdict on Virginia Woolf. "All right, she committed suicide, but she didn't have to take the dog with her."

1957 The Comforters
1958 Robinson
1959 Memento Mori
1960 The Ballad of Peckham Rye
The Bachelors
1961 The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
1963 The Girls of Slender Means
1965 The Mandelbaum Gate
1968 The Public Image
1970 The Driver's Seat
1971 Not to Disturb
1973 The Hothouse by the East River
1974 The Abbess of Crewe
1976 The Takeover
1979 Territorial Rights
1981 Loitering with Intent
1984 The Only Problem
1988 A Far Cry from Kensington
1990 Symposium
1996 Reality and Dreams
2000 Aiding and Abetting
2004 The Finishing School

Other works
1950 Tribute to Wordsworth [edited by Muriel Spark and Derek Stanford]
1951 Child of Light [a study of Mary Shelley]
1952 The Fanfarlo and Other Verse
1952 Selected Poems of Emily Brontë
1953 John Masefield [biography]
1953 Emily Brontë: her life and work [by Muriel Spark and Derek Stanford]
1953 My Best Mary [a selection of letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, edited by Muriel Spark and Derek Stanford]
1954 The Brontë letters
1957 Letters of John Henry Newman [edited by Muriel Spark and Derek Stanford]
1958 The Go-away Bird [short stories]
1961 Voices at Play [short stories and plays]
1963 Doctors of Philosophy [play]
1967 Collected Poems
Collected Stories
1982 Bang-bang You're Dead [short stories]
1982 Going up to Sotheby's [poems]
1992 Curriculum Vitae [autobiography]
2001 Complete Short Stories
2004 All the Poems


Women enjoy a chat, men like to lecture: In this extract, Muriel Spark described the notes she wrote to herself when working on a novel

Obituary in "The Telegraph" (written with a touch of Spark):

Papers of Muriel Spark in The National Library of Scotland:

Short Biography:,,1755114,00.html,,60-2137315_2,00.html (obituary in The Times)

Criticism of her works: (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) (from a "Catholic" viewpoint) (First Things) (Of Loitering with Intent)

The Seraph and the Zambesi: this was the first short story which she entered for a newspaper competition and won:,,1754935,00.html