Martin Stannard's biography of Muriel Spark.

Reading between the lines.
April 25 2010 8:15 AM

The Prime of Ms. Muriel Spark

She was as merciless in life as in her art.

(Continued from Page 1)

Spark's 1954 conversion was the catalyst for her fiction. It seemed to unlock a sudden power and direction. Yet unlike such other converts as Evelyn Waugh or Graham Greene, Spark had little interest in Catholic belief or practice. She rarely went to Mass, and her taste in theology was limited to eschatology. In Stannard's words, "Catholicism was what she made it." That absolute confidence gave her an extra purchase on a kind of acid grammar that isn't in itself Catholic so much as English; on a brittle and seemingly lawless comedy that mixes insouciance with moments of sudden violence. Waugh had it, even before his own conversion; so did Ivy Compton-Burnet and Joe Orton. Spark claimed to love her characters as a cat loves a bird, and she managed to present ruthlessness itself as a moral principle.

Her early novels had great critical success, but The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) made her famous and, for a time, rich. By the 1960s she made enough to go into tax exile, settling eventually in Rome, and at that point her hard surface became a matter of something more than her prose. The middle portions of Stannard's work are a round of parties and couture. Spark knew everyone though she had in these years few real friends and probably no lovers; she enjoyed flirting yet after a couple of unhappy early affairs had "a kind of death wish on all close relationships." That changed in the late 1970s, however, when she began to share a house in Tuscany with the artist Penelope Jardine, with whom she lived until her death in 2006. Stannard insists that it wasn't a sexual relationship but doesn't explore it very deeply.

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Spark cannot have been an easy subject for Stannard, whose earlier work includes a two- volume life of Evelyn Waugh. She herself proposed the book, gave him full access to her papers, and as one might expect from her novels told him to "Treat me … as though I were dead." Except she didn't mean it. When she read the all but finished manuscript before her death, she tried to have it suppressed. She could not stand to be another cat's bird, and perhaps all the more so because Stannard's own procedures so closely mirror her own techniques of characterization. He doesn't appear to have had permission to draw freely on Spark's unpublished work, so there's very little here from her letters or other private papers. In consequence she is seen almost entirely from without, as though she lacked an inner life. Stannard does, admittedly, try to compensate for this by adopting Spark's own language when he can, using her own biting vocabulary to describe a particular person or situation, a biographer's version of the free indirect discourse with which realistic novelists represent their characters' interiority. The cumulative effect—which seems not entirely intentional—is to transform the novelist into a monster of pettiness; someone who, in the words of The New Yorker writer Ved Mehta, "went through people like pieces of Kleenex."

Spark's was a long career, despite its late start, and yet it also seems static; perhaps, indeed, because of that late start, because her sensibility was already entirely formed. Almost any sentence in one of her later books could have come out of an early one, and from work to work she offers little sense of developing force. Her best books came early, and she long outlived the period of her greatest power, the dozen years that began with Lettie Colston's phone call. Every page of Brodie is as supple as human flesh itself, and its title character, a teacher so charismatic as to devour her student's very souls, is as much a byword as Dr. Jekyll or Dorian Gray. And The Driver's Seat remains as unforgettable as it is brutal. Lise tells her murderer that he must "be sure to twist" the knife, must make sure that it goes in deep. Which is what, at her best, Spark's own blade did.

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Michael Gorra teaches English at Smith. His books include The Bells in Their Silence: Travels Through Germany and, as editor, The Portable Conrad.

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