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.

Muriel Spark The Biography.

"Remember you must die." That's what the characters in Muriel Spark's first important novel hear whenever they pick up the phone. They are all old, some bedridden and others senile, and while the message is always the same, each of them hears a different voice: old, young, sinister, polite. Sometimes it sounds like long-distance. Word of the calls begins to spread, the London papers pick it up, Scotland Yard is called in. Are they a prank, a threat, a case of mass hysteria? "The man's mad," Dame Lettie Colston says of her own caller on the book's second page. But of course his words are true, and this savage comedy judges its characters by how they take the news. The retired policeman Henry Mortimer advises a group of worried citizens that they should indeed "practice … the remembrance of death," and Spark rewards him with a quick heart attack as he steps aboard his sailboat. Dame Lettie gets herself clubbed by a burglar.

Memento Mori (1959) was the third of this Catholic convert's 22 novels, and Spark never moved very far from its concerns. Her most famous character, the eponymous Jean Brodie, may tell her students that she is in her prime, but those who speak of their prime are no longer really in it, and Spark's best books are all written in remembrance of that final point toward which all narrative tends. It seems to tear the final pages of The Girls of Slender Means(1963), until then the sprightliest of her novels, and in The Driver's Seat (1970) the main character, Lise, quite deliberately sets out to get herself murdered. She buys a dress that witnesses will remember, picks out a likely suspect, and tells him just where to put the knife. Each of her novel's 100 pages has the burn of dry ice.

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Spark wrote that very short book under the influence of the French nouveau roman, working in the present tense and offering no insight into Lise's motivations, no glimpse of an inner life. The narration is cool and objective, stripped of any but the most telling detail and so cerebral as paradoxically to suggest hysteria; Lise betrays a shred of desperation only when she fears that her victim, the man she's chosen to murder her, might not do what she wants. Martin Stannard suggests, in this comprehensive but curiously flat Muriel Spark: The Biography, that The Driver's Seat may be Spark's best novel. I suspect few readers will agree with him, but it does stand with Memento Mori as her most characteristic in both its remorselessness and its utter disengagement from any question of interiority. Lise is defined by what she says and does, not by anything she might think or feel, and while her situation might appear extreme, Spark's characters are all governed by the same logic. Only their actions matter, not their intentions, though this most elliptical of modern British writers will almost never specify just how they matter.

Spark was 39 when her first novel, The Comforters(1957), appeared and had already spent a decade on the scruffier side of London's literary world. Her later work came back repeatedly to what she saw as the indignities of that freelancer's uncertain life. And she also often returned to one crucial moment from 1954, a Dexedrine-fueled breakdown in which she imagined that T.S. Eliot himself was sending her a series of secret threats. She had taken the pills as a way to save on food, and her hallucinations gave her both the voices of Memento Mori and the plot of that first novel, in which a young writer hears a "Typing Ghost" at work in her walls, a ghost who tells her that she herself is but a fiction.

At once inscrutable and accessible, The Comforters carries its self-reflexivity with a near-Mozartian lightness. Stannard doesn't really explain just how she managed to produce such a stylish verbal artifact, though his biography is at its best in tracing Spark's life in the years before she became a novelist. She was born Muriel Camberg in Edinburgh in 1918. Her father was a Jewish mechanic, and her mother, who had grown up as a Christian, was at least partly Jewish. Muriel grew up with a sense that her world did not quite fit her. School came easily, but her family didn't think in terms of a university education, and she started adult life as a secretary. Her marriage, at 20, seems to have been above all an attempt to get away from home.

Sydney Spark was a math teacher in his 30s, with a position waiting for him in Rhodesia. His new wife didn't realize how unstable he was until she was in Africa herself, and pregnant. He couldn't hold a job and was sometimes violent, and Stannard does his best to make the young woman's response to her difficult situation sound reasonable. She wanted a divorce and "Solly" at first refused. They had a small child, and passenger traffic to England was disrupted by the war. Worried that the 4-year-old Robin might feel abandoned, she nonetheless put him in a boarding school and got herself on a troopship back to Britain. After the war the boy, now 7, came north with his "hopeless case" of a father. Spark left him in Edinburgh with her parents and moved herself off to London. Her marriage over, she never again placed her full trust in anyone; nor did she ever allow her "domestic responsibilities" to stand in the way of her future.

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