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.

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.

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.

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.