Google has lots of citations for 'spark', but for informed readers in Scotland and around the world, there is only one 'Muriel Spark'. Her death in 2006 seems to have increased the interest readers have in her 22 novels, many poems and other work. Indeed, the attractive edition of the novels from the Edinburgh publisher Polygon, under the general editorship of Alan Taylor, with introductions by other writers who know her work well (like Ali Smith and Kirsty Gunn), has deservedly lured many new readers and brought back many old ones. After The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
, there was no looking back, especially after the film with Maggie Smith: the book is one to survive even the over-earnest study by students.
Alan Taylor's own memory of Muriel Spark, Appointment in Arezzo: A Friendship with Muriel Spark
(Polygon, 2017), sensitively but unsentimentally captures the chameleon-like originality of Spark. There we read how she saw herself as a writer from the start (she was born in 1918) despite the poverty of early years in Edinburgh; her interest in human behaviour and motivation developed; the pendulum between a search for privacy and a flamboyant social life; the lives she had in Africa then New York then Tuscany; and the final years of debilitating illness.
Her own autobiography, Curriculum Vitae
, published in 1992, reveals her as 'an avid listener' and observer of people, features readers recognise in the many unforgettable characters in the novels. Curriculum Vitae
was written partly to counter what she saw as the errors and misrepresentations of her life and work in a book by Derek Stanford (an earlier collaborator). She cannot forgive him for keeping her letters and, when she was famous, selling them for money.
Yet the concerns she has open up, for us, a wider and deeper theme that pervades Spark's work – her interest in what underlies human action, in the many ways in which human beings deceive themselves and each other, how individually and institutionally we create fictional narratives, and what this seems to tell us about the elusiveness of the truth.
We know, for instance, that for all her self-confidence, Miss Brodie's understanding of the world and of human affection is shaped more by fantasy than realism, that the narrative being written (in Loitering with Intent
, a novel about a novel) by the central character is both true and false, and that Memento Mori
is as much about the symptoms with which the characters die as about they way they believe they will live forever. Shifts in time and place, and refracted angles on the central task of story-telling, add a rich oblique feel to these novels.
Novelist Allan Massie's own still-readable appreciation of Muriel Spark's work, published back in 1979, helps us reach out to what she seems to be doing. He suggests that her characters are often unable to judge how their wilful behaviour is at odds with the underlying 'remorseless causality' of real life. As a result, for Spark, 'human and religious truth march out of step'.
We can only fully understand what Massie is getting at here if we consider how Spark always gave space in her mind for what Miss Brodie called spiritual insight, and how in 1953/4, after immersing herself in the works of Catholic theologian Henry Newman, Spark became a Roman Catholic. It is as if, then, Spark set up an implicit moral benchmark for action and truth, against which she could portray her characters and probe beneath the surface of their lives.
Yet this does not make Spark – in the crude sense – a 'Catholic writer' in the same style as Graham Greene or Evelyn Waugh, with their preoccupation with Catholic orthodoxy, sin and salvation (though both thought well of her work). As David Lodge said in an essay published in Lives in Writing: Essays
(2014): 'she liked the idea of a transcendental order of truth against which to measure human vanity and folly' and was fascinated by the differences between the omniscience of God and the 'fictive omniscience of the novelist' (and, we should add, the complacent self-deceptions of the characters they knowingly create).
Spark herself wrote a revealing essay called Nevertheless
in the New Statesman
in 1961, reproduced in Paul Henderson Scott's Spirits of the Age: Scottish Self-Portraits
(The Saltire Society, 2005), in which she highlights how life seems full of contradictions. The word 'nevertheless' catches the way she feels – an exile from Scotland yet carrying rich Scottish memories (above all about the Border Ballads) in her imagination; how she feels she belongs to Enlightenment Edinburgh in her wish to be rational about human sentiment and motivation; and above all how she regards religion itself as a place of 'paradox of belief'.
'Nevertheless' (and its cognate word 'however') give an important clue to her instinct to qualify, modify, distance herself from, respond sardonically to, and openly satirise traditional versions of religion. At the very end of Curriculum Vitae
, for instance, after hearing praise for her early novels, she wryly says that it's always risky to be carried away with success – 'for many first novels are followed by duds. However
, I took great heart from what he [Alan Maclean] said, and went on my way rejoicing'.
I have italicised 'however' confident that, like 'nevertheless', however is a characteristic way (both for Spark and all Scots) to distrust what seems to be too good to be true. Spark's answer to the questions 'do you see yourself as a Catholic writer?' or 'do you see yourself as a Scottish writer?' would almost certainly be 'yes and no', qualified by plenty of 'nevertheless' and 'however'.
Believer though she became, Spark's interpretation of religion is oblique enough both to capture that complexity of motivation arising from the paradox of belief (something there or not there, chance or providence, church dogma and personal moral freedom, consequences and sin) and to challenge (and even upset) complacent religious postures.
Miss Brodie's 'give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life' is a parody of the Jesuits' claims. Satirically she idolises Mussolini rather than God, takes a pic 'n' mix approach to church, and has a Presbyterian fear of Catholicism – 'a church of superstition… only people who did not want to think for themselves were Roman Catholics'. Sandy, her nemesis, ironically becomes a nun, a hypocrite to the very Calvinism she claims to espouse. The satire continues. In The Abbess of Crewe,
Sister Alexandra excuses her self-righteous lust for power by claiming she has doctrine on her side, while her rival Felicity adopts a hippy free-love modernism in an attempt to subvert the younger nuns.
The interesting thing about Spark's approach is that it is at the same time an incisive satire on conventional (and conventual) religion and a search for the truth, the awkward hidden truths underlying the motivations and actions of the characters and the inner and unrecognised corruption of the system within which they live.
As Ali Smith says about this book, Spark uses her satire on the church hierarchy as 'a weapon of demystification'. Claiming to live by higher values, the characters are exposed as hypocrites and the institutional church as a sham. Like Swift, Spark uses the mock heroic to good purpose – there is much fuss in the nunnery about the loss from her sewing-kit of Felicity's thimble. The fact that The Abbess of Crewe
was published in 1974 at the time of the Watergate scandal is no accident: commentators have wittily pointed out what a roman à clef
the book really is.
Some of Muriel Spark's novels have dated, yet remain interesting for their insight into her narrative adventures and the way they reflect the way of the world. Even then (I almost said nevertheless), as with The Public Image
, published in 1968 about the way a young woman made artificially famous by film publicity struggles to be her real self, some resonate today. Others point up (and implicitly call out) the contradictions and hypocrisies of religion and morality and politics, and these, even in a world far more secular and indifferent to religion and one post-truth about morality, still hit home.
Her satire might tickle you under the chin but they still pack a punch. Yet others, like Memento Mori
, slyly confront things we tend to avoid – physical and mental decay in old old age, or the existence of really evil people in our midst. This interest in looking below the surface is the observing novelist's province, and it throws up awkward stuff. It also penetrates to what John le Carre at the end of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
defines as 'the last little doll', the analogy being those sets of Russian dolls. Smiley finally reveals Bill Haydon as Karla's stooge in the spy circus. And in A Small Town in Germany
, le Carre does very much the same on a larger scale in his description about post-WW2 Germany (enough in the 1960s to incense many German readers).
Muriel Spark, then, seems to win on all fronts; she has her cake and eats it. She satirises religion and gets away with it. She assumes a moral benchmark as a guide to understanding her characters and storylines without humbug (because her wit reconciles). Her characters both appeal and repel, we love Miss Brodie and nevertheless despise her. She devils into the Scottish instinct for morality without being pious, catches the mood of the time and that of today (the Catholic Church, for instance, has much to explain about corruption and sits on a fence about homosexuality), and both warms our heart with her intuitive insight into how we feel and yet leaves us 'cold' for having been made to feel so exposed as human beings. Perhaps that's what perennials like Spark are there for.
Dr Stuart Hannabuss is a writer and reviewer based in Scotland