Killing Her Softly

A measured, sympathetic—and ultimately damning— portrait of the 20th century’s most wickedly funny novelist
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Muriel Spark was controlled by a terror of being controlled, a terror so unlimited it extended to staircases: she didn’t like to descend in front of a man for fear of being pushed. Now Spark is dead. She cannot, as she did in life, defend herself, if necessary by scaring a person into servitude—for ultimately, with few exceptions and excluding her dealings with cats, the only relationship Spark could tolerate was that of principal and agent, with herself as the mercurial principal. She is no longer the boss. We can approach her on terms of our choosing, and she won’t be able to do anything about it. We can, if we so choose, give her a murderous little shove.

It is disturbing that such an evil esprit d’escalier might invade one’s mild soul. The invasion illustrates an extraordinary dynamic of Muriel Spark’s life, namely that she inflamed in others low, frightened thoughts that mirrored her own. In her campaign to protect herself from a world populated, as she saw it, by underminers—by saboteurs, bores, frauds, stranglers, plagiarists, lazyboneses, time-wasters, nosey parkers, incompetents, defamers, clingers—she arranged her affairs in a way that contrived, in fact, a series of Sparkian antagonisms and setbacks. She had a disaffected former boyfriend who sold the letters she had written him. She was thrice the victim of burglary. A servant conned her. (Rare is the literary biography containing the statement “In private apartments, her experience with manservants had been disastrous.”) Her son publicly fell out with her. She even managed to provoke Thor, though only to a wonderfully delicate admonishment—a lightning bolt once passed an electric current across her mouth, singeing the upper lip.

In other words, Muriel Spark, who believed the worst about others, had the self-fulfilling knack of bringing out the worst in them, and it is to the credit of Martin Stannard that, in spite of his personal dealings with his subject and his complex indebtedness to her—Spark effectively handpicked her own biographer—he has produced a life story of splendid equanimity and sympathy. (Or has he? See below.) At any rate, he apparently has followed his commissioner’s instructions to treat her as though she were dead—which eventually required no effort on his part, because Muriel Spark died in 2006.

Before wading deeper into chronological waters, it is worth pausing to note that Muriel Spark wrote some of the most perfect novels of the last century. A fellow practitioner cannot read her earlier work, in particular, without delight and a technician’s envy and finally a sense of responsibility to not commit the blunder, whether by neglect or misjudgment or antipathy, of allowing Spark’s name to fall into minorness. Certainly, it seems wrong that two of her biggest admirers, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, Catholic converts like Spark, should enjoy safer roosts in the jungle of repute. That will change, or ought to. Her best work is better than Greene’s best work and at least the equal of Waugh’s. Then again, Spark is a woman and liable to be taken for Jane rather than Tarzan.

Muriel Camberg was born in Edinburgh in 1918, “the very worst year that the world had ever seen so far,” she wrote. Her father was a skilled factory worker of immigrant Jewish stock, her mother a Christian from Watford, England; Muriel would describe herself as a “Gentile Jewess.” Mr. and Mrs. Camberg, agonizingly teetering between the upper working class and the lower middle class, were ambitious for Muriel and her brother and sent them to “fee-paying,” private schools. Muriel Camberg excelled academically, lucked into a teacher who would serve as a model for Jean Brodie, and developed a precociously clear sense of herself as an artist. This identity counteracted her social indistinctness, for she left school to join the vague masses of the petite bourgeoisie for whom higher education, or indeed any higher calling, was apparently not an option. She took a course in business writing and at the age of 18 met her future husband. The relationship, it is fair to say, did not really work out.

To cut short a hair-raising story, in the following year, 1937, Muriel traveled to Southern Rhodesia to marry “Solly” Spark, a 32-year-old Scottish-Jewish oddball with dreams of making good in the colonies. But Solly was doomed to make bad. A math teacher too mentally unstable to hold down a job, he also revealed himself as prone to gunplay and wife-beating. Muriel found herself in the most helpless of spots: a baby son, Robin; a useless and dangerous husband; a milieu of racist, idiotic colonists; and a vocation with no outlet. Then world war broke out, and she was definitively trapped—or would have been, had she not been an extremist of self-determination.

Spark in 1943 surreptitiously left her young son in the shaky hands of his father; sneaked off to South Africa; found, in 1944, a berth on a troop ship back to Britain, a very hazardous undertaking, what with the U-boats; and, after a brief visit to Edinburgh, traveled alone to London, where she found German bombs and work, and wrote poems. All of this took almost unthinkable steel. She must have known that she had left Robin in enormous peril and cannot have been surprised when, in her absence, Solly, on holiday, left the boy with people who ran a fruit shop, and soon afterward checked into a psychiatric clinic in Bulawayo. When Solly and Robin at last shipped out of Africa in 1945, the boy quickly found himself in the care of his mother’s parents in Edinburgh: Spark remained in London, where through grit and good luck she was appointed, in 1947, the general secretary of the Poetry Society and the editor of its Poetry Review magazine. Spark provided for her son financially and would drop by in Edinburgh from time to time, but she never even tried to combine a mother’s usual responsibilities with those of a writer. She remained on red alert against that enemy of promise, a son’s need for a full measure of love. The pram in the hall could squash someone else.

Of course, rarely is anyone much detained by the parental flaws of male writers—of Spark’s contemporary Saul Bellow, say. But the case of Spark chimes interestingly with that of Doris Lessing. Lessing was born in 1919, married at the age of 19, languished in Southern Rhodesia, abandoned (two) offspring in search of freedom, and ended up in postwar London trying to care for a third child while making a living and a professional name for herself. (If Virginia Woolf had trouble finding a room of her own, imagine being broke and un-Bloomsbury.) In one of her memoirs, Lessing suggests: “Writers, and particularly female writers, have to fight for the conditions they need to work.” This sounds like an understatement, particularly in relation to the last pre-feminist generation, to which she belonged. Dipping into it, we see that Penelope Fitzgerald, a mother of three, did not publish until the age of 58, that Iris Murdoch and Flannery O’Connor and Patricia Highsmith were childless. Spark may not have been alone in associating motherhood with artistic and personal annihilation. (Other patterns emerge. Highsmith, Lessing, and Spark all loved cats, and in fact Spark received a cat from Highsmith, with whom she also shared itinerancy and a gleefully vicious imagination. If you took scoops of the temperaments of Doris Lessing and Patricia Highsmith and added a dollop of Flannery O’Connor—for the cold Catholicism—the resulting gelato would taste a lot like Muriel Spark.)

She had to flirt and scrap her way forward. Ambitious and “sexy” (her word), she excited infatuations and resentments among the condescending literary gentlemen of the Poetry Society. A grandiose little power struggle ended in her sacking. Stannard takes Spark’s side, as he does throughout his biography, portraying her as a lone woman refusing to submit to the whims of powerful, ghastly, absurdly self-regarding mediocrities. This has a delicious ring of truth; but could everybody have been awful except her? Spark seems to have believed so. In her fictional world, men are almost invariably worthless and delusional, and women, themselves no picnics, often beset by rotten sponging bullying yellow-bellied scribblers of no talent. “They’re cowards, most of them,” one of her characters says of men, and one feels an electric shock of authorial assent.

During her London years of striving and obscurity (she lived by her pen, in poverty, in a succession of tiny abodes; she paid her dues), Spark had two lovers. The first was Howard Sergeant, a poetry- loving civil servant from the provinces. Spark wanted to marry him, whereas Sergeant was torn, being already married. It was a mutually enervating situation, ending in recriminations. She meanwhile had gravitated toward Derek Stanford, a well-liked figure in the world of London bookmen. For five years, from 1949, he served as her believer and comrade-in-letters. Spark later reminisced: “I found him convenient as a literary partner up to the time I did a selection of Mary Shelley’s letters with him. After that he was just a drag.”

It’s possible that she too was a drag, at least amorously. In 1952, she began her turn away from sex, of which she had never really been a big fan, toward religion. After baptism into the Anglican Church she became celibate, then brainily drifted to Roman Catholicism. The conversion also converted her from poetry to fiction. While convalescing at a Carmelite establishment—she had accidentally gone mad from taking over-the-counter Dexedrine, believing, for instance, that T. S. Eliot’s plays contained secret messages for her—Spark began writing her first novel, The Comforters. It appeared in 1957. In the next six years, she would publish six more novels, each one a strange treasure.

Presented by

Joseph O'Neil

Joseph O’Neill’s books include Blood-Dark Track and Netherland.

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