Killing Her Softly

A measured, sympathetic—and ultimately damning— portrait of the 20th century’s most wickedly funny novelist

Spark wrote short. The Ballad of Peckham Rye, Memento Mori, The Prime of MissJean Brodie, The Girls of Slender Means, The Driver’s Seat—these are little or nothing more than novellas. For ordinary novelists, shortness typically lends itself to rumination, denseness, a single viewpoint, minimization of plot; to writing a green pond rather than a river. Not so for Spark. She will take the moves and methods of a long text and abbreviate them to a lucid, flowing, thickly populated yarn full of fiction’s luxuries: humor, suspense, and a strong formal beauty that sometimes leaves one with the transcendent feeling of having read a poem. Pretty much nobody else has done this, which is why writers hold her in awe.

Take The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Baldly, it concerns a bunch of schoolgirls and their teacher and what happens to them at school and in the decades after. A similar project is The Group, by Mary McCarthy (born 1912, one child). But The Group is a chunky 492 pages to Brodie’s skinny 123, and Brodie covers more ground: not merely a brilliantly detailed social document (of Edinburgh in the 1930s), it offers dizzying peeks into moral, political, spiritual, and psychological abysses. Joyce’s The Dead does the same—and it’s shorter than Brodie—but, like Mrs. Dalloway, it achieves its effects by corralling its characters into a single social gathering. As many novels (and movies) demonstrate, this is a pretty manageable trope. Brodie, on the other hand, fearlessly zips backward and forward through the years—the flash-forwards are breathtaking, scary—with a temporal territoriality that’s entirely Spark’s own. Weirdly, the novel’s panoramic power brings to mind War and Peace (1,472 pages).

How does she do it? Obviously, there’s her extraordinary briskness (some might say brutality), accuracy, and gracefulness of exposition, with her masterful use of repetition and patterning. She’s funny, too, and funniness creates volume. Says stupid Mrs. Fiedke in The Driver’s Seat:

There was a time when they would stand up and open the door for you. They would take their hat off. But they want their equality today … With all due respects to Mr. Fiedke, may he rest in peace, the male sex is getting out of hand.

But to account for Spark’s magic, we must return to her religion. Although she was an irregular attendant at Mass and an unruly member of the flock (she opposed its doctrines on such issues as birth control and the male priesthood), the logic of Catholicism, as she understood it, intellectually substantiated and liberated her sense that the mundane work of man was risible. Accordingly, Spark’s theology had a vital phenomenological dimension. She understood herself as a “post-rationalist,” which is to say, resistant to humanism and in particular its trust in psychology and philosophical materialism. Her novels reflect this. First, they may contain supernatural elements. The Ballad of Peckham Rye features a literally diabolical Scotsman who brings havoc to a South East London neighborhood. Memento Mori—another example of an extensive dramatis personae handled with thrilling ease—concerns an uncanny plague of anonymous phone calls reminding the listeners of their impending death. The Girls of Slender Means, which is a sad, witty marvel, hinges on the martyrdom of a witness to a deadly fire.

A second consequence of Spark’s theology was her interest in the nouveau roman and its hostility to fiction’s traditional claims to insight. She admired Alain Robbe-Grillet, and in mid-career, most famously in The Driver’s Seat (1970), she experimented in her narratives with the viewpoint of the bystander who knows only what can be seen. But even in this mode, Spark fundamentally differed from Robbe-Grillet, for whom the world was neither significant nor absurd but simply was. Spark, by contrast, insisted precisely that the world is “absurd” and the nature of reality “ridiculous,” declaring “the marvelous tradition of socially conscious art” to be “ineffective literature” and advocating, in its place, the “arts of satire and ridicule.”

Stannard is not much given to literary theory, but Spark’s pronouncements embolden him to assert that her philosophy of writing was, in 1970, “a decade ahead of its time, pure postmodernism.” This doesn’t seem quite right (and not just because postmodernism was around well before 1980). Her books have little of the self-undermining with which postmodernism is strongly, and perhaps most usefully, associated. Spark may have found the world absurd, but not that bit of the world comprising what she wrote, or who she was. She had total faith in her authorial powers, with pretty good reason. Her characters, she happily bragged, “do exactly what I tell them to do.” The story well told, the sentence well made, the word well chosen, the divine mystery underlying everything, the clear boundary between the worlds of truth and untruth (“Fiction is lies Truth is truth,” she asserted), the reader as the buckled-up passenger and the novelist in control at the wheel—her trust in such stabilizing old notions was so strong that she was propelled, perversely, into forms that feel new. She was an innovator by anachronism.

M

uriel Spark

metamorphosed into a famous writer in 1962, after the death of her father. She moved from Camberwell, London, to New York, where she became social and bohemian and glamorous. She was as difficult as ever with publishers, agents, professional advisers, friends, because she was as easily as ever insulted or let down. People were frightened to say anything that might cause her to, in Stannard’s term, “let rip.” It is almost impossible to keep track of her tiffs, disagreements, and burned bridges. Whether social or professional or domestic, her bridges were brushwood.

She moved to Rome in 1966 and became very grand. She lived for a while in the Hotel Raphael—“expensive,” writes Stannard, “but with none of the bland ‘international’ ostentation of the larger first-class hotels”—and settled in a palazzo. She retained a butler. She told her editor at Knopf that he should sell enough copies of her books to keep her in jewelry and finery. She left biographical questionnaires (from journalists or publishers, one guesses) blank, on the grounds that they were “intrinsically insolent.” She was cautioned by her accountant that the upkeep of a racehorse she’d bought from the Queen was not likely to be tax-deductible.

Her Italian residency limited for tax purposes the number of days she could spend in the United Kingdom, and thus was efficient for the purpose of keeping at bay her son and her widowed mother, whose apparent purpose in life was to disturb the peace of mind she craved in order to write. When Robin took an interest in drawing and proposed that he illustrate a children’s story she’d written, she got Alan Maclean, her editor at Macmillan, to break the bad news. In later life, Robin accused Muriel of being more Jewish than she admitted—it turned out that her mother also had Jewish ancestry—and this led to a final rift. In an interview, she said, “He can’t sell his lousy paintings and I have had a lot of success … He’s never done anything for me, except for being one big bore.” She cut him out of her will.

In Rome, she chose to have an entourage of social attendants. She felt closest to bluffers and imposters and charmers and acolytes, encouraging them to struggle for her preference. Just their names tell a Sparkian story: Brian de Breffny, Count Lanfranco Rasponi, Dario Ambrosiani, the Honorable Guy Strutt. The first and second of these friendships originated in phone calls out of the blue from men professing to love her work. To be clear: she was fond of her friends, and vice versa. They may have been phonies, but they were real phonies. Muriel Spark regarded social identity as a masquerade. If you liked that kind of thing, she was a lot of fun.

Moreover, in Italy she found lasting companionate contentment with an artist named Penelope Jardine, whose house in the Tuscan countryside became Spark’s home, and with whom she formed an odd, happy couple for the last three decades of her life. Stannard dismisses any conjecture that it was a sexual relationship, and there is no reason to doubt him. The raison d’être of the relationship seems clear. Muriel Spark always lived in a near-panicky state of flux, was always vexed by the difficulty of finding what Bellow called “stimulated equilibrium.” Jardine—steadfast and unneedy—served as both a great anchor and a great collaborator in restlessness. Well into Spark’s old age, the two would be constantly on the move, usually in Spark’s Alfa Romeo: in 1985 they turned up in Pisa, Portofino, La Spezia, Rome, Zurich, Essex twice, Paris, Florence several times, Santa Margherita Ligure, Frankfurt, and London. When she wasn’t traveling, Spark wrote. She was basically a machine for seeing and writing.

Stannard gives us little information about the process of producing Spark’s biography, save that in 1992 she lured him into offering his services, and that she was very generous with her patience as he labored on the work for many years. He mentions no difficulties, nor that a “very upset” Spark went through his text line by line, making amendments, as A. S. Byatt has reportedly revealed. Stannard bears no grudges, and his express sympathy for his subject never flags; indeed he can sometimes seem comically partisan, as when he offers that Spark found trouble with Solly Spark and later Derek Stanford on account of an excess of empathy for their fragilities. The effect of this advocacy is very interesting.

A plea in mitigation, as any experienced defense lawyer will tell you, requires the advocate first and foremost to heap blame on his client. This is counterintuitive until you understand that by co-opting the narrative of condemnation, counsel for the defendant is creating a space for the court’s possible sympathies. In the matter of Muriel Spark, monster, Stannard does the opposite. He constantly speaks up for her, thereby awakening in the reader a prosecutorial instinct. Was he unaware of this dynamic? Perhaps. Either way, by the end of his biography, she lies in a heap at the bottom of the stairs.

In The Driver’s Seat, the deranged protagonist, Lise, travels in search of a man who can be induced to murder her. She finds the man and dominates him into doing what she wants; she even provides him a knife. The story has a horrible final twist. Overriding her protests, the hitherto compliant murderer rapes Lise just before he kills her; there is a limit to what she can control. The temptation, of course, is to equate Spark and Stannard with Lise and her killer, and to conclude that Spark, by encouraging Stannard to proceed under her indirect supervision, tried but failed to contain her own inevitable biographical murder. But that would be to miss the darkness of Muriel Spark. Is it not more likely that she foresaw her amiable assassination by Stannard and arranged for it? She almost always got her way. As she once observed, “Sooner or later I do what I want to do.”

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