Killing Her Softly

A measured, sympathetic—and ultimately damning— portrait of the 20th century’s most wickedly funny novelist
More
Steve Pyke/Getty Images

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.

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.
Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

What makes a story great? The storytellers behind House of CardsThis American LifeThe Moth, and more reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In