The Miracles of Muriel Spark

Muriel Spark’s publishers have this year accorded her the privilege usually reserved for major writers: they have reissued her minor work, to make all available. Perilous though it be, a writer wants his every word preserved, if only because every scrap of finished work discarded is a possibility foreclosed. Could he have performed better as a poet, or a critic, or a biographer, or a chronicler? Those unfinished meals indicate what a chef was lost when a surgeon was made: they are interesting as a professional man’s hobbies are interesting.
It was as a poet that Miss Spark opened her career, and the body of work she has chosen to preserve is now gathered in Collected Poems: 1. Her poems are curiosities of the sort written by an author who takes literature seriously as a vehicle, but poetry, not quite. They are technically very skillful indeed, adept with the materials of verse but not approaching the commitment that gives poetic artifice its ultimate truth. She feels at ease with poetry as a form but not as a mode for her ultimate expression. So she writes in strict measures about distant emotions.
Capacity, I understand,
Is limited by fixed precision,
Being a measure of displacement:
The void exists as bulk defines it,
The cat subsiding down a basement
Leaves a catlessness behind it.
“Perfect things in poetry,” Jorge Luis Borges has said, “do not seem strange, they seem inevitable.” Miss Spark’s poems only seem strange. The reader is aware of a consistent voice throughout, but somehow he seldom manages to absorb Miss Spark’s images into the imagination. It is as though the medium of poetry allowed her insufficient time to transform her images into living creations.
In her Collected Stories: 1 the process is carried a bit further. These stories, also mostly written some time ago, vary in quality as widely as the poems, but the best of them are better. There are twenty-one altogether, almost a third of which are set in Africa. (Africa for Miss Spark is the home of violence, and almost all her African stories end in death by shooting.) Many of them— the least successful — rest on the artificial conventions of fantasy; if ballads, nursery rhymes, and the strictly channeled music of the quatrain dominate the poems, so do a number of the stories move in the ghoststory vein. Their characters have returned from the dead to haunt the living or are at once alive and dead, familiar themes rehearsed on a player piano.
In the stories, too, it is the image that dominates, even when it is not wholly absorbed, although the most successful stories do of course bring about the miracle of absorption. In “Alice Long’s Dachshunds,” “The Black Madonna,” and in the concluding and most spacious item, “The Go-Away Bird,” there seems to be no escape for the heroines from recapitulating their most desperate necessities, even to the point of selfextinction.
In “Bang-bang You’re Dead,” a story of sexual jealousy, the time dimension begins to operate in the short story as it might in a novel, and the central quality of Muriel Spark’s fiction begins to display itself as a series of economically conveyed images, connected in time and interacting between past, present, and future. Only a writer whose imagination operates under the overarching assumptions of religious belief can move so confidently in the time dimension, knowing that the past is never forgotten, that the future is never isolated.
Two awful themes — the fulfillment of fatality and the ruthlessness of miracles — have been dominant in Muriel Spark’s novels, but in them the theme opens out to tragic dimensions, the dimensions of Christian tragedy. Christian tragedy, as W. H. Auden once pointed out, is tragedy made poignant by choice. Oedipus cannot choose: his choices are wholly governed by the fates and the oracles; but the Christian hero, in the drama of light against dark, has choices to make that govern the destiny of his soul as well as of his life.
In Muriel Spark’s recent novels particularly, the same powerful ritual has been at work. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie dramatized the miracle of education, as evinced in the words of St. Ignatius almost (and as they come rolling from the stage in the fruity voice of Zoe Caldwell): “Give me a gird at an imprressionable age — and she is mine, for life!” In The Girls of Slender Means the ritual imposed the tragicomic image of the rich man, like the camel endeavoring to go through the eye of a needle, literally on the bodies of girls trying to escape through the exiguous window of a burning boardinghouse. The biblical texts leap out of the ringing first paragraph: “Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions. . . . All the nice people were poor; at least, that was a general axiom, the best of the rich being poor in spirit.” It is an astonishing book, imbued throughout with poetry, for one of the minor characters in the boardinghouse is an elocutionist, and the sound of her voice reciting poetry fills the ears of the reader until the very end, when it is discovered that all the important spiritual crises in the narrative have taken place silently, under cover of the sound of poems. Here, as in her best work before and since, Miss Spark located her true genius as a novelist, which was the elaboration of a central sacred image throughout the meanderings of time.
The Mandelbaum Gate (1965) may stand as the classic novel of the Holy Land during its partition. Dealing with actual events of 1961, during the Eichmann Trial, the long narrative winds back and forth through the gate that serves as the passageway between Israel and Jordan and also as the central image of the heroine’s life — half Gentile, half Jew by birth, Catholic by faith and choice. The Mandelbaum Gate was grossly underestimated on its American publication, partly because editors usually assigned it to Jewish reviewers, who were annoyed (as were the book’s Israeli characters) that the heroine, a woman with a Jewish mother and therefore a Jew by the Law, could actually have chosen Catholicism. It will be a long time before The Mandelbaum Gate can be read as a work of literature and faith as it deserves: such is the paradox of fiction that is set at the gates of history.
Miss Spark’s newest novel, The Public Image, is a short book, like The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie or The Girls of Slender Means. Like them it contains miracles and melodrama, but then so does life — people do sometimes die on their birthdays, or of a “broken heart,” but literary critics have been known to resent the fact, and even more to resent the use of the fact in art. The Public Image, for the first third of its length, traces the development of Annabel Christopher, “a puny little thing . . . with a peaky face and mousey hair,” into a world-famous movie star, the “English TigerLady,” because she happens to photograph well and has enough sense to pose properly:
Luigi looked at her with the expert intelligence which first perceived her possibilities in that scene at the fountain — a fugitive governess in the part, hunted between the carved monsters and the great heroic figures of Bernini’s fountain in the Piazza Navona, with the hot camera lamps on her and the young men and girls of the piazza looking on. He had noticed, not Annabel, but her recordable image, eyes that would change with the screen’s texture, something sheerly given in the face, like a gift that could be exercised. It was a limited provincial look, the semidetachment of daytime propriety that constrained a savage creature.
Annabel, so ruthles about life, so squeamish about death!
Annabel’s husband, an unsuccessful actor and writer, considers himself a serious man, and he cannot tolerate the ease and thoughtlessness with which she manages to coast to her great success: nor, most of all, the likelihood that future success will require even greater thoughtlessness.
Frederick’s revenge is as ingenious as it is serious, and as serious as it is melodramatic: he commits suicide, ostentatiously; he arranges for Annabel to be involved against her will in an “orgy” at the very hour of his death; and he leaves behind a chain of spurious and steamy suicide notes. The revenge is appallingly effective. “Sometimes, after his death, it was possible for her to think of his death apart from its relation to the effect of his death upon herself; but not always.”
At first Annabel acts the bereaved part perfectly, as for a camera: “She craned forward her head to sip the wine over the baby’s body. The doctor put the aspirins half by half into her mouth and she washed them down with the warm wine and let her tears splash on to the side of the glass.” But eventually, as Frederick’s plot drives her to the wall, it also begins to exercise its effect. In one of his suicide notes Frederick had written: “You are a beautiful shell, like something washed up on the sea-shore, a collector’s item, perfectly formed, a pearly shell — but empty, devoid of the life it once held.” Frederick’s, and Muriel Spark’s, evocation of Venus arising from the sea is intended; but the image is turned over and over again as the book’s action develops among its paparazzi and press agents and inquests and lawyers, against the background of the city of the Seven Capital Sins. Eventually Annabel, surrounded by forces beyond her understanding, is driven to make a decision, a serious one which does not seem serious.
In fact she had felt, as she still felt, neither free nor unfree. She was not sure what those words meant. But she was entirely satisfied, now to be waiting with the baby at the airport for a plane to Greece. . . . Nobody recognised her as she stood, having moved the baby to rest on her hip, conscious also of the baby in a sense weightlessly and perpetually within her, as an empty shell contains, by its very suucture, the echo and harking image of former and former seas.
Just so Muriel Spark, utilizing the empty shell of her verse, has managed to bring her gift of poetry to the novel. There it has scope to travel around its images, as a camera travels around the face on which it has focused and views it from near and far, while time passes, and the light changes, and the present turns into the future. The poetry in her novels carries echoes and overtones more musical than those of most poetry, for Miss Spark’s novels manage to contain in themselves the passage of the years, as though the images that lie cold in her poems were at last given time to engender, fertilize, and develop in the womb of time.