Muriel Spark did not think of herself as a novelist. During a glittering career which included 22 novels, around 40 stories and a few biographies, she refused to call herself one. “I claim a poetic perception,” she said, “a poet’s way of looking at the world.” It was a way of looking which set her apart.
Born in Edinburgh in 1918, Spark grew up in a half-Jewish, half-Protestant home. She didn’t go to university: she worked in a department store, married Sydney Spark at 19, and moved with him to Rhodesia. By 1944 she was in London, separated (her only child, with whom she later had a public squabble, went to live in Scotland). She became a writer after winning a short-story competition for the Observer in 1951. From 1957 to 1961 she wrote more than a novel a year. The sixth was a comic novel set in bleak, dark Edinburgh: “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”.
CRUCIAL DECISION To write from life. Spark’s finest novels mine her own experiences, whether of an all-girls school (“Miss Jean Brodie”), a London club for Ladies from Good Families (“The Girls of Slender Means”) or an area teeming with youngsters, would-be gangsters and adulterers (“The Ballad of Peckham Rye”). Even the most miserable experiences, such as those with a violent husband in Africa, were made into fiction. “I had always been aware”, she once said, “of ‘gaining experience’ for some future literary work.”
STRONG POINTS (1) Openings. The novels flicker into life instantly, with the intensity of a thriller. “‘Get away from here, you dirty swine’, she said.”—“Peckham Rye”. (2) The ability to “make them laugh and keep it short”. The novels are mostly around 100 pages long. Her brevity often perplexed critics, but it let her strip away the flab, leaving what John Updike called a “sweet sting”. (3) Dialogue. She would overhear conversations and rewrite them more neatly. But not too neatly. She catches the prickly reality of speech: characters interrupt, argue, and correct each other’s grammar. A husband tells his wife to “shut up a minute” as he fiddles with a film projector (“Bang-Bang You’re Dead”). Spark was attuned to everyday speech, whether it’s the Scots burr someone stumbles back into in “Miss Jean Brodie”, or the rhythms of conversation between a bemused nurse and a befuddled patient in an old people’s ward (“Memento Mori”). Her own tone has an arch wryness that can verge on the camp.
GOLDEN RULE To keep her distance from her characters. Spark rarely delves into the minds of the strange, often amoral, figures that populate her novels. A reviewer once complained that they were “nasty”. Spark’s retort was disarming: “I should have thought they were far worse than that; they are insufferable, even outrageous.”
FAVOURITE TRICK To zoom back and forth in time. In “Jean Brodie”, we learn that one character, only just introduced as a child, will die in a hotel fire as an adult. In “The Driver’s Seat”, Spark describes how the antagonist’s features differ from the identikit that will soon be put out after she is murdered. “The Girls of Slender Means” takes place between 1945 and 1963, allowing a death to unfold with gripping lack of pace.
ROLE MODELS Poets like Wordsworth and T.S. Eliot for their tightness and precision. Scottish ballads, for being, as she put it, “cruel and lyrical at the same time”. The Book of Job, with its haunting lyricism and thrilling storytelling, crops up in several novels. But the writer who seemed to influence her most was Cardinal Newman, the 19th-century theologian whose lucidity and profundity (“We are all implicated in some vast primordial catastrophe”) persuaded her to convert to Catholicism, and to see “life as whole, rather than a series of disconnected happenings”.
TYPICAL SENTENCE Short and razor-sharp: “He looked as if he would murder me and he did.” (“The Portobello Road”)
The Driver’s Seat A new adaptation by the National Theatre of Scotland, Glasgow, June