Spark willfly

What ra­di­ates out from all the writ­ing, fic­tion and nonfiction, of the great Scot­tish writer, born 100 years ago this week, is a bright, sharp and dis­ci­plined cre­ative in­tel­li­gence

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - PATRICK FREYNE - GER­ALD DAWE

A cen­te­nary trib­ute to Muriel Spark

In a telling speech in New York in 1970 the 52-year-old Muriel Spark ad­dressed what she called “The De­seg­re­ga­tion of Art” and made no bones about what she meant: “Our noble as­pi­ra­tions, our sym­pa­thies, our el­e­vated feel­ings should not be in­spired merely by vis­its to an art gallery, a theatre, or by read­ing a book, but rather the rhetoric of our times should per­suade us to con­tem­plate the ridicu­lous na­ture of the re­al­ity be­fore us, and teach us to mock it. We should know our­selves bet­ter by now than to be un­der the il­lu­sion that we are all es­sen­tially as­pir­ing, af­fec­tion­ate and lov­ing crea­tures. We do have th­ese qual­i­ties, but we are ag­gres­sive, too. And so when I speak of the de­seg­re­ga­tion of art I mean by this the lib­er­a­tion of our minds from the com­fort­able cells of lofty sen­ti­ment in which they are con­fined and never re­ally sat­is­fied. To bring about a men­tal en­vi­ron­ment of hon­esty and self-knowl­edge, a sense of the ab­surd and a gen­eral look­ing-lively to de­fend our­selves from the ridicu­lous op­pres­sions of our time, and above all to en­ter­tain us in the process, has be­come the spe­cial calling of arts and let­ters.”

Spark’s 88 years of a greatly lived and trav­elled life, from her birth in a Scot­tish-Jewish fam­ily in Ed­in­burgh on Fe­bru­ary 1st, 1918, un­til her death in Italy on April 13th, 2006, is char­ac­terised by an in­tense self-learn­ing that makes her fic­tion such fas­ci­nat­ing read­ing pri­mar­ily be­cause of the trans­po­si­tion of her ex­pe­ri­ences into a fab­u­lously imag­ined world. Her char­ac­ters, women and men, and their “sit­u­a­tions” and land­scapes have a ma­te­rial feel to them that cap­ti­vates the reader.

Read­ing Spark is like lov­ing Re­nais­sance art; there is a rich­ness of im­age, a depth of sug­ges­tion and a light touch that masks the big­ger pic­ture – of how we cope with loss and ne­glect, of the elu­sive spir­i­tual world she her­self fol­lowed with her con­ver­sion to Catholi­cism and how it sits on her char­ac­ters’ shoul­ders. But above all when one enters the Spark ter­ri­tory one is en­ter­ing a world of ironic laugh­ter at hu­man frailty, pre­ten­sion and sur­vival. And also, as this ex­tract from The

Poet’s House – a ra­dio talk from 1960 – makes plain, Spark knew ex­actly what was at stake:

“I’ve al­ways been in­ter­ested in what makes the adult writer start to write. Is it some­thing com­pul­sive within the per­son? Or is it, per­haps, some out­ward com­bi­na­tion of cir­cum­stances? Be­cause it’s one thing to feel quite cer­tain within one­self that one has the abil­ity to write and to be full of ideas and vi­sions, but it’s quite an­other thing ac­tu­ally to get down to it. I think the get­ting down to it is the most dif­fi­cult part. Even now, after years of prac­tice, I al­ways have the great­est dif­fi­culty in lift­ing up a pen and sit­ting down to write. I can al­ways think of other things to do which look more at­trac­tive at the time. But I al­ways do get down to it in the end. It’s a sort of ob­ses­sion. And once I’ve started to write, ev­ery­thing be­comes easy, ev­ery­thing else is for­got­ten, and the hours I spend writ­ing my nov­els or sto­ries are per­haps the hap­pi­est hours of my life.”

Writ­ing fic­tion was her de­light but her writ­ing about other writ­ers is al­ways a guide to best prac­tice. Here, for in­stance, Spark is prais­ing Nobel lau­re­ate Hein­rich Böll, “the con­tem­po­rary Ger­man au­thor I most ad­mire”. The rea­sons are worth re­count­ing: “for the va­ri­ety and steadi­ness of [Böll’s] vi­sion and its ex­tra-ter­ri­to­rial di­men­sions; and for the stamina of his pa­tient, al­most doc­u­men­tary style”. She goes on to re­mark of his char­ac­ters as “in­domitably proceeding with their lives within, against and in spite of the in­ter­fer­ence and im­posed val­ues of mod­ern bu­reau­cra­cies, and moulds with wit and in­tel­li­gence th­ese char­ac­ters in their own sweet and sour unique­ness”.


Asked about “the book I would like to have writ­ten, and why”, Spark, while name-check­ing sev­eral pos­si­bil­i­ties – in­clud­ing Eve­lyn Waugh’s The Loved One; The Book of Job which “en­chants me above all other books in the Bi­ble”; along with the son­nets of Shake­speare; the di­a­logues of Plato; the note­books of Kierkegaard; sto­ries in­clud­ing Henry James’s Daisy Miller; TF Powys’s Mr We­ston’s

Good Wine; and nov­els by “most-ad­mired con­tem­po­rary nov­el­ist, Hein­rich Böll” – is adamant: “I would not want to have writ­ten any­thing by any­one else, be­cause they are ‘them’ and I am ‘me’. And I do not want to be any­body else but my­self with all the ideas I want to con­vey, the sto­ries I want to tell, maybe lesser works, but my own” (1981).

Such a re­fresh­ingly in­di­vid­u­al­ist spirit an­i­mates all of Spark’s 22 nov­els, her mem­oir,

Cur­ricu­lum Vi­tae, the Col­lected Sto­ries, the po­ems and thought-pro­vok­ing nonfiction, gath­ered into The Golden Fleece (2014) by her part­ner and friend, Penelope Jar­dine. What ra­di­ates out of all this writ­ing, fic­tion and nonfiction, is a bright, sharp and dis­ci­plined cre­ative in­tel­li­gence. If there is an Ir­ish par­al­lel, it might be Brian Moore, whose tense re­la­tion­ship with the Catholic Church, its teach­ings on sex­u­al­ity and its op­pres­sive­ness, ex­ists along­side the in­ti­mate touch of other places and an­other world en­tirely, a spir­i­tual af­ter­life, as those who are phys­i­cally gone and de­parted re­visit the plots and set­tings of both nov­el­ists in un­pre­dictable yet ut­terly con­vinc­ing ways. In her best-known novel, The Prime of Miss

Jean Brodie (1961), we time-travel with the Brodie clan – six girls her pupils at the Mar­cia Blaine Academy – from the early 1930s Ed­in­burgh as with Eu­nice Gar­diner’s sto­ry­line: “‘You are an Ariel,’ said Miss Brodie. Then Eu­nice be­gan to chat­ter. She was not al­lowed to do cart­wheels on Sun­days, for in many ways Miss Brodie was an Ed­in­burgh spin­ster of the deep­est dye.” Fast-for­ward 28 years, though, in the same coter­mi­nous scene: “‘When we go to Ed­in­burgh,’ Eu­nice said, ‘re­mind me while we’re there to go and visit Miss Brodie’s grave.’ ‘Who was Miss Brodie?’ [asks her hus­band]. ‘A teacher of mine, she was full of cul­ture. She was an Ed­in­burgh Fes­ti­val all on her own. She used to give us teas at her flat and tell us about her prime.’ ‘Prime what?’ ‘Her prime of life.’ ”

Strug­gle with ill-health

In Ap­point­ment in Arezzo: A Friend­ship with

Muriel Spark (2017), Alan Tay­lor, a close and re­spected friend, in­forms us that after a long, dif­fi­cult and stoic strug­gle with ill-health, Spark died a few short years after her tri­umphant re­turn to Ed­in­burgh and its world-fa­mous book fes­ti­val: “All Ed­in­burgh,” the

Guardian re­ported, “had been fight­ing tooth-and-claw for a seat.” In­deed the 600 tick­ets “had sold within a cou­ple of hours of go­ing on sale. Ap­par­ently [a proud Tay­lor re­calls] some tick­ets had changed hands for as much as £100, about 10 times their face value.” And worth ev­ery penny, too! The event must have been very spe­cial: “walk­ing ten­ta­tively with the aid of a stick, Muriel en­tered the teem­ing tent to a spon­ta­neous, stand­ing ova­tion”.

“When the ap­plause abated Muriel took as her text a pas­sage from The Prime of Miss Jean

Brodie, read­ing slowly and with a pause for dra­matic em­pha­sis. ‘If only you small girls would lis­ten to me I would make of you the crème de la crème’. This was what ev­ery­one had come to hear and they weren’t dis­ap­pointed. Many of them seemed to have the sen­tences off by heart and lip-read along with her. Here was Muriel Spark in per­son, the na­tive re­turned, witty, waspish, a won­der to be­hold, the true crème de la crème, re­it­er­at­ing more than once when quizzed about her ‘ex­ile’ in Italy: ‘I con­sider Ed­in­burgh as my home’.”

Tay­lor’s fine por­trait of Spark, a must-read, points to her “sense of fun and her fe­ro­cious artis­tic am­bi­tion” and how, in ev­ery re­spect “she had lived life to the full”. It is only fit­ting that her fi­nal rest­ing place is in San Gio­vanni, where she found a last­ing home. “As is typ­i­cal in Italy,” Tay­lor re­minds us, “many of the graves are adorned with snap­shots, Muriel’s near­est neigh­bour is a man who is re­mem­bered not as in the full­ness of youth but in his tooth­less dotage. She is one of the ceme­tery’s few non-na­tives. Her stone, placed flat, has no pho­to­graph. It has two pots of flow­ers and a can­dle. The let­ter­ing is weath­er­ing al­ready. There is a quote, cho­sen by Penny, trans­lated into Ital­ian from Muriel’s own poem, Canaan: ‘Not a leaf/Re­peats it­self, we only re­peat the word’. And im­me­di­ately be­neath her name is one sim­ple word, Poeta.” As an artist of the first rank, Muriel Spark is one of those writ­ers who, once en­coun­tered, like El­iz­a­beth Hard­wick or Eu­dora Welty, are never for­got­ten; they be­come part of the at­mos­phere in which one lives and breathes.

Ger­ald Dawe’s most re­cent col­lec­tions in­clude Se­lected Po­ems and Mickey Finn’s Air. His other pub­li­ca­tions in­clude In An­other World: Van Mor­ri­son and Belfast and (forth­com­ing) The Wrong Coun­try: Es­says on Mod­ern Ir­ish Writ­ing


Left, Muriel Spark, and be­low, Mag­gie Smith in the ti­tle role of the 1969 film adap­ta­tion of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

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