My friend Muriel – a life in books

ALAN TAY­LOR CHARTS THE LIT­ER­ARY IN­FLU­ENCES OF MURIEL SPARK

Sunday Herald Life - - BOOKS FEATURES -

SERV­ING his ap­pren­tice­ship as a writer, Robert Louis Steven­son ad­mit­ted that he had “played the sed­u­lous ape” to a num­ber of revered pre­de­ces­sors, in­clud­ing the Wil­liams Ha­zlitt and Wordsworth, Charles Lamb, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Daniel De­foe and Charles Baude­laire. Steven­son made no apolo­gies for his mimicry; on the con­trary, he re­garded it as es­sen­tial to his ed­u­ca­tion, a plea­sur­able process by which he might in time find his own re­mark­able voice.

Muriel Spark, who fol­lows in a di­rect line of de­scent from her Ed­in­burgh soul­mate, was sim­i­larly can­did when ad­dress­ing her debt to lit­er­ary fore­bears. As a girl at James Gille­spie’s school – the model for Mar­cia Blaine’s in The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie – she read vo­ra­ciously, plough­ing through the con­tents of her lo­cal li­brary in Morn­ing­side with the ra­pa­cious­ness of youth. She read what­ever came to hand, tak­ing the tick­ets of her mother, fa­ther and brother to sup­ple­ment her own in­ad­e­quate sup­ply. As she re­called: “My af­ter-school life was di­vided be­tween lend­ing li­braries and the corner of the kitchen where I curled up with my loot.”

In a real sense the li­brary was Muriel’s univer­sity. Now and then, when I spoke to her about her past in an­other kitchen – that in her home in the Val di Chi­ana in Tus­cany – she would talk about her teenage years. Her fam­ily was not poor in the bread­line sense but nei­ther had they money to burn; univer­sity, it seems, was not an op­tion open to her. But she was am­biva­lent about it any­way. She might like to have gone, and been in­tro­duced for­mally to the canon. On the other hand, she felt that by read­ing serendip­i­tously she had ed­u­cated her­self, which in turn had helped make her the artist she be­came.

I imag­ine Muriel wan­der­ing up and down the shelves in Morn­ing­side branch li­brary – once men­tioned in the Guin­ness Book of Records as the busiest in Bri­tain – pluck­ing books as one would ap­ples from a bough. Here were worlds be­yond her own im­me­di­ate one: ex­otic, ex­cit­ing, imag­i­nary, fan­tas­ti­cal, a mere stroll away from the first­floor flat in which she spent her first 18 years.

Po­etry was what she read mainly. John Mase­field, whom she was taken to hear read when still in pri­mary school, and whom she met and wrote a book about in later life, was an in­stant favourite. She read as she would never read again – “for I was des­tined to po­etry by all my men­tors”. Wordsworth, Ten­nyson and Swin­burne were fol­lowed by the Ge­or­gians: Ed­mund Blun­den, Ru­pert Brooke, Wal­ter de la Mare, WB Yeats, Robert Bridges and Alice Meynell, “the only wo­man among them”.

She was en­cour­aged by her teacher, Miss Christina Kay, to write po­etry and many of Muriel’s po­ems ap­peared in the an­nual school magazine. The Bor­der bal­lads were an early and en­dur­ing in­flu­ence, and in her 70s, with the sun go­ing down over the Tus­can hills, she would of­ten re­cite from me­mory ex­cerpts from her favourites. She was de­ter­mined to be­come a poet and took po­ems, such as Robert Brown­ing’s Pied Piper of Hamelin, and at­tempted au­da­ciously to im­prove them. Lit­er­a­ture, for Muriel, at once re­spect­ful and ir­rev­er­ent, was a liv­ing thing.

These days she is best known as nov­el­ist, her am­bi­tion to be a poet thwarted by the need to earn a liv­ing. When, in 1951, she won £250 in a short story com­pe­ti­tion in the Observer news­pa­per her ca­reer took a path which she ini­tially felt re­luc­tant to take. Her first novel, The Com­forters, pub­lished in 1957, was the first of seven to be writ­ten in an as­ton­ish­ing burst of cre­ativ­ity, which en­com­passed Me­mento Mori (1959), per­haps the first novel promi­nently to fea­ture de­men­tia, The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) and, in 1963, The Girls Of Slen­der Means.

Crit­ics have sug­gested that in the be­gin­ning she was in­flu­enced by the likes of Gra­ham Greene and Eve­lyn Waugh, shar­ing their ad­her­ence to Catholi­cism and their in­ter­est in meta­physics. Of the two, Waugh, with his deft comedic touch, seems to me the bet­ter fit. He loved Me­mento Mori and rarely failed to men­tion it in glow­ing terms when­ever Muriel sent him her lat­est novel. But in truth it is hard to find other nov­el­ists, stylis­ti­cally and tonally, not to men­tion their world view, whose books sit com­fort­ably along­side Muriel’s. She was, as her com­pan­ion Pene­lope Jar­dine has said, sim­ply “sui generis”.

The nov­els she most of­ten read were French. Proust was her pas­sion and she re­turned to Re­mem­brance Of Things Past con­stantly. Like him, she knew that, to a writer, me­mory is the well that must never be al­lowed to run dry. She was also a great ad­mirer of Si­menon whose nov­els are, like hers, in­vari­ably short and driven by di­a­logue. An­other in­flu­ence was An­dré Gide, es­pe­cially his novel The Coun­ter­feit­ers. In re­ply to let­ter from me about it Muriel wrote: “I could see how the type

Ap­point­ment In Arezzo: A Friend­ship With Muriel Spark by Alan Tay­lor is pub­lished by Bir­linn, £12.99 you call ‘black­mail­ers, thieves, two-faced schemers’ could be lib­er­ated in lit­er­a­ture from their pro­to­typ­ian vil­lain­ous parts with­out ceas­ing to be vil­lains.”

But what of her­self? Had she achieved what she set out to? What was her le­gacy? “I have re­alised my­self,” she said. “I have ex­pressed some­thing I brought into the world with me ... I think I have opened doors and win­dows in the mind, and chal­lenged fears – es­pe­cially the most in­hibit­ing fears about what a novel should be.”

Alan Tay­lor with Muriel in her study in Tus­cany

Muriel in Rome in 1969. By this time her dream of be­com­ing a poet had been re­placed by the re­al­ity of be­ing a suc­cess­ful nov­el­ist

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