AS THE CENTENARY OF HER BIRTH APPROACHES WE HEAR TRIBUTES TO ONE OF SCOTLAND’S GREATEST – AND MOST UNDERAPPRECIATED – NOVELISTS
Alexander McCall Smith, AL Kennedy and Alan Taylor salute one of Scotland’s greatest novelists
DAME Muriel Spark, according to her close friend Alan Taylor, would sometimes tire of her designer clothes and give them away to the nuns in the small Italian town where she lived, who were happy to take such well-tailored pieces off her hands and wear them under their habits. This would cause great confusion to the author’s beloved dogs, however, when they joyously leapt upon the familiar scent and found no sign of their mistress beneath the reams of black cloth.
It’s the sort of scene one can imagine taking place in a Spark novel, so full of humorous and ironic potential. But it also offers an insight into the woman herself, who died in 2006, a complex figure who had a formidable understanding of the human condition and was constantly looking to reinvent herself.
Spark’s extraordinary ability to remake and reimagine the novel is among the reasons the Edinburgh-born author, most famous for writing The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, remains so revered by readers and writers alike. And according to Taylor, who knew her for more than 25 years, she applied this theory to life as well as art.
“Muriel had this amazing chameleon-like quality,” says the Scottish journalist and writer. “Not only did she keep trying to explore new ways to write, she was also interested in changing herself. She would go to a hairdresser and say, ‘Make me look different.’ What’s striking is that if you go back and look at photographs of her, she does look very different – it’s amazing.
“She reinvented herself as a novelist as well as a person. When she thought she had exhausted one sort of book, she moved on to a different kind of fiction. You can never comfortably sum her up – there is always mystery, enigma and intrigue, and that’s what makes her so unusual.”
The success of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in the early 1960s and the 1969 film that featured an unforgettable
performance from Maggie Smith in the title role arguably detracted from the breadth and depth of a career spanning 22 novels and hundreds of plays, poems and essays.
Jean Brodie brought Spark success, fame and money, but with it came more scrutiny and judgment of her private life, and controversy stalked her, particularly around her short-lived marriage, estrangement from her only child and self-imposed exile from Scotland. She was sometimes portrayed as a detached, even cruel figure who abandoned her son and ignored the country of her birth.
Taylor says this image couldn’t be further from the truth, however, and he addresses these misconceptions in a highly personal and often very amusing new book about their friendship, Appointment in Arezzo.
Over the next year, meanwhile, Spark’s home country will have the opportunity to reacquaint itself with the woman and her extensive body of work during a celebration of her centenary year that will include reading events, an exhibition at the National Library of Scotland and a new hardback series of her novels, published by Polygon, edited by Taylor, with introductions by admirers including Alexander McCall Smith, Ali Smith, William Boyd and Zoe Strachan.
TAYLOR, who is also from Edinburgh, hit it off with Spark – born Muriel Camberg in 1918 to a Jewish Scottish father and English Presbyterian mother – in 1990 after interviewing her in Oliveto, Tuscany, at the home she shared with her friend and eventual heir, Penelope Jardine. He spent a number of family holidays with the writer over the years and accompanied her on numerous trips abroad, gaining a unique understanding of her life and work.
Viewed by many as one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century and certainly one of the few truly global figures in modern Scottish literature, Spark famously despised biographers and felt betrayed by friends and lovers who wrote about her. With this in mind, why did he choose to share their time together so publicly?
“I wanted to write a colourful, anecdotal book that would put across Muriel’s wit,” Taylor explains. “Apart from the fact she was a fabulous writer, she was a remarkable human being who taught me so many things about life, including the commitment required to be a writer, and the need to have faith in your own ability and stand up for yourself.
“One of her favourite phrases in her novels is ‘and I went on my way rejoicing’, and that was what she was like. Every day was a day to be seized, you could make something of it if you wanted. She was working on a novel and still felt she had much to contribute when she died in 2006 at the age of 88.
“It was a privilege to know her and I miss her every day.”
Taylor says he is keen to give readers an insight into the vivacious, colourful and “very glamorous” person he knew, and bring together the fractured public and private personas, while addressing the painful very public disputes that dogged her throughout her career.
“Muriel trusted me and she knew I would never say anything that would go counter to what she was, or was doing. But the number of people who were disloyal or wanted to capitalise on her fame were legion.
“Disloyalty and betrayal were the most terrible things to her. And if you were a friend, family member, or lover, for her this was the ultimate betrayal.
“As I discuss in the book, her former lover [the writer and biographer] Derek Stanford betrayed her by writing a really stupid book that got all manner of facts wrong. It makes you wonder if he ever really knew her. Then he sold many of her papers to an American university. This was truly appalling behaviour, and yet people somehow think she was a cruel person for taking the mickey out of him in her novel A Far Cry from Kensington.”
In 1937 at the age of 19 she married Sidney Oswald Spark, a teacher, and left Edinburgh to follow him to Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, to start a new life. Their son Robin was born a year later. Soon after arrival in Africa, however, it became clear that her husband was bipolar – or manic depressive as the condition was then known – and had violent tendencies. He once threatened her with a gun. She left him in 1940, returning alone to the UK in 1944, settling in London to work.
Robin was later brought back to Edinburgh by his father and brought up by his maternal grandparents. He later publicly fell out with his mother after accusing her of trying to hide the full extent of her Jewish roots, with the author denying this and accusing him of seeking publicity to further his own career as an artist. Taylor argues
One of her favourite phrases in her novels is ‘and I went on my way rejoicing’, and that was what she was like. Every day was a day to be seized
that the media coverage of the spat wrongly cast Spark as a cold and uncaring mother.
“People who judged her relationship with her son had no right to do so,” he says. “They judged her in total ignorance, with no idea of the background. The fallout with Robin was extremely sad. I looked into it very closely and from what I can see, the estrangement lay more with Robin, who asserted his mother was wholly Jewish. That simply wasn’t the case. She was half Jewish - a ‘gentile Jewess’ was what she called it. She wasn’t trying to hide anything.
“The problem then became the narrative that she had abandoned her son. In fact, as was the way at the time, custody was given to her husband and she was lucky to get to have any relationship with him at all. When she did manage to get some say over his life – when she sent him to live
This page, from top: Maggie Smith in the 1969 film adaptation of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie; after the failure of her marriage to Sidney Spark in 1940 the writer never remarried. Opposite page: the journalist and writer Alan Taylor, who has written a book about his close friendship with Spark