MURIEL SPARK

AS THE CEN­TE­NARY OF HER BIRTH AP­PROACHES WE HEAR TRIB­UTES TO ONE OF SCOT­LAND’S GREAT­EST – AND MOST UN­DER­AP­PRE­CI­ATED – NOV­EL­ISTS

The Herald Magazine - - CONTENTS -

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

PHO­TO­GRAPHS: KOBAL COL­LEC­TION; GETTY IM­AGES; KIRSTY AN­DER­SON

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

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