MURIEL SPARK: THE BIOGRAPHY
FREVIEWED BY GABRIEL JOSIPOVICI OR ALMOST half a century, from 1957 to 1902, the novels of Muriel Spark l i t up the lives of those of us who loved her work. Combining, like Stravinsky and P i c a s s o , t h e p r o - foundly serious and the exquisitely light, instant accessibility and constant formal inventiveness, she was indeed a rare bird in the sky of late20th century culture.
She was born Muriel Camberg in Edinburgh in 1918. Her father’s family had emigrated from Kovno and, though there were plenty of Jews in Edinburgh, few were working class, so that Muriel and her older brother felt doubly isolated. Leaving school at 16 to earn her living, she married at 19 — probably to escape her parents and Edinburgh — a much older man, Sydney Spark, also the son of Jewish immigrants, and followed him out to Rhodesia.
A son, Robin, was born in 1938, but Sydney Spark turned out to be mentally unstable, and, fearing for her safety and her son’s, she sought a divorce, but was trapped by the war in Africa. Eventually, leaving Robin in boarding school, she managed to get back to Britain, where she found a job in the black propaganda unit of the Foreign Office. The war over, Robin returned, but so did Sydney.
Neither parent being willing or able to look after him, Robin was brought up by Muriel’s parents. She, meanwhile, was in London, embarked on a literary career and a series of unhappy romances.
Her breakthrough came in 1951 when she won the Observer Short Story competition. She became a Catholic in 1952 and, two years later, had a breakdown. She fought it by writing it out in the form of a novel, The Comforters (she had been reading Job with passion), published by Macmillan in 1957.
She never looked back. Over the next decade, she published a novel a year, each greeted with enthusiasm by critics and the public at large. In 1962, she moved to New York, shedding friends and lovers in the process, and, in 1965, to Rome. By now she was rich and famous, mingling with Rome’s glamorous elite, still producing brilliant work at an extraordinary rate, still alone and footloose. This changed when in 1974 she moved to Tuscany to share a house with the artist Penelope Jardine and remained there, still productive, still an inveterate traveller, till her death in 2004.
In her last years, she was engaged in an unholy row with her son over whether she had lied when she claimed to be half-Jewish, through her father. Her mother too was Jewish, Robin
Muriel Spark: a breakdown provided a platform for prodigious success