The Jewish Chronicle - - Arts&entertainment -

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

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