On the 100th anniversary of her birth, Scotland is discovering the true depth of Muriel Spark’s talent.
It’s a very Scottish story, this. The one about the individual who never quite fits, who won’t settle. He or she has ideas that can seem to be just a wee bit too fancy for these sober shores, high falutin’ and above their station. It’s as though they’re always dreaming of a somewhere else that’s far away, that’s nothing like the place they’re from and where the rest of us stay.
For sure, once this person leaves, they don’t come back. There may be visits, longer holidays, or extended periods when work returns them. But think of the likes of Billy Connolly and Sean Connery and Dundee’s own beloved Brian Cox. When these special people with special talents leave us, they don’t come home again.
Certainly that was the case with a woman who is arguably one of Scotland’s most important novelists.
Muriel Spark ran off to Rhodesia as a 19-year-old bride and never really returned to Scotland. Here was a writer born in Edinburgh in 1918, growing up in the sedate area of Bruntsfield, but who lived for nearly all of her long life in other places – first London, then New York and Rome, and finally ending up in a remote farmhouse in the Tuscan hills, where she died in 2006 and is buried.
From the time she was a young girl she was writing poems and stories and imagining other places; other ways of being. It was as if her own fancy had fixed it that she was going to leave the country of her birth and go somewhere else.
The consequences of exile, in her case, were pretty extreme. Unlike others who are still warmly held in our affection, that we might let them speak up on our behalf for Scottish affairs even though they reside elsewhere, in the case of Muriel Spark a sort of excommunication took place. Apart from her one bestselling novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, that was popular throughout the world and was turned into a well-loved film starring Maggie Smith, you’d be forgiven for thinking Spark hadn’t written another word. Book festivals would come and go, reading lists of the great universities of Scotland compiled without any of her many contributions to the world of letters, her novels in local book promotions notable for their absence... Where was she? Despite all the international awards and honours bestowed upon her for her writing, it seemed to be a case of out of sight, out of mind. Like the heroine of her own novel, the one she counted as her favourite of anything she’d written, The Driver’s Seat, it was as though she didn’t really exist.
Only, this year, it seems, she’s back. And not only back for a bit, but back to stay. Twelve years after her death, in the year of the centenary of her birth, Muriel Spark suddenly seems well and truly to have been returned to her homeland.
And it’s not only the 1960s bestseller everyone knows about, that very Edinburgh story about a very Scottish spinster and her influence upon a group of impressionable schoolgirls that readers around the world took to their hearts that they’re talking about now. No. This time it’s the entire collection of Spark’s novels that are being celebrated and lauded, and the essays and the lectures and the poems. What’s it all about?
Well, the answer might just have something to do with the work and commitment of another writer, former journalist Alan Taylor, a longstanding champion of the author at a time when most literary audiences in Scotland didn’t seem to want to know.
“For years you would say Muriel Spark and people would just look at you,” Alan says. “As though to say, well, so what?” She’d written all these novels most people hadn’t read, or even heard about, that ranged from comedy to
Twelve years after her death, Muriel Spark suddenly seems well and truly to have been returned to her homeland
thriller to social satire to drama, each underpinned by a great seriousness and sense of questioning about human experience that should have captured for her a serious readership in her home country. But apart from Jean Brodie and maybe Girls of Slender Means and a couple of others, if you were lucky, no one really paid her any mind.
How that has changed, though. And it’s Alan Taylor, you might say, who has made it happen.
At the beginning of this centenary year, along with literary journalist Rosemary Goring and the Edinburgh Book Festival’s director Nick Barley, he hosted a big Muriel Spark event in Edinburgh that has in turn generated a whole host of spin-off readings, celebrations, performances and exhibitions. It’s been a year of “non stop”, as he puts it, Spark ever since, and bookshops where once you were hard pressed to find a copy of Jean Brodie are now jam-packed with the novels, essays, poetry and stories.
Alan Taylor himself has been series editor of a reprint of the entire collection of novels, published by Polygon, starting with The Comforters that came out in 1957, each appearing in chronological order with an introduction by a Scottish writer and a bright paper cover with contrasting endpapers the author herself would have admired.
“Always colour”, Alan Taylor reminded me recently, was one of Spark’s catchphrases.
Certainly, he would know. He was a close friend since first meeting Spark – or “Muriel” as he always calls her – in 1990 when he was sent by The Scotsman to interview her. He writes about that first meeting in detail in his affectionate memoir about the author, Appointment in Arezzo, that is a sort of an introduction to the Polygon series.
“I had an appointment with Muriel Spark in Arezzo, the Tuscan town where Vasari, fabled for his Lives of the Renaissance artists, was born and bred,” he begins. “Mrs Spark’s fax was brief and business-like. ‘My friend Penelope Jardine and I will come to Arezzo. I suggest we have dinner there at the Continentale Hotel (not far from the station) and we can talk then. Daytimes are very hot’.”
I had first heard Alan Taylor talk about this project at The Word Book Festival in Aberdeen in 2003 when Spark was still alive and had been living for some 30 years in quite grand style, in “a rambling and venerable house” Taylor writes in the foreword in each of the Polygon volumes. I remember how the then-principal of Aberdeen University, Duncan Rice, acknowledged how interesting it was that someone at last seemed to be interested, in Scotland, in Muriel Spark.
The journalist and editor, in the old university library that afternoon, had painted a vivid and amusing portrait of a fiendishly committed writer – always writing, fiction, poems, something, the novels dispatched at great speed after months of thinking about them first, in detail, writing longhand in fountain pen on a stack of yellow pads that were sent to her from Scotland.
He told a story about her buying a Rolex watch and then losing it and not caring that she had – though it had been worth thousands of pounds.
“Thousands” I remember Alan underlying, as he spoke for an hour without notes about his understanding of the writer who by then he counted as a close friend, holidaying with her, travelling to New York and staying with her in Italy for weeks at a time.
“Muriel was just never that interested in possessions,” he said. “Things... they didn’t mean much to her.”
Though she spent freely on clothes and jewellery and wine and travel in an Alpha Romeo sports car that she and Penelope had splurged on as a treat, none of those “accoutrements”, as he called them stood for anything more than a kind of convenience.
I look back at that talk now, in Aberdeen, and think how prescient it was for Alan Taylor to remind us that while so much... stuff... is unimportant, good writing is not. Despite the years away, and despite the fact that until, to my mind, one man stepped up to bring her back to us, Scotland has ignored her most famous daughter; Spark had always described herself as “Scottish by formation”.
She emerges at last fully clothed in her glorious colours to take her place among the grand names of Scottish literature. For while the novels may have sounded English, some of them, with titles such as A Far Cry from Kensington and The Ballad of Peckham Rye and The Abbess of Crewe, the sensibility of their author – Scots are finally realising – was always anything but.
Hers was an understanding of this country’s sensibility, put down upon the page in a swathe of international characters and settings that may have ranged from Naples to New York, but reaches back more powerfully to the tradition of the Scottish novel than the most tartan-swathed-refer-endum-themed Jacobite history on offer today that we dare call “literature”.
As Alan Taylor says, “Muriel Spark is the real thing.”
Edinburgh-born Muriel Spark dispatched her novels at great speed after months of thinking about them first in great detail.
MCuarpieti l oS n pia n rhke ,t reh. e ..writer with her friend the journalist Alan Taylor and Mr Taylor now.