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On the 100th an­niver­sary of her birth, Scot­land is dis­cov­er­ing the true depth of Muriel Spark’s ta­lent.

The Courier & Advertiser (Fife Edition) - - WEEKEND -

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.

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