Our greatest novelist of the last century, the creme de la creme
THIS time last year I was sitting in our new-acquired cottage in the Borders. It was bone-chillingly cold. None of the doors closed properly and the windows seemed to funnel wind rather than repel it. Such heating as there was did little to raise the temperature. As I typed my nose dripped like an icicle and my fingers stuck to the keyboard. Or at least that’s what it felt like. Our belongings, most of which are books, remained unpacked because in our haste to leave our previous home we had neglected to take the bookcases.
The piece I was writing was an introduction to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark’s sixth novel. This was not something I had planned to do. As series editor of Spark’s collected novels, I had invited an eminent critic to write it but he had gone missing without leave. With the deadline fast approaching the publisher issued an ultimatum: in 48 hours, the introduction had to be with the printer in Malta. Did we have a Plan B? We did not. Thus it fell to me to step into the breach.
As I sat at my desk entombed by boxes, I thought of Spark and how she would have reacted. Not only would she have coped with such a predicament, she would most likely have relished it. Adversity seemed to bring out the best in her. For instance, on the rare occasions when she got stuck writing a novel she would check in to a hospital in Rome where she knew no one could disturb her. The situation in which I found myself wouldn’t have fazed her at all.
The republication in hardback of her 22 novels – unprecedented in the annals of modern publishing – was the undoubted highlight of what Creative Scotland and the National Library of Scotland dubbed “Muriel Spark 100”. This was to mark the centenary of her birth in 1918 and to give overdue attention and acclaim to the greatest novelist Scotland produced in the last century. Myriad events were organised to celebrate the occasion, including a wonderful exhibition at the National Library, academic symposia, screenings of films inspired by her books, artistic responses to her work, a memorial concert in the Purcell Room in London, a BBC TV documentary presented by Kirsty Wark and countless book festival appearances from New York to New Zealand by those who either knew Spark or admired her.
As the author of Appointment in Arezzo, a memoir of my friendship with her, I have spent the last 12 months talking about her. No one would have found this more amusing than Spark, who was never too keen to appear in public. What she would have made of the hoopla is hard to say, except that she would surely have been delighted and honoured. She might also have felt it was deserved. Her home town of Edinburgh, for instance, has been slow to recognise the genius it inspired, belatedly naming after her a path through the Meadows, which she crossed every day on her way to school. Who knows, its panjandrums may even one day get round to commissioning a statue. But don’t count on it; our enlightened capital has more memorials to animals than women.
It was at the Usher Hall, however, where as a child Spark was taken to concerts by her teacher, Miss Christina Kay – the prototype of Jean Brodie – that the “Sparkathon” got under way. On the eve of Spark’s birthday, 1 February, an audience of more than 2,000 gathered to hear writers and others read from her work and enjoy an abridged version of her only play, Doctors of Philosophy, under the aegis of the Royal Lyceum Theatre. Among those who participated were Ian Rankin, Alexander McCall Smith and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who read with elan from The Prime. But surely the highlight of an emotional night was the rediscovery by the Edinburgh International Book Festival of a recording of Spark’s final appearance in Edinburgh in 2004 when she was 86. In an accent that had lost none of its native intonation, she read: “If only you small girls would listen to me I would make of you the creme de la creme.”
Over the following 12 months few were the weeks when I did not find myself living out of a suitcase. There are apparently more than 350 book festivals in the UK and it felt like I attended most of them. With the disappearance of bookshops from the high street, such festivals have increasingly become important as a means of connecting readers with books. Many of these jamborees do not have a high literary content and I sometimes wondered whether the Sparks of the future will receive invitations to them. Instead, their programmes are stocked with celebrities, superannuated politicians, moonlighting BBC personalities and