Our great­est nov­el­ist of the last cen­tury, the creme de la creme

The Herald Magazine - - Arts BOOKS - ALAN TAY­LOR

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

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