February 26, 2006

Spark of Genius

By: Kelly Jane Torrance

For much of the last year, I have been immersed in the novels of Muriel Spark. It’s had the effect of making me feel not quite myself. Spark would probably be glad to hear it. She wishes, I think, nothing less for her readers than to leave them off kilter.

The fictional world of Muriel Spark is a world where the absurd is appallingly real. Where time shifts fluidly back and forth, and the surprising fate of a character is sometimes divulged in the first chapters. Where fiction writers–professional liars–are the only ones who tell the truth. Where ghosts long dead tell stories as genuine as those of the living. Where blackmail, treachery, and fraud are everyday events, and treated with a disarming lightness of touch. But as the title character of her satire The Abbess of Crewe says of another art form: “They need not be plausible, only hypnotic, like all good art.”

“Readers of novels were not yet used to the likes of me, and some will never be,” Spark writes astutely in her autobiography, Curriculum Vitae. Nowhere is that more true than in America. In Britain, she’s considered one of the English-speaking world’s greatest living novelists. But in America, she’s rather unknown, even among cultured readers who love the writers–Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, and John Updike–who have championed her. One major reason for this is that her lean, eccentric books with their uncomfortably aware voice are the antithesis of the Great American Novel.

Americans may start paying more attention. Spark, who is 87 years old but shows no signs of slowing down, last year published her 22nd novel, a send-up of literary jealousy entitled The Finishing School. Two other books were also recently released: New Directions’ All the Poems of Muriel Spark is the first complete edition of her poetry. And Knopf has issued an Everyman’s Library edition containing four of her novels–The Prime of Miss Jean BrodieThe Girls of Slender MeansThe Driver’s Seat, and The Only ProblemBrodie is, of course, her most famous work, made into a play and British films for the big screen and television. Washington, D.C.’s Studio Theatre will be staging the play later this season.

Dame Muriel–she was given the honor in 1993–has also received plenty of accolades in the last twelve months, especially in her native Scotland. She won the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s first Enlightenment Award. The Scottish Arts Council announced the Muriel Spark International Fellowship, which will fund a foreign writer’s visit to Scotland to teach creative writing. She was also on the short list for the inaugural International Booker Prize (which Ismail Kadare ended up winning).

It’s about time Spark was showered with recognition. She wrote her first novel exactly fifty years ago. The startlingly original The Comforters already bore all the Spark signatures: A Nabokovian preoccupation with the connections between art and reality–but none of the flowery prose. Black comedy worthy of Evelyn Waugh–but engaged with, rather than simply rejecting, the modern world. Threads of Catholicism abound, as in Graham Greene–but with more subtlety.

The Comforters tells the tale of Caroline Rose, a recent convert who cannot get the sound of typing out of her head. She soon realizes that this noise is the work of a novelist who has had the nerve to make Caroline a character in her novel. Caroline refuses to stand for it. As she tells her on-again, off-again boyfriend,

‘The Typing Ghost has not recorded any lively details about this hospital ward. The reason is that the author doesn’t know how to describe a hospital ward. This interlude in my life is not part of the book in consequence.’ It was by making exasperating remarks like this that Caroline Rose continued to interfere with the book.

But Caroline, too, sees her life as a work of art, even without that omniscient narrator’s help: “‘Wonderful to have a whole day unplanned,’ Caroline says. ‘It’s like a blank sheet of paper to be filled in according to inspiration.'”

Absurd though it may sound, the ghostly premise of The Comforters is grounded in reality. The financially troubled Spark had been hearing voices herself, a result of malnutrition and diet pills meant to control her appetite. Spark only started writing novels when Macmillan commissioned one from her–she was finding success as a poet and short story writer. “Before writing a novel, I had to write a novel about what is a novel,” she has said.

The connections between art and reality clearly haunted her from an early age. In her very specific recollections of her pre-school years, one sees the mind of the author-as-a-child fixating on physical details, a trick that matures into characterization. “My mother used to come and collect me when it was time to go home,” Spark recalls. “Her black hair had been cut short by Rudloff and she wore powder and paint, as make-up was called. The powder was Coty’s, shade Rachel. The paint was carmine, a red power bought from the chemist in very small quantities.” The slightly exotic colors help bear a key truth about this woman: “My mother was decidedly out of place amongst the northern worthies who came to collect my friends.” Most Edinburgh women, by contrast, dressed simply, in tweed.

School offered a treasure trove of material: “From my first days at school I had been far more interested in the looks, the clothes, the gestures, of the individual teachers than I was in their lessons.” She saw the classroom as theatre, with a single performer. Even as a child, Spark understood Shakespeare’s maxim that “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” In the books she would come to write, a godlike presence looms over the bit players of Earth.

Nowhere is this clearer than in her 1981 novel Loitering with Intent. It’s a sort-of Comforters in reverse. Literary secretary and aspiring writer Fleur Talbot cannot shake the uncanny feeling that the novel she is writing is being acted out before her very eyes. Fleur is not completely blameless. She’s been loitering around postwar London with the intent of collecting material for her novel.

Like Spark herself, Fleur studies the people around her with unusual intensity: “I was aware of a demon inside me that rejoiced in seeing people as they were, and not only that, but more than ever as they were, and more, and more.” But whether art anticipates life or vice versa, in Loitering, is not entirely clear. As Fleur remarks, “Sometimes I don’t actually meet a character I have created in a novel until some time after the novel has been written and published.” Odd, then, isn’t it, that Spark said this novel “sort of sums up my life”?

The identity of Muriel Spark herself seems fluid though also shrouded in mystery. Born half-Jewish and half-Protestant, she converted to Catholicism in her 30s. She grew up in Edinburgh, but hasn’t resided there for any length of time since her late teens. Since then, she’s lived in Africa, America, and Europe and traveled in the Middle East and India. She currently makes her home in Tuscany, preferring Italy to Britain for the privacy it offers.

No one could argue she hasn’t earned it. Spark had an idyllic childhood, but that ended at 19 when she sailed to Zimbabwe to marry a schoolteacher she had met in Edinburgh. To call it disastrous is putting things mildly. Muriel soon discovered that Sydney Oswald Spark had grave mental problems. When he turned violent, she left him, taking their young son with her. It took her months to return home–World War II was in full swing.

She was something of a flirt, and had plenty of boyfriends. But she never remarried. Instead, she seems to have found solace in the Church. Spark was by no means the only twentieth-century writer to find the narrative of Catholicism attractive. Waugh, Greene, and Walker Percy, among others, all found inspiration in the rituals of the religion. “When I converted, I started to write with my own voice,” Spark has said. “I wrote conscientiously before that, but it was not me. I had nothing original to say.”

Catholicism gave Muriel Spark a narrative. But unlike those other convert writers, Spark has remained tight-lipped about her specific beliefs. Her Catholicism is rarely explicit in her novels. If her religious beliefs are revealed anywhere in her work, her poem “The Messengers” tells us that they won’t be obvious: “Bringing a folded meaning home/ Between the lines, inside the letter.” Spark is not a didactic writer. As she says in another poem, “Conversation Piece,” “Unworldliness is such a distraction, you see.”

Critics and readers have often mused on her beliefs. But who Muriel Spark really is, she could tell them, is a mysterious, ineffable thing.

The making of art may be similar to the making of our own selves, the characters we are and become. But neither is an innocent activity. Spark, like Nabokov in his masterpiece Lolita, shows how art can be dangerous–especially when commingled with conceptions of our real selves. The title character of The Abbess of Crewe, Spark’s 107-page satire on Watergate set in a nunnery (!), sees herself as part of a greater mythology. She is obsessed with poetry, and can recite from memory a poem for every occasion. The Abbess, to the dawning horror of a few of the other nuns, believes the normal rules of society don’t apply to her:

‘You cannot bring a charge against Agamemnon or subpoena Clytemnestra, can you?’
Walburga stares at the Abbess, as if at a new person. ‘You can,’ she says, ‘if you are an actor in the drama yourself.’ She shivers. ‘I feel a cold draught,’ she says.
‘Is there a window open?’
‘No,’ says the Abbess.

The rules of art, after all, are not those of life.

But it’s in her best-known novel that Spark most chillingly shows us the dreadful consequences of placing art on too high a pedestal. At first the bohemian title character of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is an inspiration to her girls, “the crème de la crème.” She exposes them to a world of art and literature none of their other teachers know anything about. But one of those girls comes to understand that Miss Brodie sees them only as a novelist sees her characters, as figures to be manipulated in the course of creating the perfect story. “You are mine,” the teacher ominously declares. Rose, for example, must become the archetype of the great lover, and so Miss Brodie pushes her towards an affair with the art master, whom the teacher herself loves.

Miss Brodie isn’t successful–not with Rose or even her particular favorite, Sandy. God, his presence unmentioned but hovering just above the surface in Spark’s books, trumps Miss Brodie. It is a lesson to all who have the nerve to place themselves in His position.

It was a short step from fascism in the classroom to fascism in the world at large. Even Miss Brodie’s support of the political movement, the proximate cause of her eventual downfall, is the result of a mind too much filled with romantic notions of artfulness. Her love of classical and Renaissance larger-than-life heroes fits right in with elitist ideology. And fascism, after all, is a beautifully ordered system.

Fast-forward 40 years. Spark’s latest novel, The Finishing School, returns to familiar territory–student-teacher relationships (or, more accurately, fixations) and the processes of creating art and identity. Rowland Mahler and his wife Nina run College Sunrise, the school of the title, moving each year to a new locale in Europe to stay a step ahead of creditors. The school is somewhat sketchy, but it’s successful enough to pay the bills while 29-year-old Rowland works–or, more to the point, doesn’t work–on his novel.

All is tranquility until Chris Wiley joins Rowland’s creative writing class. Chris is a precocious 17-year-old writing a novel based on his own theory of the murder of Lord Darnley, second husband of Mary, Queen of Scots. Unlike Rowland, Chris is actually making progress. Rowland becomes jealous, then obsessed: “Rowland guessed that Chris was on to something in the formation and development of his novel. Rowland did not finish his dinner.”

The Finishing School finds Muriel Spark very much in her prime. From the first paragraph, she’s in complete control:

‘You begin,’ he said, ‘by setting your scene. You have to see your scene, either in reality or in imagination. For instance, from here you can see across the lake. But on a day like this you can’t see across the lake, it’s too misty. You can’t see the other side.’ Rowland took off his reading glasses to stare at his creative writing class, whose parents’ money was being thus spent: two boys and three girls around sixteen to seventeen years of age, some more, some a little less. ‘So,’ he said, ‘you must just write, when you set your scene, “the other side of the lake was hidden in mist.” Or if you want to exercise imagination, on a day like today, you can write, “The other side of the lake was just visible.” But as you are setting the scene, don’t make any emphasis as yet. It’s too soon, for instance, for you to write, “The other side of the lake was hidden in the fucking mist.” That will come later. You are setting your scene. You don’t want to make a point as yet.’

Spark’s spare prose makes the joke that much funnier when it comes. More importantly, she sets her own scene very well here. The earnest Rowland takes himself awfully seriously. But does he have anything to offer his charges–or is he merely a fake? From the very beginning, we are inclined to look upon him as his creator does: with a hard eye, though not without pity.

The novel may revisit old themes, but its concerns are still fresh. While the good-looking, sexually competent Chris has publishers flying out to meet him, there are biting hints that his work is no good–he’s attaining celebrity not because his book is readable but because he’s writing it at the tender age of 17. Dame Muriel, in her old age, is taking a dig at society’s worship of youth.

The Finishing School features another theme shared by just about every single one of Spark’s novels–blackmail. While Spark has written a number of books about writers and the writing process, she’s taken on many other subjects, too–a collection of seniors receiving strange phone calls (Memento Mori), a murderous medium on trial for forgery (The Bachelors), the Italian film industry (The Public Image). Incredibly, Spark has managed to fit blackmail into all of them.

There is at least one instance of attempted blackmail in her own life. After Spark found fame on the publication of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, a former boyfriend and literary partner sold letters she’d written him to a dealer. The dealer then tried to sell them to Spark, intimating that they were “embarrassing.” This was an “offer” that, unlike many of her characters, Spark was able to refuse.

That didn’t happen until after Spark had published half a dozen novels, though. Perhaps she considers blackmail to be the ultimate sin. As she says of its related emotion, jealousy, “unlike some sins of the flesh, [it] gives no one any pleasure. It is a miserable emotion for the jealous one with equally miserable effects on others.” In The Finishing School, Chris ends up feeding on Rowland’s jealousy, finding himself unable to write without it. When it’s in danger of being taken away from him, he resorts to blackmail.

Blackmail is the ultimate identity crime. A blackmailer knows something about your true self that you don’t want revealed to the world. Blackmail complicates the process of identity as a work of art. Spark clearly has mixed feelings about jumbling art and self. But blackmail also destroys any sense one might have of a private identity, a private self.

Spark herself, through omission by keeping her life relatively private, has constructed a sort of artifice around herself. But she also may be the only memoirist alive who “determined to write nothing that cannot be supported by documentary evidence or by eyewitnesses.”

Perhaps none of this analysis conveys the most important aspect of Spark’s work–it is all deeply pleasurable to read. Spark’s wit–always stark, never sparkling or light–can be brutal. But she is also a master at communicating the pure joy of being human, even with all its attendant complications. “How wonderful it feels to be an artist and a woman in the twentieth century,” rejoices Fleur Talbot in Spark’s roman à clef Loitering with Intent. Indeed, and how wonderful it’s been to have the gift of Muriel Spark in the century in which identity turned out to be paramount.

Kelly Jane Torrance is fiction editor of Doublethink and arts and culture editor of Brainwash. She is also books columnist for The American Enterprise Online. Her website on culture can be found at www.kellyjanetorrance.com.