Muriel Spark: the author as dictator

While she was at school in Edinburgh in the Thirties, Muriel Spark met a teacher who profoundly influenced her fiction. It was not Christina Kay, the model for Spark’s most famous character, Jean Brodie, but her science teacher Sandy Buchan. As Spark recalled 50 years later in her memoir Curriculum Vitae, Buchan “impressed on us the dangers of trusting in appearances, especially when colourless, odourless and tasteless matter was concerned”. She continued: “I reflected then, and still reflect, that there could be people like that: no colour, no taste, no smell. The moral is, avoid them; they might be poison.”
The young Spark, if we trust the author’s recollection, had already perfected the unruffled moral certainty that makes her prose such a pleasure. In nearly all her 22 novels, the narrative voice sounds like a witty judge summing up a case: characters are hauled up, humorously belittled and then dragged away for punishment.
In Sparkworld, the novelist observes what appears innocuous – colourless, you might say – and sniffs out the poison. In her fifth novel, The Bachelors (1960), the pale Patrick Seton plots the murder of his pregnant girlfriend; in The Ballad of Peckham Rye, published the same year, a man working at a textile factory might actually be Satan. Spark’s vivid types belong more to the world of a Ben Jonson satire than the modern psychological novel.
Exemplary in this regard is her wonderful third novel, Memento Mori (1959). Set among a group of geriatrics, the story begins with what appears to be an ordinary crime and ends up a metaphysical mystery. An anonymous caller repeatedly disturbs the elderly men and women with the message: “Remember you must die.” The way each character reacts to the warning shapes how we are supposed to view them. “He must be a maniac,” scoffs Godfrey Colston. Unsurprisingly, Godfrey turns out to be a pervert and a bully who, when he hears someone has gone to her reward, remarks: “She always was a bitch,” as though, the narrator caustically adds, “her death were the ultimate proof of it”. In contrast, Jean Taylor responds to the phone call with peaceable equanimity: “You might, perhaps, try to remember you must die,” she suggests to one tormented lady. Unlike Godfrey, who looks in vain for the culprit, Miss Taylor realises that the caller is not human but Death himself, “the first of the four last things to be ever remembered”.
In her introduction to the 2009 Virago edition of the novel, AL Kennedy argues that Spark knows we are all destined for destruction yet are still “deserving of compassion”. But this is a comforting humanist gloss on a novel that strictly limits compassion to the righteous: Jean Taylor, for example, or the novelist Charmian. (It is worth noting that both women, like Spark, are Roman Catholic converts.) For Godfrey, though, there is no salvation. Typically, his fatal car crash takes two innocents with him. Rather than extending our empathy to the flawed, as novelists often claim to be doing, Spark expertly, and hilariously, dissects our basest desires.
Evelyn Waugh might have called her a saint, but Spark’s acerbic style throws some critics off-balance. Reviewing her career in 1968, Christopher Ricks complained that her novels were guilty of the same lack of humanity they so eagerly ferreted out. “Human beings cannot but be opaque,” he wrote, “so ought our artistic ideal be, above all, to see through them?” Only in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, he acknowledged, had she created a central character with enough charisma to challenge the author’s authority.
Two years later Spark defended herself in a lecture now reproduced in The Golden Fleece, a new posthumous non-fiction collection edited by her long-time companion Penelope Jardine. As you might expect, there is little shilly-shallying: “The literature of sentiment and emotion, however beautiful in itself, however stirring in its depiction of actuality, has to go.” When people’s sympathies are aroused for the underdog, Spark argued, they might cry salt tears but their moral world remains undisturbed; the next morning they rise “refreshed, more determined than ever to be the overdog”. In place of sympathy, Spark proposed ridicule: the masses should have laughed at Hitler and Mussolini, not been moved by them. (Recall Jean Brodie’s trembling admiration for Il Duce.) Skilled mockery “can leave a salutary scar. It is unnerving. It can paralyse its object.”


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