It was on Easter Saturday that we heard the sad news that the Scottish poet and novelist Muriel Spark had died, age 88, in Florence (her adopted home for many years). We thought, “How suitable that it should have been on Good Friday.” As a Catholic convert, Spark would doubtless have appreciated the coincidence of dying on the most solemn day in the liturgical calendar. As a novelist with an eye for the eldritch realities that everywhere impinge upon the quotidian expanse of our lives, she would also have savored the awesome mystery operating behind the usual stuff of hospitals, doctors, and sick beds.
Awesomeness inhabiting the everyday was at the center of Spark’s concerns as a writer. In a review of the reissue of London Labour and the London Poor in 1968, W. H. Auden remarked that Henry Mayhew’s sprawling portrait of Victorian London street life—brimming with such vivid specimens as Jack Black, Rat-Killer to Her Majesty—led him to revise his understanding of Dickens. Far from being a “fantastic creator of over-life-size characters,” Auden concluded, Dickens was in fact “much more of a ‘realist’ than he is generally taken for.”
It is the same with Muriel Spark. In her work, what first seems like caricature often passes, on closer reading, as unvarnished reportage. Generally, the reports are unsettling. Perhaps, deep down, “the facts” of the case express a species of caricature; and perhaps, on reflection, one realizes this. Spark’s trick was to coax us into musing that, if one were to go deeper still, then maybe … The presentiment often terminates in an ellipsis, a feeling of uneasiness, anxiety. Not for nothing is the imperative “Memento Mori”—Remember that you shall die—the title of one of her best-known and most accomplished books. In that sober tale, all the characters are aged and more than a few are senile. “Being over seventy,” one of them observes, “is like being engaged in a war. All our friends are going or gone and we survive amongst the dead and dying as on a battlefield.” By the end of the novel, the battlefield is wiped clear, and the reader is given a brief recap of the characters’ particular fates: “Lettie Colston … comminuted fractures of the skull; Godfrey Colston, hypostatic pneumonia; Charmian Colston, uremia; Jean Taylor, myocardial degeneration; Tempest Sidebottome, carcinoma of the cervix,” etc., etc.
The grimly comic cultivation of such reminders was a Sparkian trademark. Doubtless, its origin was partly in religion, specifically in Catholicism, the faith to which Spark converted in 1954. Our life on earth is a pilgrimage, a prolegomenon, and one mustn’t forget it: This basic conviction figures prominently, though undogmatically, in all Spark’s work, infusing it with the ambition of allegory. But the vertiginous effect of her fiction is not simply a coefficient of faith. It is also the product of a literary gift, a sensibility.
Many of the settings, events, and characters that populate Spark’s fiction had antecedents, more or less distant, in her life: a charismatic school teacher, an ailing grandmother, a club for women in war-time London, a friend who was murdered by her husband who in turn killed himself. All appear transmuted—“transfigured,” to use a Sparkian adjective—in her novels and stories. Spark was a dab hand at presenting the wrong end of the telescope and then exclaiming, “See, I told you it was like that!” Her imaginings were frequently extravagant. It is business as usual in Sparkland to find a story narrated by a ghost (“He looked as if he would murder me and he did,” a dead narrator explains), a plot turned by an angel. Yet it is a measure of her artistry that—in those works where everything gels—ghosts and angels seem no more (but also no less) outrageous than rhododendrons. Somehow it is not a problem that the anonymous telephone calls to the characters in Memento Mori reminding them of their doom are without earthly source. Suspending or extending disbelief hardly comes into it: Spark’s spare, immaculate prose—cool and fatally accurate —does the work, easing collusion if not, exactly, affirmation. There is a moral but no catechism.
In this respect, if in few others, her work recalls the Gothic realism of the American novelist and master of the short story Flannery O’Connor. For both writers, the operation of grace is generally a funny but decidedly astringent affair. The humor comes from regarding the doings of man sub specie aeternitatis, the ultimate prescription for farce. What we might call this cosmic dimension of Spark’s comic vision led the novelist Malcolm Bradbury to speak, admiringly, of her “great gift for being appalling.” The gift is appalling because it grants insight but tends to discount such homely virtues as warmth, human attachment, affection. Not everyone finds this attractive. The critic Christopher Ricks, for example, writing about Spark in 1968, commented that “Perhaps when man proposes, God disposes with as cool a disposition as Mrs. Spark’s, though if He indeed looks upon His created world with the same eye with which she looks upon hers, then thank God I am an atheist.” One imagines Spark savored that “thank God.”
Spark was intensely literary from the dawn of reason, setting down poem after poem beginning in grade school. But she did not embark earnestly on fiction until the early 1950s. After that, she was unstoppable. Although she lived for many years in Italy, dividing her time between Rome and Tuscany, Spark never relinquished a Scottish disposition to industry. In addition to several early collaborations, Spark published twenty-odd novels (her last, The Finishing School, appeared in 2004), an abundance of verse, a plump Collected Stories, a play, a children’s book, biographies of Mary Shelley and John Masefield, and an edition of the Brontë letters. One of her best and most subtle books, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), was made into a successful play and then, with Maggie Smith in the title role, a successful movie. “Unique” is a much overworked adjective, but for once it is appropriate: no other contemporary writer commanded Muriel Spark’s combination of comic seriousness, narrative grit, and pellucid prose. The literary world is a poorer place for her absence.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 24 Number 9, on page 1
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