By Martin Stannard.
W.W. Norton. 627 pp. $35
Muriel Spark is the mistress of mystification of postwar British fiction. She is best known for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, her slim 1961 novel about the influence of an Edinburgh teacher on her young female pupils, which made her a literary star following its publication in The New Yorker and adaptation for stage and screen. Born to working-class Edinburgh parents in 1918, Spark became a jet setter, with residences in London, New York, and Rome, before settling in Tuscany, where she died in 2006. She wrote 22 novels, in which the inexplicable and fantastic are presented as commonplace, with an airy, supercilious insinuation that the truth is unknown and unknowable. The New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani once described Spark’s formula: “Take a self-enclosed community (of writers, schoolgirls, nuns, rich people, etc.) that is full of incestuous liaisons and fraternal intrigue; toss in a bombshell (like murder, suicide, or betrayal) that will ricochet dangerously around this little world; and add some allusions to the supernatural to ground these melodramatics in an old-fashioned context of good and evil.”
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