Summer 2010

Prime Mover

– Michael Anderson

Muriel Spark forms, with Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, “a grand triumvirate of Catholic-convert novelists."

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.”

It is those allusions to the supernatural that have earned Spark critical cachet. She forms, with Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, “a grand triumvirate of Catholic-convert novelists,” in the words of her biographer, Martin Stannard. Like Waugh and Greene, Spark took Catholicism as a very sometime thing. All three seem to have embraced the religion for what might be called its secondary advantages, without the inconveniences of observance: faith without belief. (Tellingly, the older writers were early and consistent supporters of Spark’s work.) As Frank Kermode, the eminent English academic critic (and Spark partisan), once commented, “Mrs. Spark’s kind of religion seems bafflingly idiosyncratic.” She did not regularly attend Mass or go to confession. A remark by a character in her novel Territorial Rights (1979) is emblematic of her glib snarkiness, both stylistic and theological: “I don’t know why the Catholic Church doesn’t stick to politics and keep its nose out of morals.” She proclaimed herself “only interested in God.”

The remark is revelatory, as is Stannard’s observation that Jesus “had never appealed” to Spark. But just as he fails to follow up on the odd phenomenon of a Christian who rejects Christ, Stannard ignores the other suggestive material about her life that he unearthed in a decade of research and writing. Undertaken at Spark’s invitation and with her cooperation, the book is an oddly subversive hagiography. Stannard engages in endless special pleading (on her sexual provocation: “As an attractive woman, she was plagued by men, particularly married men, who misread her gaiety as sexual invitation”), snide cheerleading (on Gore Vidal’s disparaging comments: “Failing powers? Mr. Vidal could think again”), and inane glorification (“To lesser mortals the near-permanent postal strike might have presented an obstacle. Muriel made other arrangements.” Having a friend act as courier—gosh, who’d a thunk it?). However, as a professor of modern literature at the University of Leicester and the author of a highly regarded two-volume biography of Evelyn Waugh, Stannard is too conscientious not to offer chapter and verse to undercut his overstated admiration for Spark. She is presented as madly self-centered, arrogant, a social-climbing snob (Ved Mehta, a fellow New Yorker writer, told Stannard, “She went through people like pieces of Kleenex”), and emotionally ruthless. Stannard’s book is a hard sell on a witch.

Like Graham Greene, Spark professed an eccentrically personal version of Catholicism. Kermode is surely correct to say that she “is a theological rather than a religious writer.” The question is what of substance her work has to say on matters spiritual. Her characteristic outré stylistic devices—“fun-house plots, full of trapdoors, abrupt apparitions, and smartly clicking secret panels,” in the words of her admirer John Updike—are putatively redeemed by intimations of the numinous. A typical Spark novel ends rather than concludes; irresolution is offered as a supernatural conundrum, with the author throwing dust in the reader’s eyes and calling it mystical. (The enduring popularity of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie probably is due to Jay Presson Allen’s deft script adaptation, which junked Spark’s typically implausible Catholic transformation—Brodie’s nemesis, the student Sandy, winds up becoming a nun.) Contrast Spark with Flannery O’Connor, whose eccentrics and grotesques are vehicles for profound meditations on the mysteries of her Catholic faith. The differences in commitment, ethical engagement, and moral seriousness are stark.

Spark’s religious obscurantism is as one with her famously pitiless style. She observes what fools mortals be with a cool un-Puckish glee. This is the source of Spark’s acclaim as a comic satirist, but a very little of it goes a very long way, and it is chilling to read of real-life instances of her flippant heartlessness. Of her mentally unstable former husband, she recalled, “He became a borderline case, and I didn’t like what I found on either side of the border.” In place of Greene’s famous “sliver of ice” in the heart of a writer, Spark substituted a glacier.

Spark believed that it was “the will of God that she should be a Christian and a writer,” Stannard writes. Thus were justified her earthly transgressions: the abandonment (and eventual disinheritance) of her son, the rejection of friends, the arbitrary and outrageous demands on her publishers, the self-serving evasiveness. (“Sometimes she was unable to believe that she had ever said or done things that contradicted what she wanted to appear in the authorized version of her life,” Stannard writes, all too gingerly.) Spark’s autobiography gives little detail about her conversion—she became a Catholic in 1954—an omission Stannard, astonishingly, mimics. “Her pen was a key to an alternative reality from which the imperfect form of her own existence could be excluded,” he writes. “In this universe she was God, omnipotent, and, while there, she wanted not to be disturbed.”

However, truth will out, and can be found far closer to the ground. Spark was unwittingly self-revelatory when she told an interviewer in 1987 that the fundamental sin was “this propensity of the human spirit for self-justification.” Stannard repeatedly writes of Spark’s sense of threat, her need to protect herself against “emotional blackmail,” her “suspicion of betrayal.” He spews bombast about Spark’s “tortured life” (which, of course, transforms into triumph over adversity) but ignores what he himself presents.

For example, what role did Spark’s Jewish heritage play? Her adolescence, in the Edinburgh of the 1930s, was a “period of open anti-Semitism,” Stannard writes. “We were probably the only Jewish family in that whole area,” Spark’s brother told him. “You can feel it like you can feel the rain coming on.” Spark’s relation to this heritage was, not to put too fine a point on it, troubled: She repressed anti-Semitic slurs and disinherited her son over his adamant embrace of Judaism. (Stannard squeamishly acknowledges that the younger Spark may well be correct in his assertion that Muriel was Jewish not just on her father’s side, as she claimed, but also on her mother’s—traditionally, the side through which Jewish identity is passed on.)

Stannard writes that the death of Spark’s father, a year after the publication of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, devastated her. “The sustaining fiction of her childhood—the supportive family—had died with her father. . . . The last shadow of its unqualified love had faded.” He also writes that for her the age of God the Father “was over.” She strove to become “immaculate, and thus free from the world’s attempts to impose guilt.” It would appear that Spark sought divine apotheosis to elude the all-too-human. Her desperate need for transcendence at any cost may well have been the source of her desperate need to validate herself as a writer (hence the book-a-year productivity) and her celebrated coolly observational writing style, as well as her restlessness, pretensions to divinity, frightened arrogance, and inability to make equitable human connections. But these attributes receive no consideration in this biography.

“Find the lady?” Stannard writes. “A difficult proposition when she was in ceaseless movement.” But the traveler takes herself wherever she goes. If Martin Stannard missed Muriel Spark, it was because he refused to look clearly at what he found.

* * *

Michael Anderson is finishing a biography of the playwright Lorraine Hansberry.

Reviewed: Muriel Spark: The Biography by Martin Stannard, W.W. Norton 627 pp, 2010.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Pete Edgeler