Muriel Spark is gone, dying on Thursday at age eighty-eight, the last representative of Great Britain's high literary converts before Vatican II.
There's a revealing moment toward the end of her 1992 memoir of her early career, Curriculum Vitae. Times were hard for her in 1953. She was thirty-five and still quite poorso poor that when, the next year, she began to have the hallucinations that prompted her first novel, The Comforters, her doctor assumed that the cause was simple lack of food. She herself blames the cheap diet pills she was taking to make herself "feel less hungry" while she lived hand to month in London as a minor poet, book reviewer, and freelance literary critic, editing the Brontë family letters, working on a life of Mary Shelly, and preparing a study of the poet laureate John Masefield.
Things eased a little when Graham Greene, who strongly believed in her talent, began giving Spark £20 and a few bottles of wine a month to keep her going. And one day in 1953, coming home from an authors' lunch, she bumped into the literary entrepreneur Fr. Philip Caraman, the Farm Street Jesuit and editor of the British Catholic journal The Month, whom she so amused with her stories as they walked along that her sent her a check the next day for £15 "for having made him laugh."
As though prompted by this anecdote about Fr. Caraman, Spark devotes the next paragraphand only the next paragraphof Curriculum Vitae to her conversion, finally mentioning, 202 pages into a 213 page book, that this Scottish-born daughter of a Jewish engineer and an English mother had joined the Catholic Church. "The simple explanation," she writes, "is that I felt the Roman Catholic faith corresponded to what I had always felt and known and believed."
What's revealing about this is, of course, its unrevealingness. Language and structure are everything in the fiction Muriel Spark spent the rest of her life composing. You can see it in the perfect construction of her most famous work, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, published in 1962, with its tale of the effect of a self-dramatizing teacher on a Scottish girls' school. You can see it in the careful unfolding of her best book, the 1959 Memento Mori, in which a voice rings on the telephone to whisper over and over again to a collection of London's elderly men and women, "Remember that you must die." You can see it in the somewhat cold precision of The Abbess of Crewe, her 1973 parody of the Nixon White House as a nunnery. You can see it even in those slim, elegant titles she chose for her slim, elegant novels: The Girls of Slender Means in 1963, Loitering with Intent in 1981, A Far Cry from Kensington in 1988.
In all her work20 novels and more than 50 storiesthere are no personal confessions of the author herself and few insights into her characters' psychology. Characters always first appear on Spark's stage as members of a particular class of humankind. Her 1961 The Bachelors begins by denying any individuality among the unmarried men whose uniform existences are shaped by cooking, cleaning, and living for themselves. "Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions," The Girls of Slender Means opens. Of Miss Jean Brodie, the author cruelly remarks that there were "legions of her kind during the nineteen-thirties."
And yet, these characters are not merely typesmuch less symbols whose humanity has disappeared into their literary function in Spark's fiction. Sometimes they manage to grow into unique personalities by the novel's end, as Matthew emerges from his crowd at the end of The Bachelors or William by the conclusion of the 1990 Symposium. But that is usually reserved for the few characters who accept the necessity for self-sacrifice, or stumble across a chance for self-denying love, or find a small measure of selfless grace. When, in opening pages of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, a student claims that Leonardo da Vinci is the greatest Italian painter and Jean Brodie answers, "That is incorrect. The answer is Giotto, he is my favorite"or when, later in the book, she responds to the news that her student Sandy has become a nun by saying, "Do you think she has done this to annoy me?"Spark has launched as brutal an attack as anyone has ever written against self-absorption, self-importance, and the use of the self as the measure for truth in the world.
Real individuality, in other words, is reserved in Muriel Spark's fiction for those who manage to forget their individuality. Each small success human beings have at disappearing from themselves is unique, and each small revelation that a human life can lose itself is a story never told before. But our supposedly unique failures are in fact merely universal, and our supposedly individual lives are actually indistinguishable participations in the common arc of fallen man.
There is considerable irony in a novelist taking such a view of things, for what the novel as an artform typically undertakesillustrating the universal human condition by drawing a picture of a particular human beingis exactly the opposite of what Spark attempts. This is perhaps the irony that made all the Catholic fiction of the 1940s and 1950sthe Graham Greene books, for instance, of the era in which Spark was formed as a writer and a convertso peculiar. But in Spark's case, the irony of fiction's inverted purpose produced a set of simultaneously witty, elegant, satirical, and macabre novels, each extremely short, each dominated by the calm detachment of a very distant third-person narrator, and each ruled by a sternly deliberate structure designed to conceal the key incident until the novel's end.
But then, language and structure are everything for Spark because they have to be. In the world long after Vatican II, we can forget both the enormous wave of famous converts in the 1940s and 1950s and the extent to which Catholicism appealed to those converts precisely because what it offered was a structure and a language with which to express what they, in Spark's words, "had always felt and known and believed" about the world. Personal faith in the truth of that structure and language was somehow simultaneously too obvious for Muriel Spark to bother putting in a novel and too hidden to be reached by literature. "When I am asked about my conversion, why I became a Catholic," she once explained, "I can only say that answer is both too easy and too difficult."
In addition to which:
Many were outraged, while many others were jubilant, when the court in Dover, Pennsylvania, outlawed the questioning of Darwinist orthodoxy in public school classrooms. In the April issue of FIRST THINGS, Robert Miller of Villanova Law School writes that the court was right, but for better reasons than it gave. In an argument sure to be controversial, Miller says it all comes down to the differences between science and philosophy, and he offers a possible solution to conflicts in Dover and the rest of the country. Isn't it time for you to subscribe to FIRST THINGS?
Herewith another evaluation of Catholic Matters:
"Neuhaus defends his vision of Christianity with wit and sure-handed confidence. I doubt whether many Catholics of the type he criticizes will be convinced, but he makes an erudite case for the old teachings, while humanizing them in the context of his own biography."
--Patrick Allitt in The New York Times Book Review