Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Appointment in Arezzo:
A Friendship with Muriel Spark

by alan taylor
polygon, 244 pages, $18.95

Muriel Spark Centenary Editions
by muriel spark
polygon, 4,156 pages, £219.78

A Good Comb:
The Sayings of Muriel Spark

edited by penelope jardine
new directions, 96 pages, $13.95

One hundred years ago, Muriel Spark was born in Edinburgh to a Scottish-Jewish father and an English mother. Her parents sent her to James Gillespie’s High School for Girls, a Presbyterian institution, where Spark displayed an early skill at poetry and was particularly taken by Scottish border ballads. “The steel and bite of the ballads,” Spark wrote, “so remorseless and yet so lyrical, entered my literary bloodstream, never to depart.” She sharpened her writing at secretarial school, where she learned the precision that would become a trademark of her fiction.

At nineteen, Spark met thirty-two-year-old Sydney Oswald Spark and followed him to Southern Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe), where they got married and, despite the father’s preference for an abortion, had a son. The marriage was brief and ­unhappy: Muriel filed for divorce from the violent and mentally ­unbalanced man (his initials, S. O. S., turned out to be fitting) and returned to Britain in 1944. She worked in the Foreign Office during the final year of the war, helping disseminate anti-Nazi propaganda, which she called “detailed truth with believable lies”—the ­perfect apprenticeship for an ­aspiring artist.

Spark’s literary career began in peacetime. She worked for journals, wrote reviews and biographies, and eventually became the general secretary of a poetry society. She won a national short story contest in 1951 with a magical realist tale about a Nativity play interrupted by an angel, and she published a ­poetry collection the following year. In 1954, as a result of taking appetite suppressants, Spark experienced paranoid hallucinations in which she imagined that everything she read—­newspaper articles, T. S. Eliot’s plays—held secret codes. Around the same time, she entered the Roman Catholic Church.

Spark explained that “the Roman Catholic faith corresponded to what I had always felt and known and believed; there was no blinding revelation in my case.” The conversion marked an artistic as well as a spiritual turning point. She said that after becoming Catholic, “I began to see life as a whole rather than as a series of disconnected happenings. I think it was this combination of circumstances which made it possible for me to attempt my first novel.”

That novel, which had the financial and moral support of Graham Greene, was The Comforters. Published in 1957, it was widely praised, including by Evelyn Waugh—“Imagine the effect this had on a penniless first-novel author,” Spark wrote. A series of superb novels followed: Robinson, Memento Mori, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and The Girls of Slender Means are particularly excellent. Her first hiccup is The Mandelbaum Gate (1965), an ambitious consideration of religious belief and Middle Eastern politics that is uncharacteristically long and dull. It began a relatively inconsistent series of novels that reached its nadir in the early seventies with The Driver’s Seat (although Spark ­considered it one of her best) and Not to Disturb, both of which retain her previous works’ darkness but lack their humor. She returned to form by the mid-1970s, however, and the last two full decades of her life included several novels that rank among her best (The Only Problem, Loitering with Intent, Symposium), as well as a very good memoir (­Curriculum Vitae). She was shortlisted for the Booker Prize twice and in ­1993 was named a Dame ­Commander of the Order of the British Empire. She published her last novel, The ­Finishing School, eleven years ­later and died on ­Maundy Thursday 2006. 

Alan Taylor’s memoir, Appointment in Arezzo: A Friendship with Muriel Spark, picks up late in Spark’s life. Taylor met Spark in 1990, when he conducted an interview with her in Italy. He cared for her Tuscan home while she was away the following year, produced a BBC documentary about her life, and accompanied her on several international trips. Taylor tells us much about the habits and routines of Spark’s later years and generally avoids making himself the center of the story. Names are dropped to establish her status, not his. He manages to show that he was of some help to her without ever suggesting she owed any of her success to him.

Although Spark often comes across as warm and affable, she could be distant or abrupt when she felt her writing routine was threatened. She didn’t let relationships get in the way of her art, nor did she let illness or injury. Taylor tells of a trip to New York in which she had somehow wound up with broken toes and a broken rib. “Her letters made light of her manifold woes,” he says. “Her main concern was that every time something went awry it ­impeded her ability to work.” He also ­explains, “Happiness was not a state to which Muriel aspired.” Instead, she ­believed “that by working hard and living well you might achieve contentment.”

Taylor spends almost no time discussing Spark’s Catholicism, focusing instead on two aspects of her identity that have received considerably more critical attention of late: her Jewish heritage and her Scottish background. Spark’s Jewishness was a major source of tension with her son, Robin, who insisted that both of her parents were Jewish and that she was in denial of her true background. Spark resented being lectured by her son about this topic and grew so frustrated debating the point that in one letter she referred to his “pompous bureaucratic religiosity as if you were John Knox in drag.” She would later write him out of her will. The bitterness between them, and her anti-Calvinist insult, seem lifted from one of her own novels.

Sharp sentences abound in A Good Comb, a sort of wit-and-wisdom collection edited by ­Penelope Jardine, who became Spark’s secretary in 1968 and ­eventually her close friend and housemate. This collection is full of delights, though of course any Spark fan will object to omissions. (Among the missing: “I don’t know why the RC church doesn’t stick to politics and keep its nose out of morals,” from Territorial Rights.)

More surprising is that Jardine does not provide the sources for any of the quotations, so they wander on the pages like homeless aphorisms. And although Jardine advises in her introduction that “this selection should not be taken too seriously. This is FICTION after all,” it is not all fiction. Jardine has selected quotations from Spark’s essays, such as this from “The Desegregation of Art”: “Ridicule is the only honorable weapon we have left.” Yet because there are no citations or attributions, it is not clear which sentiments belong to characters and which ­belong to the author. An inconsistent use of quotation marks adds to this confusion. Sometimes the words of characters are framed by quotation marks; very often, they are not. This gives the impression that the remarks without quotation marks are expressions of what Spark truly believed, and should therefore be taken more seriously, despite Jardine’s initial disclaimer. The book’s subtitle (The Sayings of Muriel Spark) doesn’t help matters. Although the collection certainly conveys Spark’s stylish prose and humor, it is something of a disappointment—a comb with missing teeth.

Polygon’s Centenary Edition of Spark’s complete novels, on the other hand, is a wonderfully executed celebration of the author’s career. We are told not to judge books by such things, but the series has beautifully designed covers—bold, solid colors with sharply contrasting, uncluttered text. (They are also ­inexpensive.) The publisher is based in Edinburgh, so the series has a heavy Scottish accent: Each novel includes an introduction by a Scottish novelist, some of whom (­Alexander McCall Smith, Ian Rankin, Ali Smith) are internationally known.

Few of Spark’s novels are longer than two hundred pages and they move quickly in part because, like Waugh and Ivy Compton-Burnett, Spark was a master of humorous, fast-paced dialogue uninterrupted by narrative interpretation, like this passage from the wonderfully strange The Hothouse by the East River:

“What kind of a daughter are you?” Paul says. “Just what kind of a daughter?”
Katerina says, “I did you credit at school. What did you do for me that’s so special?”
“I caused you,” says her father.
“Not all by yourself.” She smiles with her white teeth seeming to leap from her sun tan.
“I always took the initiative with your mother.”
“Well,” she says, “that is an interesting piece of data.”
“Data is plural. Datum is the singular. I don’t know how the hell you did well at school. You don’t know a thing.”

And to use a phrase usually applied to crime novelists, she was a master of suspense, applying flashforwards, flashbacks, and foreshadowing to wonderful effect. Indeed, she would have made an excellent crime novelist, so often did she write unsettling works about murder, blackmail, and theft. Her fiction is populated with writers and artists, independent and intelligent women, crackpots and frauds, and all sorts of Catholics.

Catholic characters never disappeared from Spark’s novels, and she was once recognized as a distinctively Catholic writer. But as the scholar and critic Gerard Carruthers has put it, “If the ‘Catholic’ identity of Greene and Waugh has remained more or less secure . . . Spark has seen several, sometimes challenging, claims against what was previously taken to be her core writerly concerns and identity.” Why?

One reason may be that Spark’s Catholicism is difficult to categorize. The protagonist of The Comforters is described as a “critical but conforming” Catholic who believed “that the True Church was awful, though unfortunately, one couldn’t deny, true.” It seems fair to apply this description to Spark herself. Her biographer, Martin ­Stannard, reports that the loss of the Latin Mass upset her, but also says that she doesn’t seem to have actually attended church very often. She once commented that “Some of the Church’s teachings are very foolish,” suggesting that its emphasis on ­natural law in contraception contradicted its emphasis on “supernatural law” elsewhere.

Spark’s critical but conforming view of the Church permeates her work. Nobody would mistake The Abbess of Crewe, her novel most focused on the religious life, for a recruitment brochure. A funny reimagining of the Watergate scandal set in a convent—with Nixon transfigured into a Machiavellian Benedictine nun who quotes English poetry, and the CRP’s plumbers into Jesuit seminarians—offers a rather hopeless, though very funny, vision of Holy Orders. And Sandy Stranger, the student most disturbed by Jean Brodie’s machinations, enters the Church and discovers “quite a number of fascists much less agreeable than Miss Brodie.” A passage from Symposium is worth mentioning here, though it involves Anglican rather than Catholic nuns. A reporter takes in a mural, painted by a nun, depicting Lenin’s arrival to St. Petersburg. She speculates, “That half-naked figure with the beard and the loincloth lying along the cloud of steam and leaning his torso over the cloud to touch Lenin must be God.” The nun corrects her: “Not God. Karl Marx.” The narrator of ­Loitering with Intent describes a friend as “a Catholic, greatly addicted to the cult of the Virgin Mary about whose favours she fooled herself quite a bit, constantly betraying her quite good mind by simpering about Our Lady.” The narrator herself is Catholic,

but not that sort, not that sort at all . . . I simply didn’t have the time or the mentality for guilds and indulgences, fasts and feasts and observances. I’ve never held it right to create more difficulties in matters of religion than already exist.”

As both a Catholic and a novelist, Spark welcomed uncertainty. She once described herself as “the type of Catholic who must take recourse to the living waters of the defining mind. And what is the defining mind but the mind that ‘doubts well’?” Carruthers identifies in Spark’s Catholicism the idea “that life itself is rather wonderfully mysterious and humans should not presume to define it in very limiting ways.” That aversion to strict definition is apparent in her detached narrative technique; consider the critic and novelist David Lodge’s initial frustration with Miss Jean Brodie because he “wanted . . . to know whether [he] should approve or disapprove of Miss Brodie, and was baffled by the lack of clear directions toward either of these alternatives. The answer, of course, is that we should do neither—or rather, do both.” 

In contrast to this accommodation of doubt, much malice and evil is caused by characters who are certain of their own righteousness or who consider themselves above moral norms. When the narrator of Loitering with Intent recommends that a flaky friend read Apologia Pro Vita Sua, the friend praises a passage in which Newman describes his youthful belief that he “was elected to eternal glory.” Newman explains that this certainty “had some influence on my opinions, . . . making me rest in the thought of two and two only absolute and luminously self-evident beings, myself and my Creator.” Feeling “a revulsion against an awful madness” in the selfishness of this passage, the narrator tries to convince her friend that Newman was critiquing the belief as a passing phase. “You can’t live with an I-and-thou relationship to God and doubt the reality of the rest of life,” she warns. But the friend ignores the warning, and her misinterpretation of Newman (ironically, one of Spark’s favorite writers) has a pernicious influence.

Variations of this dangerous moral superiority abound. The title character of Robinson tells the narrator (a Catholic convert) that “my actions are beyond the obvious range,” to which she replies, “I chucked the antinomian pose when I was twenty. There’s no such thing as a private morality.” The Abbess of Crewe tells a nun, “I’m your conscience and your authority. . . . The Ancient Rule obtains when I say it does.” Sandy Stranger observes that Jean Brodie’s “actions were outside the context of right and wrong” and that Brodie “thinks she is the God of Calvin.” Another version of this character type, Barbara Vaughan in The Mandelbaum Gate, believes that her love affair with a divorced man “made nonsense of the rules. There were no moral laws to fit it.” But as a Catholic convert, she refuses to pursue their relationship until he receives an annulment—which he does, thanks to a botched attempt at forgery by a malevolent character.

This ironic turn in The Mandelbaum Gate is an instance of another one of Spark’s central interests, particularly in her early novels: the surprising operations of grace. The Girls of Slender Means is a martyr mystery in which a woman tries to determine why a murdered acquaintance had converted. She assumes it was the influence of a tragic fire they had witnessed, but the reader learns that there was a much darker, fleeting catalyst. The dead man left a clue in his journal: “a vision of evil may be as effective to conversion as a vision of good.” In The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Sandy has an affair with a married Catholic art teacher, and the mortal sin leads to her conversion: “She left the man and took his religion and became a nun in the course of time.” The voice over the phone in ­Memento Mori telling elderly characters, “Remember you must die”; the ­statue of the Virgin Mary in the short story “The Black ­Madonna” . . . ­mysterious grace abounds in Spark’s early ­writing.

As her career progressed, Spark pursued her religious interests less frequently and, I think, less effectively. A woman in her penultimate novel, Aiding and Abetting, is in hiding because she had once posed as a stigmatist, using her menstrual blood to deceive the faithful. A horrible offense, but one that “did apparently effect a number of cures, perhaps by the power of suggestion.” And at the conclusion of Loitering with Intent, the narrator uses a lucky kick as a metaphor for grace:

Some small boys were playing football, and the ball came flying straight towards me. I kicked it with a chance grace, which, if I had studied the affair and tried hard, I never could have done. Away into the air it went, and landed in the small boy’s waiting hands. The boy grinned. And so, having entered the fullness of my years, from there by the grace of God I go on my way rejoicing.

Put another way, Catholicism was always present in her novels, but gradually receded from being a thematic focus and compelling character trait to something more like a backdrop or plot device. This may explain why she is now rarely considered in the company of her co-religionists. Which is a shame—not only because that oversight is a disservice to Spark’s achievements, but because it means many readers may never know what they’re missing. Spark wrote ­unsettling, exciting, and funny works that take religious belief seriously. And although her depiction of the Church and its faithful is often heterodox and satirical, her novels dramatize the power of grace to change lives, and the difficulties that transformation often entails. 

Christopher J. Scalia is an editor of Scalia Speaks: Reflections on Law, Faith, and Life Well Lived.

Photo by Wolf Gang via Creative Commons. Image cropped.