by Alan Taylor

Memento Mori

October 14, 2009 | by Alan Taylor

WHEN IN THE MIDST of the Second World War Muriel Spark divorced her husband she did not revert to her family surname of Camberg. Instead, as she acknowledged in her autobiography, Curriculum Vitae, she decided to retain her husband’s name. Her reason, initially, was so she could share the same name as her son. “This,” she explained, “was generally the custom unless one married again.” Latterly, however, she came to appreciate that for someone pursuing a literary career Spark had a certain something that Cam-berg did not. “Camberg was a good name, but comparatively flat. Spark seemed to have some ingredient of life and of fun.”

It was a wise decision and, inadvertently, a boon to headline writers. Though she may have been desperate to escape a disastrous and dangerous marriage – her husband, who had a history of mental illness and who had become fascinated with guns, threatened to kill her – and to start a new life, she was nevertheless alive to the possibilities of a name which she came to personify. Flame-haired, effervescent, fiery, passionate, witty, fiercely protective of her unique gift, she seems intuitively to have realised that by choosing Spark over Cam-berg she had invented the person she always wanted to be.

All of this happened in Africa, in what used to be called Rhodesia, between 1937, when Spark left Edinburgh to join her fiance Sydney Oswald Spark, and February 1944, when she obtained a berth on a troopship which somehow managed to avoid the U-boats and reach Liverpool. On the way she read T.S. Eliot’s The Dry Salvages, perhaps seeing in herself one of those voyagers who “suffer the trial and judgement of the sea”. In Rhodesia, she had not only left behind a husband but also a child, a son, whom the husband had not wanted her to have in the first place.

As her biographer, Martin Stannard, makes clear this was not the way she wanted things to be. She had little option, however, but to leave her son in Rhodesia. It was the epitome of a patriarchal, chauvinist, uncultivated, colonialist society where the white population ‘fixed’ impertinent blacks. In her story ‘The Curtain Blown by the Breeze’, Spark described one  such incident. A farmer returns home to find a small black boy peering through a window into a room in which his wife is breast-feeding her baby. For this crime, he shoots the boy dead. “This story,” Spark recalled, “was told me by a smug, self-satisfied South African Dutch woman of about forty-five, whom I met in one of the many boarding-houses I lived in during my married life…The woman seemed to think the farmer was quite right and to regret that things were changing or had changed. I was unable to speak. I simply stared at the woman. She didn’t notice this, but went on talking in her self-righteous way. The farmer, she lamented, went to prison for three years.”

A judge granted her husband custody of her son, Robin, as was usually the case. Her husband’s propensity to violence was not an issue. Would it have mattered had it been? Spark, meanwhile, had to bide her time. Though she was determined to see wartime Britain, “to be involved”, there seemed no way of getting there. But as time passed she grew more determined for her sanity’s sake to leave Africa. Since there was no question of taking her child on such a hazardous journey she arranged for him to board at a convent school. Eighteen months later Robin followed her to Britain in the company of his father. Spark took her son to Edinburgh where he would live with her parents while she pursued her literary career in London. Her husband followed Robin north and was put up for a while by Spark’s parents. Soon thereafter, however, he was admitted to a “loony bin” after he threatened to jump out of a hotel window.

Spark was then in her mid-twenties and had written nothing yet of any note. Her marriage to SOS – as she called her husband – was to hang pall-like over her life, returning to haunt her when she least expected it. Because her husband lived in the environs of Edinburgh it made it difficult to return frequently and publicly. Similarly, her relationship with her son, which was never easy, grew more fraught and troublesome as the years went by. Such things happen between offspring and parents. Undoubtedly this was exacerbated by the distance between them. But what could Spark do? She could, of course, have done as many women did in those days and put up with her husband. She could also have returned to live in Edinburgh and moved in with her parents. She could have, but she didn’t. The reason for this was that her experience of Africa had confirmed her belief that she was a writer and that she must devote her life to realising her ambition. Women were not supposed to behave like that. The transformational event, her epiphany, her conversion, was a visit to the Zambesi River at the point at which it meets the Victoria Falls. She knew then, she wrote, that her marriage was over and that she had reached a turning point. For her the experience was cathartic, religious, mystical. “Strangely,” she wrote, “the experience of the Victoria Falls gave me courage to endure the difficult years to come. The falls became to me a symbol of spiritual strength. I had no settled religion, but I recognised the experience of the falls as spiritual in kind. They are one of those works of nature that cannot be distinguished from a sublime work of art.”

Peculiarly, Muriel Spark’s life has been as much pored over as her work. It is as if she is suspected of having done something wrong, as if she were morally wanting, as if she were somehow venal. Quite why this is the case is difficult to comprehend. Her early life in Edinburgh was only remarkable because she lived it. Otherwise it was similar to the lives of many girls of her age. Her parents were not well off but neither were they poor. Her father Barney, who was Jewish, worked as a fitter and mechanical engineer until he was seventy. Her mother Cissy, who was of Methodist stock, was a housewife. She was of a flirtatious nature and, as she got older, liked to tipple throughout the day.

According to Stannard, “Cissy sailed through life like a ramshackle galleon.” Muriel, who was born in 1918, was her second child. A son, Philip, had been born five and a half years earlier. Edinburgh in the 1920s and 1930s was a sooty, provincial backwater that smelled like a brewery which in a sense it was. There was little culture and just as little sunshine. But for a child with a wild imagination and voracious curiosity it was a city of shadows and suspense, a palimpsest of myth and history. It was the city, moreover, of Sir Walter Scott’s Heart of Midlothian and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, of Burke and Hare, John Knox and Mary, Queen of Scots. From an early age Spark was a reader, habituating Morningside Public Library. Armed with her own and her mother’s and father’s tickets, she borrowed books by the barrowload, galloping through nineteenth-and twentieth-century poets, aware of the rarity of women among them. At school, James Gillespie’s, which she was to metamorphose into Marcia Blane’s in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, she was given novels to read of a kind deemed suitable for young girls and taken to see plays. Once, she recalled, she heard John Masefield, who in 1930 had become Poet Laureate, read “He read as he might have read someone else’s work,” she recorded, “and that is a very difficult thing for a poet to do. His pronunciation was very pure, his tones very clear.”

In Curriculum Vitae Spark articulated what it was like to be a girl before she crystallised into an artist. Stannard adds little to what we have learned previously. Unlike his subject’s, his prose lacks lustre and where he does attempt an injection of colour he applies too much paint to his brush. This does not serve to bring Spark into clearer focus. All the best lines are hers and not enough of them are quoted. Never did she write a sentence without spark or undercurrent. It is all in the intonation, the punctuation and the pacing, which is as calibrated as a poem’s. It is no surprise to learn that it was as a  poet that she first made her mark. Even when hymned as a novelist she always she had a poem “on the go”. Her first, her  formative influence was surely that of Christina Kay, the schoolmistress who was to become Jean Brodie. It was Miss Kay who took her as one of the crème de la crème to hear John Mase-field, demonstrating that not all poets were dead. It was  Miss Kay, too, who took her to see Pavlova dance at Empire Theatre. And it was Miss Kay again who talked so ardently about the Sistine Chapel and Colosseum and the Dutch School.

“I do not know why exactly I chose the name Miss Brodie,” Spark wrote in Curriculum Vitae. One explanation, she said, was that a young woman who had taught her to read when she was three was called Brodie. “Could I have heard this fact and  recorded it unconsciously?” Possibly. But surely a more obvious explanation is that the name Brodie came from Deacon Brodie who was a pillar of theEdinburgh community by day and a burglar by night, and who was eventually executed. And Jean, surely, is the name Scottish women were given when no other presented itself. Spark’s uncertainty on this point, however, is symptomatic of the way she worked. On occasion, she could not explain why or what circumstances led her to write what she did. One such example, notes Stannard, is the refrain in her poem ‘Edinburgh Villanelle‘ which reads “Heart of Midlothian, never mine.” What, she wondered late in her life, did she mean by that? Her letters, too few of which are quoted here, show that at the time the poem was written, the early 1950s, she felt “spiritually discomfited” when visiting her family and at odds with an Edinburgh unsympathetic to her artistic vision.

By then, though, Spark was beginning to make headway in literary London. As Stannard melodramatically puts it, “Muriel was a breath of  Caledonian air in the stale closes of the metropolitan poetry circuit.” Her job running the Poetry Society was an initiation into a world in which amateurism prevailed. Spark, who was incapable of dissembling, made enemies of “a gaggle of half-baked litterateurs, often businessmen and ancient gentlefolk” who attempted to patronise and molest her. One woman she fell foul of was Marie Stopes, who was “absolutely opposed to my idea of poetry.” Spark used “to think it a pity that her mother rather than she had not thought of birth control.”

Bruising and distressing as her spell at  the Poetry Society was, it helped her to toughen up. These were fraught days. Money was tight, her health precarious and her friends, mainly male, weak and unreliable and hysterical. Doubtless she too was not always easy to be with. She had lovers, notably Howard Sergeant and Derek Stan-ford, neither of whom could compete with her as a writer. A theme of the biography is the manner in which Spark’s relationships had a habit of  breaking down. Whatever the causes for this, be it the man’s unwillingness to commit himself to her or her to him, or whether she felt slighted or betrayed, her loyalty to her art was unwavering. What helped make her so was her conversion to Catholicism which gave her a philosophical and spiritual basis on which to build. Knowing what she believed enabled her to put her work into perspective. Stannard explains her transformation plainly. At one point she considered becoming a nun; at another she denied Stanford sex because they were not married and he was not a Catholic. Fundamental to her was the issue of inspiration. It was as if God was communicating through her and she was His secretary taking dictation. Her manuscripts, which are remarkably clean and error-free, bear this out. Also, when she began a book, it was usually written speedily. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, for example, was written in just four weeks.

Stannard remarks that he toyed with calling his book The Nine Lives of Muriel Spark, in reference to the various places in which she alighted. Some of these were more important than others. Edinburgh was where she was formed but London was where she flowered. Winning an Observer short story competition in 1951 turned her overnight from being – in her mind – a poet to a prose writer. From short stories she graduated to novels, six – The Comforters , Robinson, Memento Mori, The Ballad of Peckham Rye, The Bachelors and The Prime – coming in an astonishing five year burst of creative energy. Almost all of these appeared in the 1950s, a decade invariably described as that which belongs to the Angry Young Men. In fact, it was an era that actually belonged to a new generation of female writers, including Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer and Iris Murdoch.

Increasingly, as her fame grew, the dilemma for Spark was how to manage her domestic life while maintaining the quality of her writing. Often she would check into retreats or hospitals, sometimes because she was ill, often because she wanted to be alone to work and gather her thoughts. There was, as Stannard notes, something cat-like about her, insofar as she was self-contained. Her marriage was instructive, teaching her to beware of men bearing flowers. Her nature was to trust people, to think the best of them, to believe them to be good and dependable, but time and again her expectations were confounded. Stanford, whom she once thought of marrying, sold her letters and wrote a fatuous book about her, which understandably riled her. In Rome, a butler whom she employed and of whom she thought highly sued her for unfair dismissal even though nothing untoward had happened. On one occasion she asked friends to investigate a man whom she was seeing. Told, mischievously, that he was a crook, she broke off relations with him even after she learned it was joke. In New York and Italy her homes were burgled. It all conspired to make Spark cautious, less spontaneous, more circumspect. She kept copies of  correspondence and filed away receipts. It was as if she was verifying her own life, maintaining a record lest she need it as future evidence.

Her dealings with publishers were no less scratchy. Publishers, starting with Macmillan, appear to have taken the view that they were doing her a favour by publishing her.

For her part, Spark let them know exactly who was doing a favour for whom. Unlike the weekend rhymers of the Poetry Society writing was her job, which she did superbly well, and she expected to be properly recompensed for it. Why would she not? Yet she often received solicitations asking for her permission to print a story or poem without payment, as if they were of no intrinsic value. Spark was not sympathetic to this point of view. Would a plumber fix a tap for free? For her, writing was everything and sheexpected to be rewarded properly for the effort she expended. Even more alarming to her, however, was the ignorance, insensitivity and lack of professionalism on the part of publishers who seemed almost wilfully not to want to sell her books. As Spark’s letters attest she was unwilling to overlook such shortcomings or leave her feelings unvoiced. As Stannard writes, she was “prepared to antagonise anyone who breached her own strict code of ‘principle & justice’.” When publishers encouraged her to do interviews  she was resistant. “Every day wasted on ‘publicity’ was time lost to creation.” Those interviews she did give were invariably unsatisfactory, skewed or bedevilled by factual errors which had to be corrected. Her instinct, therefore, was to withdraw, to place a barrier between herself and the clamour of the market place.

In so doing she acquired a reputation as a recluse. It is one of the many ridiculous myths which grew up around Spark. It is true that her final home in Italy was relatively remote, fifteen or so kilometres from the Tuscan town of Arezzo in the Val di Chi-ana. It was off the beaten track up a dusty road down which cyclists would career at weekends. Here Spark lived in a thirteenth century rectory with Penelope Jardine, an English sculptor, who looked after the day-to-day arrangements. The house, which was dilapidated when the pair took up residence, gradually grew more comfortable. For Spark, who was used to big cities and their attendant amenities, it was akin to Stevenson moving to Samoa. All around were olive groves and vineyards. In summer the heat was blistering and lightening crackled; in winter snowed piled up and the temperature plummeted. Oliveto, the nearest village, had no shop or restaurant. Civitella, which was a little further away, up a steep and winding road which in bad weather was blocked by landslips, offered commanding views and an alimentari where necessities could be bought.

This was where Spark spent her last couple of decades and where she encouraged myself and my family to come, firstly to look after the house (and the cats and dogs) while she and Jardine toured the continent in their Alfa Romeo, latterly whenever the urge took us. The person I got to know over a period of twenty years I rarely recognise from the one described in the newspapers or, indeed, from Stannard’s biography. One sympathises with the latter. A biographer of Muriel Spark must inevitably be in her shade. Once, she asked what I thought of a biography of Paul Scott, the author of The Raj Quartet who had been her agent and about whom her feelings were ambivalent at best. I said that I thought it was alright as far as it went. In it, I’d read how Scott had taken a fancy to her, pursuing her while his wife was almost within earshot.  She listened without offering a reply. I prompted her. What did she think of it? “Oh,” she said eventually, “I didn’t think he was worth a book that long.” Then she laughed, which she did a lot and of which there is not a lot in this biography of her, more’s the pity.


Muriel Spark: The Biography
Martin Stannard
Weidenfeld & Nicolson; £25
pp 627, ISBN: 978 0 297 815921

From this Issue

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by Magnus Linklater

Memento Mori

by Alan Taylor

Ten Years Hence

by David Torrance

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