She Who Can Do No Wrong

Jenny Turner

  • Curriculum Vitae by Muriel Spark
    Constable, 213 pp, £14.95, July 1992, ISBN 0 09 469650 0

At the end of Curriculum Vitae, Muriel Spark has just published her first novel, The Comforters. It is 1957 and she is 39 years old. After happening on Spark’s novel in proof while working on his own Gilbert Pinfold, Evelyn Waugh has decided to write it a glowing testimonial, which he publishes in the Spectator: ‘It so happens that The Comforters came to me just as I had finished a story on a similar theme, and I was struck by how much more ambitious Miss Spark’s essay was, and how much better she had accomplished it,’ is how this testimonial goes. ‘“I dare say,” drawled Al’ – Al being Muriel Spark’s publisher, the young Alan Maclean – ‘“that this is the shape of things to come.” It was a risky saying, for many fine first novels are followed by duds. However, I took great heart from what he said, and went on my way rejoicing.’

The years leading up to this occasion for rejoicing have been strange and thrilling ones, a real-life intimation, should Muriel Spark have needed one, that life, when looked at from the long-sighted point of view, sometimes works itself out in mysterious and wonderful ways. In 1951, she wrote her first short story, straight out on foolscap paper. ‘The Seraph and the Zambesi’ – one of the strangest and most beautiful things she has yet written – won first prize in the Observer short-story competition of that year, and caused. Spark says, ‘quite a stir’. But Spark still saw herself not as a fiction-writer but as a poet and literary critic, and she was still desperately poor. By 1954 she was overworking frantically, sending out poem after poem, keeping critical projects on T.S. Eliot, Cardinal Newman and possibly the Book of Job all bubbling on the back-burner at the same time. Spark then became anorexic, using dexedrine as a substitute for regular meals. Her breakdown when it came appeared as a visitation from Eliot, whose poetry. Spark convinced herself, was full of secret messages encoded in ancient Greek.

The Eliot book, unsurprisingly, never got done. In 1953, Spark, up until then a half-Jewish agnostic with a Scottish Presbyterian educational background, had converted to Anglicanism; in 1954 she went the whole hog and became a Roman Catholic instead. She recovered from her breakdown with the help of her priest, who helped her find a cottage, and later a Camberwell bedsit, from which to put her life back together and start writing anew. Spark seems to have lost interest in T.S. Eliot from that point on. Her edition of the letters of John Henry Newman, however, went ahead as planned. And her interest in Job and his dreadful afflictions, the capricious God who made him suffer dreadfully for the sake of a wager, and his horrible friends who only made things worse, she displaced, with a mischievous obliqueness that would come to seem typical of all her fiction, onto the title and author-as-God structure of The Comforters.

Small wonder, then, that Muriel Spark ends her first volume of memoirs by going on her way rejoicing. But hold it there a minute. For this business about going on one’s way rejoicing, as faithful Spark fans may already have recognised, is one of Muriel Spark’s favourite catch-phrases, along with such classics of the catch-phrase form as ‘crème de la crème’, ‘pisseur de copie’, ‘neither good-looking nor bad-looking’, ‘we must always think about les autres.’ The Comforters, in fact, itself concluded with a character going on his way rejoicing; Loitering with Intent (1981), a story which returns to the threadbare milieu of Spark’s own post-war London life, ends in this fashion too. And the letter’s first-person heroine, Fleur, surely isn’t rejoicing just because she is thinking about ‘how wonderful it is to be an artist and a woman in the middle of the 20th century.’ For we have already watched her lift the phrase, word for word, from Benvenuto Cellini, whose autobiography, along with Cardinal Newman’s Apologia, has already put in a cameo appearance as one of the prime movers in that novel’s plot. Yes, life when looked at from the long point of view sometimes does work itself out in mysterious and wonderful ways. Especially when you are dealing with an author who enjoys playing tricksy narrative games.

Curriculum Vitae is not one of those autobiographies which works as a piece of literature in and of itself. It is not Newman, it is not – to cite the other great favourite of Loitering with Intent – Cellini, it is not a be-all or end-all statement like the autobiography of, say, Simone de Beauvoir. If you read it expecting anything very frank or deep or sustained, you will find it, as I did to begin with, disappointing. But unlike John Henry Newman, Muriel Spark is not a priest but an artist, and so does not need to apologise to anybody for her life. And unlike, say. Simone de Beauvoir, Muriel Spark doesn’t need to write an unusually frank, deep or sustained autobiography in order to assure us of her interest and originality as a person and as a writer.

Muriel Spark is now 74 years old. She is the author of 19 novels, all of which sell pretty well, four of which have been adapted for film or TV, one of which. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), has become a living legend of literature both Scottish and English. She is the author also of several collections of short stories, of two collections of poetry and half a dozen volumes of literary criticism. She knows fine that journalists and scholars find her of interest. Indeed, as a tetchy commentary in Curriculum Vitae shows, she has for years been following the handful of myths and half-truths which pass for fact among such. She knows fine too that she will, at some point, die; as the cheerful morbidity of Memento Mori (1959) made plain, Spark has no patience with people who find it difficult to contemplate the likely imminence of death. The purpose of Curriculum Vitae, then, is no more and no less than to present the facts of her early life as she sees them, for other people’s future reference. It’s a debunking job, it’s a pre-emptive attack, and it’s a fond but highly selective trip down memory lane.

Curriculum Vitae is not the sort of book that encourages you to pry. Though – like Spark’s novels – affectionate where affection is due, it is – like the novels – pretty merciless as regards everything else. It dutifully points out people and places that inspired various episodes in her writing: the benevolent Miss Kay who became the monstrous Miss Jean Brodie; the lookalike Edinburgh schoolmate who became the lookalike colonial harpy of ‘Bang bang, you’re dead’; the jobs at the Foreign Office, at the Poetry Society, at Peter Owen, that became the jobs written about in Loitering with Intent, A Far Cry From Kensington (1988) and no doubt others. But it skates over many things about which eager beavers may want to know more: Muriel Camberg’s disastrous teenage marriage to Sydney Oswald Spark, whom she dubs ‘SOS’; her twenties in Rhodesia as a bored and miserable colonial wife; her son from that marriage, sent off to his grandparents in Edinburgh after the war in order that Spark could seek her fortune in London. But none of this, Curriculum Vitae makes plain, is anybody’s business but Spark’s own. Any further speculation on the reader’s part would be viewed very dimly indeed.

I’m afraid that I for one won’t be trying to do anything to offend her. For as a Muriel Spark fan of many years’ standing, I know exactly what happens to eager beavers and people like them. They get ridiculed, they get mocked, they get shown up as pitifully, hilariously venal. And fair do’s really. As all of Spark’s stories share a similar moral structure in which She Herself, or her appointed narrative agent, Can Do No Wrong and everybody else had better watch it, nobody can pretend they weren’t warned. But more profoundly, there is really no point in trying to take issue with Muriel Spark’s chosen version of herself. For to do so would involve taking issue with every aesthetic, moral and theological attitude Muriel Spark’s writing stands for, and thus to move unhelpfully away from getting to grips with whatever it is that this writing is.

In her autobiography as in her fiction, Muriel Spark is not a person but a persona. Just look at the photographs of herself she chooses for her dust-jackets. She is pretty, she is pert, she is immaculately chic; she signifies drop-dead lady wit, a flirt, a charmer, a dandyess and a poseuse. If somebody has put this sort of effort into their self-projection, it’s kind of by the way to call them affected or inauthentic, for, unlike, say, Simone de Beauvoir, they have never pretended to be anything else. You just have to decide whether you are impressed by the effect or not, and go on your way accordingly.

Because Muriel Spark is by birth Scottish and a woman, her work frequently attracts response from critics who identify with either or both of these attributes. But whatever else critics may do with a persona, trying to identify with it is unlikely to bring much joy. You start deploring Spark’s work, love it as you do, for its unsisterly cruelty and lack of empathy with human motivation; you get all gauche and genuflecting as your own lily-livered agnosticism finds itself in the presence of the great other-worldiness and mysterious ways of Spark’s religion. This is dim. Muriel Spark is a tough-minded grown-up woman; Muriel Spark is also obviously some sort of a mistress of irony. She is therefore presumably quite capable of deciding for herself which aspects of her faith need to be kept private, and which might enjoy being let loose in her novels for some worldy fun and games.

There is, of course, no outward conflict in being a serious Roman Catholic of the British convert sort and being also a charmer, a flirt and a poseuse. As the wise grandmother in The Comforters says, ‘the one certain way for a woman to hold a man is to leave him for religion ... The man might get another girl, but he can never be happy with anyone else after a girl has left him for religious reasons. She secures him for good.’ Which is to say: Muriel Spark’s novels use their author’s religion for many things, but among those things they certainly use it as a source of a peculiarly English sort of Roman Catholic camp. In dowdy old Protestant England in the frumpy Fifties, becoming a Catholic was an excellent way of making manifest one’s own felt specialness socially. As a gesture of cultural aspiration and disdain, it signified much the same sort of will to the moral high ground as joining the Communist Party did in France, where to have been a mere Catholic would have caused no sort of a stir at all. Within the British tradition Muriel Spark elected, with her conversion, to hobnob with a small but disproportionately powerful historical clique of Catholic-convert novelists led by Ronald Firbank and Evelyn Waugh, stylistic affectation-mongers, social climbers and inveterate poseurs the both of them. And within the wider Western tradition, she elected to join a tradition of Catholic kitsch and cruelty which included such apostate writers as Antonin Artaud and Georges Bataille, whose blasphemy would have been pointless had they not had the body of Catholic ritual there to egg them on. Catholicism, unlike Protestantism, is a religious tradition that is rich in irony. It’s hardly surprising then that after she had joined it, Spark immediately set about making her faith and her fiction fit exquisitely together, immaculately manicured hand in impeccably chic glove.

Once Spark got going on her fiction and her religion, her religion and her fiction, she started, as she says in this book, ‘a new life’. Elsewhere she has said that, after her conversion, she found her voice as a writer immediately and with ease. She left Britain for good in the mid-Sixties, on her own admission, to get away from old friends from whom success had estranged her. She has since lived unassailably above the rest of us, in New York, in Rome, in Oliveto, from whence Curriculum Vitae is datelined. That she left behind her in England, too, the sort of puritanical morality that looks for usable truths in people’s dirty washing is obvious from all her subsequent work.

But camp, and Catholic camp in particular, only works if it is in some way devout and serious, which is why Pedro Almodovar, after making hilarious, loving and utterly reverent films about junkie nuns and sex-crazed madonna figures, has started going off, and why Madonna with her crucifixes and her mother’s graveside is boring and embarrassing as hell. For the big irony on which all other Catholic irony turns is precisely that Catholicism is for its adherents the most rigorous and rational of all possible faiths, and yet the one that offers its flock so many weird and wonderful sacramental activities with which to stimulate their consciences while biding their time in the temporal world. Thus Muriel Spark has made herself a mistress at writing stories which seem to trip blithely and bitchily along life’s way until the reader is suddenly pulled up with a shock recognition of death and judgment, heaven and hell, the four last things that have been lurking on the bottom line all the story through: God help me. Life is unbearable, as the heroine of ‘The Go-Away Bird’ says at the end of her story, which up to that point might have been misrecognised as a mere comedy of one young woman’s utterly futile and wasted youth.

‘When I am asked about my conversion, why I became a Catholic, I can only say the answer is too easy and too difficult,’ says Muriel Spark in Curriculum Vitae. ‘The simple explanation is that I felt the Roman Catholic faith corresponded to what I had always known and believed; there was no blinding revelation in my case. The more difficult explanation would involve the step by step building up of a conviction; as Newman himself pointed out, when asked about his own conversion, it was not a thing one could propound “between the soup and the fish” at a dinner party.’ It is interesting to note how what Muriel Spark expresses as a sort of dialectical movement, whereby everything absolute is known right from the beginning and yet one has to move step by step over a great number of life’s pages before this absolute can be recognised, is mimicked in the proleptic structure of her novels, whereby the reader learns about a character’s ultimate fate long before their story has been fully played out. But it is also interesting to note the way that, according to the mysterious and wonderful patterning of events in Curriculum Vitae, knowledge and conviction, fiction and religion all sparked together at what seems to have been the rock-bottom point of Muriel Spark’s own life. In 1957 Spark was 39 years old, not a spring chicken either as artist or woman in the 20th century or any other. Now to approach one’s late thirties – one’s prime as a woman and as an artist indeed – as a penniless single mother of few marketable skills could not have been much of a joke in the middle of the 20th century. It isn’t much of a joke in the late 20th century either. To approach one’s prime convinced of one’s genius as an artist, but with precious little formal recognition to show for it, must have been at least slightly enervating too. Semi-starvation, dexedrine, psychosis, a life materially collapsed to the point that Muriel Spark had to turn to her priest to help her find a place to live: this is just desperate, desperate stuff.

It is for Muriel Spark to tell us if she chooses in a later volume of memoirs how much her desperate lifestyle as a woman and an artist in the 20th century had to do with her religious conversion. But it is for us to notice how totally real and concrete this desperation is in her every short story and book. It is there in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, whose proleptic structure causes the book, throughout all its merry tales of primeful high jinks, to pivot on final images of waste, frustration and death. There is the image of Miss Brodie herself, no longer in her prime, bent, betrayed, obsessed, soon to die of cancer. There is the image of the girl sent by Miss Brodie to fight for Fascism, who dies horribly in an ambush almost before she has set foot in Spain. And there is the image of young Sandy, no longer famous for her vowel sounds and her little piggy eyes, clutching at the bars that enclose her in her Carmelite monastery. Death, waste and frustration are everywhere, too, in The Girls of Slender Means (1963), apparently a story about high jinks in a Kensington women’s hostel at the end of World War Two, whose droll and lyrical opening passage lyrically and drolly manages to superimpose the image of these ‘delightful’, ‘ingenious’, ‘movingly lovely, and, as it might happen, more savage’ young ladies with the memento mori of a bombed-out building skull. Death, waste and frustration are everywhere in all of Spark’s early novels, in which a witty and fond appreciation of the things people get up to in their youth and poverty mingles with a rising stench of what Julia Kristeva calls ‘the abject’, a desperate disgust with the earthbound fate of flesh. And they are everywhere too in her later novels, in which Spark, as befits her current social position, turns her attention to people of wealth and cosmopolitan circumstances.

Now Muriel Spark is not the only woman and artist in the 20th century to use the mask of glittering lady wit as a way of dealing, head-on but with the necessary protective clothing, with the horror she seems to feel for her biological destiny. Dorothy Parker did this with brilliance and bitterness, and so in her way does Julie Burchill. If you’re not grossly fat you’re probably too thin, and with a nasty skinny mind to go with it. If you’re not irredeemably stupid you’re no doubt so sharp you’ll end up cutting yourself; and who’s ever going to fall in love with a ball-breaking harridan like you? Even if you do manage to escape marriage to some mediocre dolt of a man, you’ll probably end up as an embittered old maid instead – and as for being a nun or a lesbian or both, well, unfortunately not all women have a vocation for it, and even if they did, chances are they’d still end up discontented like Sandy, and anyway everybody ends up dying in the long run. Yes, this is all very cynical and nihilistic, and a bit reactionary from the feminist point of view. But that in itself doesn’t stop it from being something that most women, even feminists, feel to be the case at some time or another. And it certainly doesn’t stop women from loving, and dare I say it, deriving a peculiar sort of strength from, all these women’s works. (And men of course love them too, to the point that Dorothy Parker, Julie Burchill and Muriel Spark, with the occasional addition of Susan Sontag, often seem to be the only women writers on whom they seem willing to hang the epithet ‘clever’. But that is a different and darker matter.) Feminism alone, in short, doesn’t stop Muriel Spark’s vision of cursed femininity from being broadly and horribly true. God help us Life really is unbearable, and particularly for women, and particularly when looked at from the cold and cruel and cynical long-sighted point of view.

But the strange and marvellous thing about Muriel Spark’s writing is that, unlike that of Dorothy Parker or Julie Burchill, it never gets brittle or forced or knotted up in its own so-sharp-she’ll-cut-herself cleverness. No matter how desperate the things she is writing about get, all Spark’s writing has a supple merriment about it, a lightness of touch, a willingness to share in fleeting moments of mundane love and pleasure, that cannot come from cleverness alone. It is tempting, amusing and probably fair to assume that Muriel Spark’s writing gets its special sort of strength from She That Can Do No Wrong’s personal escape-hatch and hotline to God. Many women, after all, in times before the middle of the 20th century, turned to the Church as a way of escaping the double bind of marriage or a miserable life as a pitied and put-upon spinster aunt. As an intellectual and an artist, Spark is far too worldly, tough and gorgeous to have needed to follow such women all the way to a Carmelite monastery, but it is wonderful nevertheless to watch how she uses the look-but-don’t-touch aura of her superior holiness to tease hapless men inside her books and everybody of both sexes reading them outside.

With the exception of The Only Problem (1984), in which Spark returns to the subject of Job’s afflictions in a significantly more urbane fashion than she was able to manage in the days before her success. Spark seldom bogs her novels down with extended theological discussion. But God is there all right, working at the level of form, in the tricks and twists of narrative, in the weird bloom of sublimity that catches on an innocent-looking catch-phrase like ‘crème de la crème’ or the one about going on one’s way rejoicing. Wit, mind, intelligence, spiritedness and spirituality are closely linked qualities in most European languages. And it’s because Muriel Spark knows how to turn all of these at once to shape and direct her every utterance that her writing comes to have such beauty and such force. You have only to glance at the work of copyists and pale cousins like the vaguely mischievous Fay Weldon, the clodhopping misanthropic Barbara Vine, to understand that Spark’s use of that gorgeously ‘cemp’ posh-Scottish written voice of hers is really special. Not to mention a host of younger would-be poseuses and charmers who manage the nastiness and the affectation no problem, but come adrift on the matter of making it in the slightest bit compelling.

Now maybe this voice did indeed come straight down the authorial hotline from He Who Must Be Believed In. But it is a tenet of Catholicism, as of all serious religion, that inspiration comes only to people who are prepared to work their brains with a furious and rigorous discipline in order to be ready to receive it. Hannah Arendt once said of Isak Dinesen that her tales read as if they had been boiled down until they were pure essence of story, and then boiled down again: and much the same could be said of Muriel Spark, albeit from a very different philosophical recipe. It is probably not coincidental that both women came to fiction comparatively late in life with decades of brainwork compressed behind them, stripped of all and any waste, including much that other able writers would think it necessary to keep in. The lightness and slenderness of Muriel Spark’s novels may appear to belie the long years of sweated brainwork that had to get finished off before they could even get started. But the years of brainwork can be sensed working somewhere behind them, holding the whole together, just the same.

The happy result of Muriel Spark’s method is that she is a writer who writes books against which uninteresting critical categories to do with élitist and populist, highbrow and lowbrow, mean nothing much. She is popular with teenagers, she is popular with oldies, she is popular with highbrow Catholic aristos and she’s popular with low-down faithless types like me. And she is popular with all these people in a special and interesting way. Unlike the T.S. Eliot who helped her on the way to her nervous breakdown, Muriel Spark does not write elaborate palimpsests off which you get one thing if you’re an initiate and something lesser if you are not. Every creepiness and spite, every structural joke and twist, can be missed by nobody, thanks to the astonishingly willed force of her economy and style. While rereading The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie the other day for the first time since I was a teenager, I was amazed to find that I remembered virtually everything about it, chunks of it more or less word for word. And I was struck also by the way that, although I now have many fancy words and theories with which to articulate my responses to that book, every scrap of its wit and peculiarly Catholic sort of dread, I’m pretty sure I, pig-ignorant Presbyterian schoolgirl though I was, picked up on first time around. It’s quite a feat, to be able to hold an audience with such intensity and grace, from the cradle to the grave. I can’t think of any other novelist who manages it so well, with the no doubt significant exception of Graham Greene.

For many readers, nevertheless, Muriel Spark will probably always be just a lightweight posh-Catholic lady novelist, a crypto-Spectatorite right-wing wit, a snob, a bit of an anti-feminist, and no doubt many things worse short of a wearer of the Sash. And I guess there is nothing in either Curriculum Vitae or this present review of it to disabuse them of their opinion – although, it is my duty to point out, there is nothing much to support it either, and it’s an opinion which cannot be sustained for long if you read without prejudice a handful of her books. Do Spark’s novels take it upon themselves to proselytise for Catholic perversity in the way that other novels proselytise for the life-enhancing properties of an Oxbridge education, a flash job in something trendy, a lot of terribly well-bred, fascinating and sensitive wives and friends with names like Rosalind, Claudia or Toby? (Hint: later novels, like Symposium (1990) are in fact at their best when taking the rise out of this very genre.)Are they boring, sentimental or intelligence-insulting, full of smarmy little in-jokes and breast-beating vacuities to do with the end of structuralism, the end of history, the end of everything as epitomised by something the author once saw on daytime television about Alien3? Do they in fact proselytise for the pettifogging interests of any social clique at all, or are they not constructed merely to suggest that for life to be bearable as an artist or a woman in the 20th century, it’s probably best if you work that brain of yours, turn yourself out as nice as you can lest death overtake you, and cultivate the independent attitude of a Cat Who Walks By Herself?