Mistress of Disappearances

Frank Kermode

  • Muriel Spark: The Biography by Martin Stannard
    Weidenfeld, 627 pp, £25.00, July 2009, ISBN 978 0 297 81592 1

Martin Stannard, the author of an immense biography of Evelyn Waugh, now publishes this excellent and far from brief life of Muriel Spark. The book was well under way while the novelist was still alive, and he expresses his gratitude for her ‘consent, encouragement and active assistance . . . She patiently answered my questions, offered interviews and engaged in a huge correspondence.’ A legal agreement allowed her biographer ‘extensive free quotation from her published work and an unspecified amount from her unpublished writings, including letters’. She insisted only on her ‘right to withdraw the imprimatur of “authorised biography”’. It isn’t usual for reviewers to comment on the privileged prose of acknowledgments, but this example seems worthy of remark because it is difficult to think of the principals remaining placid under the provocation of a relationship like the one Stannard defines. It must have helped that Spark was an exceptionally efficient woman who knew how to run an office and how to deal with publishers, agents and other suppliants. Stannard is good at showing them taking cover. Spark considered it her business to write novels, while the business of publishers, in which she wanted no part, was to sell them. She often made this plain. A biographer might have expected some rough treatment along those lines, but the orderly splendour of the novelist’s archives must have been adequately consoling. In the end Stannard may have sacrificed little save the explicit imprimatur (which seems to have been withheld) and the result is a superbly detailed book, patient, affectionate, sometimes funny and, as the subject peremptorily required, very intelligent.

The narrative of Spark’s life has a certain archetypal appeal, its trajectory being from a lower-middle-class childhood in Edinburgh, ‘half in, half out of the Edinburgh Jewish community’, to fame and fortune in middle life. On the way, there was a failed marriage which led to a barren wartime sojourn in Africa, and a son from whom she was often separated. London in wartime and after meant a lively struggle to exist, and to make a career as a writer. A breakdown and conversion to Roman Catholicism changed everything, and gave rise to a remarkable first novel, The Comforters, which won generous praise from Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene.

Certain of her gift, Spark now produced novels with startling frequency. The sixth of them, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, filled an entire issue of the New Yorker, and as book, play and film brought her celebrity, money and the pleasure of spending it. She went to the races and even bought a racehorse. As the extraordinary series of publications continued, almost without a stumble, she lived first in New York, later in Rome, and finally, with a devoted companion, in Tuscany. Stannard tracks her everywhere, as no other account, even her curiously lukewarm autobiography, Curriculum Vitae (which anyway doesn’t go beyond her first novel), could hope to do. In these pages you can trace the course of amiable and gentlemanly publishers from favour to disgrace and sometimes, if they are lucky, back again. She left a trail of quasi-autobiographical fictions; Loitering with Intent and A Far Cry from Kensington cover the early London years, but these might well tease rather than inform the biographer.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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