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agreement allowed her biographer ‘extensive free quotation from her published work and an unspecified amount from her unpublished writings, including letters’.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.

With a curious appeal to the Joachimite theory of history, Stannard in his final pages suggests that Spark’s was not the age of the Father or that of the Son: ‘Her proper habitat, her art, lay in the age of the Holy Ghost. And there she remained, a ghost-writer for God whoever He may be, sending us disarming postcards from eternity . . . Entering her realm you had to watch out, for you could be entering a fiction, visiting someone who was not there, a mistress of disguise and disappearances.’ I dare to add that my own acquaintance with Dame Muriel, which was long and friendly, calm but not deep, contained several mysterious episodes, unexpected appearances and disappearances on the part of one or the other of us, the effect being, on balance, benign though a little alarming. However, she herself rejected suggestions that – in the quite ordinary passages of life, and leaving aside the breakdown featured in The Comforters – she was a bit spooky. She could certainly be wilful and intransigent, especially when defending her territory, but she could also be perfectly ordinary, kind, fond of children etc. A complex woman, then, fully conscious of being, before everything else, an artist.

Barbara Vaughan, the heroine of Spark’s most ambitious book, The Mandelbaum Gate, finds herself in Beersheba,

the place where the patriarch Isaac, blind in his old age, mistakenly gave his blessing to Jacob, who had posed as his elder brother Esau. The old man, uneasy, felt the son’s hands and arms, which were gloved in the hairy skin of a goat, and was taken in by the disguise. ‘The voice is the voice of Jacob,’ said the old man. He felt the arms and hands. ‘But the hands –’ The mighty blessing, once bestowed, was irrevocable. Smooth Jacob, not tough, hairy Esau, got the spiritual inheritance and took the place that the Lord had reserved for him among the Fathers of Israel, such being the ways of the Lord in the Middle East. Barbara reflected that God had not been to Eton. Jacob would have made a marvellous Jesuit.

Muriel Spark’s interest in the Bible was much like Barbara Vaughan’s: ‘The Scriptures were specially important to the half-Jew turned Catholic.’ She speaks, we are told, from ‘that Catholic point of view which takes some getting used to’. An example might be a remark made about a murdered girl in her story ‘The Portobello Road’: ‘She was at Confession only the day before she died – wasn’t she lucky?’ To accept that response entails belief in much else. For example, the Transfiguration of Jesus took place on Mount Tabor or somewhere else, but the point is that it really, unquestionably, took place; moreover, Deborah had collected an army there and sung her song of triumph.

Barbara’s is not an intellectual position of interest to her Israeli guide. As he saw it, her mother was a Jew, so she was. To be English, Jewish and Catholic all at once might well seem to be too much. It certainly called for a complexity of response that was not merely rational, since the power to bind in one volume the Old and New Testaments is work not for reason but for love. Barbara is not quite ready to do the binding. It would involve the acceptance of a cosmic plot sometimes seemingly unfair, but echoed in the day-to-day betrayals and plottings of human beings. Barbara/Muriel attends the Eichmann trial, a dull horror to which Spark attributed the depression she felt on her return from Israel, and renders the proceedings in the manner of the French ‘anti-roman’ (dislocated, repetitive, dreamlike). The perfidy of Jacob is often enough echoed in Spark’s plots, where it is usually a source of delight rather than of remorse. She hadn’t been to Eton either, and was glad of it. Yet the validity of those divine directives is absolute.

During the war, Spark, returning from that wretched sojourn in Africa, lived in bedsits and sought congenial work in London. Being both intelligent and efficient, she was successful in finding rewardingly eccentric jobs. When an interviewer noticed that she was carrying a novel by Ivy Compton-Burnett, she was offered a job at the Foreign Office. Having signed the Official Secrets Act she worked for Sefton Delmer, formerly Berlin correspondent of the Daily Express, doing ‘black propaganda’. Delmer’s job was to distribute misinformation to the enemy, partly by means of dirty tricks – the forging of ration cards, passports, postage stamps and the like. The staff kept their hands in by duping and deceiving one another.

Later Spark rose rapidly to be secretary of the Poetry Society and editor of its journal. She was at this time struggling to write non-fiction and verse on her own account. A lot of passionate plotting, rowing and betraying took place, much of it to appear, transformed, in the novels she consecrated to her youth in London. It was a time when she had very little money but ‘marvellous friends, full of good and evil’, and she could rejoice at the thought that she was a woman at the midpoint of the 20th century, perfectly capable of defending herself against bosses, landlords and ex-lovers. She understood the rules of their games and had some of her own. There was thus some scope for dirty tricks. It is the betrayer, Sandy Stranger, in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, who explains that ‘it’s only possible to betray where loyalty is due.’ ‘It is demanding too much of any human to ask them to be loyal to a party or a system or a person for the whole of their life.’ Against this possibly seductive rule we must set another, stated by the disconsolate heroine of The Public Image. On hearing an enemy praised as good for refraining from inflicting an injury, she simply asks: ‘What’s good about not being bad?’ Ethically this is perhaps a dirty trick, though less shameful than Jacob’s.

Spark loved the interaction of plots, human and providential. Some human plots were taken from newspaper stories, for instance the comic betrayals and cover-ups of her Nixon skit, The Abbess of Crewe. She based a later novel, Aiding and Abetting, on the disappearance of Lord Lucan, needing, for the sake of plot, to invent a second claimant to the title, and also a psychiatrist who in a former life was a stigmatic. In Loitering with Intent, the ‘I’ of the tale is working on a novel which is affected by the writing she does in the course of her job to hot up feeble autobiographies.

Spark looks at plot from different angles. After thinking about the Book of Job for years she eventually wrote The Only Problem, which is about the reaction of a man obsessed with a painting called Job Visited by His Wife in a French provincial gallery. The idea is brilliant, but there is another plot concerning the man’s missing wife and her sister, and this takes one’s attention away from the theme of the painting. So plots are something of a difficulty; though often supported by brilliant dialogue and amusing characters, often criminals, they can be distracting. The Only Problem has a huge theme, God’s treatment of Job, and his treatment of the scholar who is devoted to Job, but also the different though related matter of that scholar’s dealings with the movements of his flighty wife and the police. They are oblique reflections of the ‘only problem’, but the figure of Job’s wife in the De La Tour painting represents its enigmatic centre, and the police operations are a distraction.

The seriousness and originality of some other works – Not to Disturb, The Driver’s Seat, The Girls of Slender Means – seem to grow stronger as time passes, and it is absurd to niggle over Spark’s taste for lesser intrigues. The Girls of Slender Means, which asks for a high degree of critical perceptiveness, also provides some work for the biographer, for it remembers the time when, while working for Sefton Delmer, she went between his operational centre near Woburn and the Foreign Office. When in London she lived in a club closely resembling the May of Teck in the novel. The Girls of Slender Means contains betrayals, both trivial and deadly, and the power of evil as it might appear among a company that seems good enough but cannot withstand what is indeed a theophany of evil. In this book London is as it was around VJ Day; the young women and their men cheat and plot, fornicate and fantasise, but appear nevertheless to be trapped in webs of providence and grace like the nuns in ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’, a poem repeatedly heard as their building breaks up and falls. In all the terror of the escape scene a young man witnesses one of the girls, who is as thin as the situation requires, making away with the Schiaparelli dress that had been held in common and shared for use on important dates. This dress now becomes, for the young man, a vision of evil that is to shape his history and bring him to his death as a martyr.

Much of this book is told with a certain nostalgic gaiety, but Spark is serious about what she is saying and doing. ‘I wasn’t writing poetry and prose so that the reader would think me a nice person,’ Fleur says in Loitering with Intent, ‘but in order that my sets of words should convey ideas of truth and wonder.’ It is an arduous programme, not less so because of Spark’s restlessness and her ever more complicated life. Her activity reached a peak when she settled in Rome, knowing no Italian but mistress of a splendid palazzo and guests to match. ‘I was struck,’ one old friend said, after a grand dinner, ‘by how absolutely snooty she had become. I said: “Muriel dear, you remember when I used to take you round New York City when you didn’t know anybody?” And suddenly . . . I was so fucking mad at her, I said: “What is going on here?”’ Her guests included duchesses, countesses, a prince, a count who had been Mussolini’s private secretary. Stannard says, justly, that she felt perfectly at home in this company: it was as if she had found another world suitable for her fiction, like that of the old people in Memento Mori.

She was asserting herself, and must have been as conscious as anybody of the transformation undergone by the clever girl from Edinburgh. In her last years she still worked hard but lived, Stannard says, with the expectation of betrayal. She was burgled and bothered by the tax authorities. She took issue with the Church, affirming that she was not a ‘Vatican Catholic’: ‘I don’t know why the Catholic Church doesn’t stick to politics and keep its nose out of morals.’ As her relationship with Penelope Jardine matured she spent less time in Rome and more at Jardine’s house in Tuscany. She died in a Florentine hospital in April 2006, aged 88. Stannard follows the course of her extraordinary career with sympathetic intelligence. It is hard to believe the work could have been done better.