Christopher Tayler

‘No two pictures of her look at all alike,’ Stephen Schiff wrote of Muriel Spark in 1993. ‘In one she may seem a sturdy English rose, in another a seductress staring down at her prey, in still another an intellectual prankster peeking wryly over her spectacles, and sometimes she looks merely square and oatmeal-faced, grinning wholesomely into too much flashbulb.’ It isn’t hard to imagine Spark’s feelings about being called ‘sturdy’ and ‘oatmeal-faced’, or indeed an ‘English rose’, and her biographer, Martin Stannard, seems surprised that Schiff wasn’t added to her extensive shit list.[*] A male friend of Spark’s quoted in Schiff’s profile, who inadvertently misdated the breakdown she had in the early 1950s, was, she made it known, ‘an indescribably filthy liar (please quote)’, and, she suspected, ‘on the bottle again’. Still, Schiff can’t be faulted for underscoring the difficulty of capturing a stable image of his subject, a difficulty that’s continued to cling to her work since her death, at 88, in 2006.

Spark’s novels – she wrote 22 of them – aren’t easily mistaken for anyone else’s, and they’re unusually resistant to the labels and likenings through which writers’ afterlives tend to get sorted out. Though ‘certainly … of Scottish formation’, as she put it, she left the country early on and took a grandly tolerant stance towards moves to enshrine her as a great Scottish figure. ‘I don’t mind that,’ she said in 1998 while explaining that no one bought her novels in Edinburgh because bookshops there shelved them ‘under Scottish Literature’. As for Scottish nationalism, it was, like most varieties, ‘rather pathetic’. Her first novel, The Comforters (1957), written soon after her conversion to Catholicism, inaugurated a lengthy focus on the awfulness of the faithful, and being a Catholic writer didn’t, in her view, entail going to church too often or deferring to the Vatican. ‘Some of the Church’s teachings are very foolish,’ she told an interviewer. ‘Why not have women priests?’ She was also proud of her half-Jewish background and made her only foray into political journalism in order to rebuke Pope Paul VI for being tactless to Golda Meir. ‘All the more since I discovered myself to be a Catholic animal,’ she wrote in 1963, ‘am I a Gentile Jewess.’

When Spark was starting out, in the late 1940s, she was determined to avoid the ‘slop and sentimentalism’ she associated with the role of a ‘lady-novelist’. Her first sustained prose writings – she thought of herself, then and later, primarily as a poet – were works of what we’d now call feminist literary history. But to be put in any subcategory was always vaguely affronting. Her horror of dependence on men went hand in hand with a distaste of almost Naipaul-like intensity for anyone who found strength or comfort in victimhood. Male boasters, frauds, fools and resentful weaklings who lash out at stronger women make regular appearances in her books. But women who cling to a code of self-martyring femininity come in for an even more withering inspection, and the characters Spark likes generally give them short shrift. In Loitering with Intent (1981), the narrator, Fleur, turns the tables on her lover’s tiresomely needy wife, Dottie, who offers some impromptu criticism of the novel Fleur is writing:

‘You know,’ Dottie said, ‘there’s something a bit harsh about you, Fleur. You’re not really womanly, are you?’

I was really annoyed by this. To show her I was a woman I tore up the pages of my novel and stuffed them into the wastepaper basket, burst out crying and threw her out, roughly and noisily … ‘Get out,’ I yelled at Dottie. ‘You and your husband between you have ruined my literary work.’

After that I went to bed. Flooded with peace, I fell asleep.

A related Spark speciality – introducing a character as a pretext for a sequence of deadly pounces – is frequently deployed in an unsisterly manner. Take The Girls of Slender Means (1963):

Dorothy’s hips were 36 and a half inches; her bust measurement was only 31, a fact which did not dismay her, as she intended to marry one of three young men out of her extensive acquaintance who happened to find themselves drawn to boyish figures, and although she did not know about such things as precisely as did her aunt, Dorothy knew well enough that her hipless and breastless shape would always attract the sort of young man who felt at home with it. Dorothy could emit, at any hour of the day or night, a waterfall of débutante chatter, which rightly gave the impression that on any occasion between talking, eating and sleeping, she did not think, except in terms of these phrase-ripples of hers: ‘Filthy lunch.’ ‘The most gorgeous wedding.’ ‘He actually raped her, she was amazed.’

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[*] Frank Kermode reviewed Stannard’s Muriel Spark: The Biography in the LRB of 10 September 2009.