The wicked art of Muriel Spark

The wicked art of Muriel Spark

You would be forgiven for assuming that reading a Muriel Spark novel is a lethal, life-threatening endeavour. The images most often used to describe her particular style of writing all possess a thin, incisive character: her fiction is stiletto-sharp, razor-edged, cut-glass, broken-spined. Sliding a page across to read the next chapter might slice your fingers off. They should be kept out of reach, away from children, perhaps in a locked cupboard or drawer. Don’t run with one in hand. Don’t lick the edge.

Yet, reading a Spark novel (slowly, carefully, watch yourself now) you find that the warnings of imminent disseverment don’t exactly reflect the breezy, cobblestone narrative. What could be so threatening about manicured nails clacking away on typewriters in leafy Kensington, lonely women composing poems in graveyards, teachers gesturing to a Giotto amongst burbling eddies of schoolgirls? It is this: Spark’s gift as a writer is her ability to peel away the skin of the most ordinary, typical snapshots of 20th-century life, and to poke her pen about in the bunches of exposed nerves underneath. My own pile of Spark’s novels grin at me, their papery white smiles stacked on top of one another rather ominously beside my laptop as I type. But what kind of introduction is this? How am I meant to persuade you to read Spark when I’m making out it’s some kind of murderous task? They’re not murderous. Look at them. They’re smiling.

What’s most concerning for me presently, dashing one word in front of another on this page, is that in many of Spark’s novels it is the act of writing which provokes the most mischief. Take her first novel, The Comforters (1957) in which a young woman gradually realises she is the character in someone else’s novel and spends the narrative attempting to escape the inky clutches of her author. Similarly, with Loitering With Intent (1981) Fleur Talbot writes her memoirs about her time spent working for a memoir club, which take a very fictional approach to their own lives… much like Fleur. It invites the reader to interrogate the construction of the novels of Spark’s own composition, their artificiality, and their brittle nature. Spark’s narrative is not a simple truth, handed generously from writer to reader with no questions asked. The truth of each novel reaches the reader through Chinese whispers, snatches of gossip, and the chewed ends of conversations divined through empty glasses pressed to the wall. The paradox of Spark is that her work commands – or, better, demand – total authority, over characters and readers alike, while at the same time relinquishing that authority by exposing their very textual hollowness, the squeaking cogs and pistons. How can such a contradiction be resolved? Muriel Spark is the creator; she is the goddess of her spiny universe. She is a goddess happy to share the spindly mechanics of her fictional worlds just to show you how masterly her innovations are. Don’t think for a second you’re in charge here. She invites you to consider the rug under your feet just for the pleasure of whipping it from under you, as you were admiring its elegant patterns.

Dame Spark, born in Edinburgh, in 1918, enjoyed evading the quantifying desires of literary critics towards her writing enormously. I imagine her with her dark hair swept off her head, impeccably dressed in the highest fashion, marching briskly to an office or a restaurant or television studio. Ready to put interviewers in their place with a flourish of her affected, clipped brogue. It was a mark of authorial integrity for her not to be packaged into a single genre or type. And so we see across her writing life an extraordinary variety of work, from supernatural bone-zappers (The Ballad of Peckham Rye, 1960) to slow-burning realism (The Mandelbaum Gate, 1965), to political satires (The Abbess of Crewe, 1974). Like a character in one of her own novels, she was determined to evade the words of anyone but herself. She was a native in London, in New York, and Tuscany, where she died in 2006; she was never in one place for long. Blink and she’d be gone.

Authority, and who can wield it, is for me the nexus of Spark’s oeuvre. Take a look at Muriel Spark’s most chillingly cruel novella, The Driver’s Seat (1970). Lise, a daringly haute woman of couture, on holiday in an unnamed European country, is intent on constructing a grisly end for herself – but while she thinks she is in total control of her destiny, it seems destiny had other plans for her all along. Spark was famously a Catholic Convert, one of a literary set including Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh who shared her faith. It’s led critics, for many years, to interpret her novels with a Catholic approach, where predestination, and the insolvency of the inner locus of control in the presence of God – the creator – is symbolic of the relationships between author, reader and character. A kind of Holy Trinity, if you will. In the beginning, there was the Word. And the Word was Muriel’s. The Last Word.

What makes the narrative of Lise so horrifying is the casual way in which the narrator informs the reader of Lise’s fate so very early in the text. Even when Lise proclaims her own freedom joyously, we sink into our chairs holding the book tightly between our clammy fingers, thinking of the death she is unaware of, already designed by the author. Even to the end, Lise is determined to display control over her narrative. Some critics have observed that the book is pieced together from eyewitness accounts of Lise leading up to the days of her ‘fate’, and so is perhaps unreliable, as many of them happen to be lascivious men. Was Lise really the crimson-lipped temptress the narrative would have us believe or was control being further removed through the hungry gaze of the men she meets on her quiet holiday? The book screeches to a halt before we can decide. What we do know is that the designs of the protagonist and the designs of their creator do not always harmonise, and the spiky author with her chattering typewriter must always have the upper hand – whatever the cost.

Perhaps the most famous authority figure that Spark ever let loose is that elegant monster in her prime, Jean Brodie. Her most commercially successful novel and the one that propelled her to international fame (helped by an Oscar-winning turn by Dame Maggie Smith, and her ‘geruls’) The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) has been long regarded as the creme de la creme of the Sparkian canon. What Spark does here, again, is expose the disnitegrity of authority – the adored teacher (and puppet-mistress of her student’s lives) is revealed to be a Nazi-sympathising fascist, obliterating the romantic, daredevil vision she presented herself with at the novel’s exposition. Where the girls think they’re in control, it is really Miss Brodie pulling the strings – and when Miss Brodie thinks she’s untouchable, a shocking betrayal wrenches this authority from her without apology. No one in Spark’s novels can maintain control on their own lives for long. That honour is reserved for the author herself, and herself alone.

I sometimes wonder why Spark was so adamant in wielding this authorial power. The postmodern age that Spark worked in was notorious for the Barthesian ‘death of the author’ complex in literary publishing, where the role and value of the author figure were considered with as much scrutiny as the text itself. Authors inserted themselves into their own books, usually men – see Alasdair Gray and Paul Auster, for example – where they could wander and dictate to their own creations uninhibited. Not Spark. Spark was an author who was not going to expose her own power to readers so brazenly – I imagine her thinking, so slovenly, so impolitely. Because God never does show himself, does He? He remains in the clouds, perhaps tapping away on his celestial typewriter. And in the post-religious age where God was dragged from his rosy clouds to tramp the muddy pavement among ordinary men and women, Spark insisted upon the sanctity, the holiness, of the author. The late 20th century, when nuclear war, technological usurpation and international collapse were a daily threat, Muriel Spark reiterated her position. We have a purpose, a fate, a design, however messy and chaotic and unpredictable life is around us. It might not be a good fate (it’s probably quite a bad one actually) but to have a fate in the first place shows us we are cupped in someone’s hands. And in her literary world, Muriel Spark assumed that position for her readers.

If I were to add my own (probably platitudinous) image to the list I began with, describing the sharpness of Spark’s writing, I would suggest the bumblebee. Spark’s novels have the sprightly, glass-like lightness of a bee’s wing. You can read one in an afternoon. They don’t take up much space on the shelf. But look at the body underneath. Philosophy, theology, narrative dexterity, postmodern hi-jinks and black humour are laden like pollen on the underside – how are the gossamer wings meant to lift such a weight? And yet it does, miraculously, it does. Look – off it flies.

But beware, beware. I hear the stings have bite.

 

 

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