Muriel Spark

The Biography

By Martin Stannard

Norton. 627 pp. $35

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Reviewed by Frank Wilson


Martin Stannard's biography of Muriel Spark is a lot like Spark's fiction: It often leaves one guessing.

Consider, for instance, three men who played important roles in Spark's life: her husband, Sydney Oswald Spark, 13 years her senior, mentally unstable, and the father of her only son, Robin; Howard Sergeant, poet and editor, with whom she had a passionate affair and, for a time, thought of marrying; and Derek Stanford, poet and editor, with whom she had a less passionate affair and, for a time, thought of marrying.

Ossie Spark is last mentioned on Page 275, and one can't help wondering what happened to him.

Sergeant ends being no more than one part (along with Stanford) of Fleur Talbot's bisexual lover in Loitering With Intent. No note is taken of his death in 1987.

Stanford is mentioned often enough, because he remained an annoyance, having apparently purloined some of Spark's private papers for subsequent sale, and also because Spark gave him a dubiously prominent role in her 1988 novel A Far Cry From Kensington as the hack writer Hector Bartlett.

Spark would surely approve of the way in which Stannard dismisses all of them from her life story. It is, after all, how she dealt with them herself. But there is more to it than that. Precisely by doing so, he brings this brilliant and difficult woman even more sharply into focus.

She was born Muriel Sarah Camberg on Feb. 1, 1918, in the Morningside district of Edinburgh. Her father was a Scottish Jew. Her mother was English (from Watford) and (at least, nominally) Anglican. Stannard describes the household religion as "pagan Christian Judaism."

Barney Camberg worked for the North British Rubber Co. Though their living quarters were small and cramped, they managed to take in lodgers, principally to pay for better schooling for Muriel and her older brother, Philip.

The school they attended was called Gillespie's. One teacher in particular, Christina Kay, "entered my imagination immediately," Spark wrote in her odd autobiography, Curriculum Vitae. "I started to write about her even then." In Spark's most famous novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Gillespie's becomes the Marcia Blaine School. Miss Brodie herself owes a good deal to Miss Kay, though Stannard points out that it is "the difference between [Spark's] characters and their 'originals' which is telling, particularly in the case of Kay/Brodie."

Muriel Camberg could not afford university, and in 1937 she married Ossie Spark. The marriage took place in what was then Southern Rhodesia, where Ossie had a three-year teaching contract. The following year, their son was born. Soon, however, her husband's mental instability became obvious and intolerable. The only grounds for divorce were adultery and desertion. He wasn't about to desert her. So she deserted him. That meant, of course, that Ossie would get custody of Robin, though the boy would end up being raised by Muriel's parents. In 1944, Spark managed to return to Britain, and went to work in the Foreign Office.

After the war, she worked in London, usually as a secretary. Publisher Peter Owen called her "the best bloody secretary" he ever had. But she was steadily writing, mostly poetry and criticism. She was appointed general secretary of the Poetry Society in 1947, but was sacked the following year.

She had, so far, written no prose fiction. Then, in 1951, the Observer announced a contest for a Christmas story. The prize was 250 pounds. There were nearly 7,000 entries. Spark's "The Seraph and the Zambezi" won.

The story displayed all the characteristics of Spark's mature fiction: precision, concision, and her own brand of magical realism.

Samuel Cramer, who runs a gas station near the Zambezi River, has been around a long time. As a character in a Baudelaire tale, "he was said to be going strong in Paris early in the nineteenth century." He is still going strong in 1946, only now he is 42, not 25. He has written a Nativity Masque for performance on Christmas Eve, in which he himself will play the First Seraph. Only, when the play is staged, a real Seraph turns up to make things difficult.

If "The Seraph and the Zambezi" enabled Spark to better discern her vocation as a writer, it was also indicative of her drift toward faith. In 1954, she became a Roman Catholic. In the meantime, though, she was working too hard, keeping herself going by taking Dexedrine. She started hallucinating. Among other things, she became convinced that T.S. Eliot was sending her threatening messages encrypted in his play The Confidential Clerk and even in the theater program.

Out of this ordeal came The Comforters, her first novel, published in 1957 when she was 39. She was on her way. By the time she wrote Brodie in 1961, Stannard notes, her fame had caught fire "on both sides of the Atlantic." The New Yorker devoted almost an entire issue to an abridged version of Brodie. The book became a huge best-seller. Adapted for the stage some years later by Jay Presson Allen, it became a hit both in London and New York. The screen version was a hit as well.

Spark lived for a time in New York and had an office at the New Yorker. Then she moved to Rome. Finally, she settled down in a Tuscan villa with her friend, the artist and sculptor Penelope Jardine. She was made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1993 and died in 2006 at age 88. Her creative powers remained strong. Her final novel, The Finishing School, published is 2004, is among her best.

Spark was a great writer, but a trying person. A great many of these pages are taken up with quarrels - some continuing for years - with publishers and former friends. Stannard deals with it all in a remarkably evenhanded manner. He tells what happened, what who said to or about whom, and leaves it to the reader to pass judgment. Throughout, he seems rather fond of Spark.

He certainly makes it clear that as a single woman, she had to fight for what she got. He also makes clear that, for Spark, writing fiction was a vocation in the religious sense. She was prepared to sacrifice anything and anyone on behalf of her art.

What Spark, who always considered herself a poet, wrote about John Masefield's work, of its "kinship with that primitive order of religious revelation," applies equally to her own:

That is the paradox of inspiration - the incredible and the impossible are felt to be present and therefore (for what is more actual than what we feel?) are credible and possible. . . . The poem will have an organic connection with its physical origin, and the pattern of events and their movement at the visionary instant will be translated symbolically until in the end the work itself becomes the real thing and the events the symbols of it.

Frank Wilson is a retired Inquirer book editor. Visit his blog, "Books, Inq.-The Epilogue." E-mail him at presterfrank@gmail.com