"Muriel Spark: The Biography"
By Martin Stannard
W.W. Norton. 656 pages. $35
By nearly any measure Muriel Spark was a major 20th-century writer -- of longer fiction (twenty two novels); short fiction (sixty+ stories, published and republished in six collections); poetry (four volumes); children’s stories (three); plays (five); biographies (two); and autobiography (one). And that does not take account of edited and co-edited volumes (seven) or essays and reviews (seventy-five+). Her gifts were unusual -- a piercing eye; an acute ear; an incisive, often caustic wit; a voice so distinctive; a style so inimitable that once having read her prose, even the mildly attentive reader could select another Spark text from three unsigned samples.
An extraordinary and unique talent like Muriel Spark deserves a biography that does her oeuvre justice, one that participates in the sophisticated intellectual discourse of her fiction and synthesizes the life and work into a coherent, sustained vision. Unfortunately, after fifteen years' labor, to judge from 'Muriel Spark: The Biography,' Martin Stannard was unable to do that. Despite Spark's having commissioned him and having cooperated with him in the endeavor, and despite the accumulation of enough facts to stuff an old-fashioned Victorian door-stop biography, Stannard has produced a mediocre book. While good at illuminating the first half of her life, his fondness for book-chat literary analysis and his singular failure to pay much more than lip service to the ways in which Spark's deep spirituality informed her fiction damage 'Muriel Spark: The Biography' significantly.
From other sources, particularly Spark's own autobiography, 'Curriculum Vitae' (1992), the narrative of her early years in Edinburgh, Africa, and London is known; but certainly not with the fullness Stannard is able to give thanks to his nearly unlimited access to Spark's papers, his exhaustive interviews with figures from those years, and his painstaking investigation of related sources and materials. Born in February 1918 to a working-class Jewish father and a Christian mother (to his credit and Spark's, Stannard settles the score: for years her son, Robin, who was reared by Muriel's parents, had claimed that his mother had obscured her own mother's Jewish identity), young Muriel Sarah Camberg attended James Gillespie's School for Girls, where she earned a reputation as what she called "the school's poet and dreamer." Without the money for university, Muriel studied writing and took odd jobs before embarking at age 19 for Africa, where she married a considerably older man, Sydney Oswald Spark, formerly a faculty member at Gillespie's.
Refusing to accede to his demand that she have an abortion, Spark gave birth to her son. The marriage soon fell apart. Muriel moved on, to London, and found work with British counter-intelligence, then at a number of odd jobs and for the Poetry Society until being sacked in November 1948. Meanwhile, Robin was entrusted to the care of Muriel's parents in Edinburgh, where he made a firm commitment to Judaism. Here, too, Stannard is eminently fair to Spark, relieving her of charges of neglect and worse yet, abandoning her son; Stannard makes a convincing case for Spark's decision that he was better off with her parents, since she lived a hardscrabble existence in post-War London. He strengthens his contention with careful notation of Spark's financial support of Robin (e.g., when she won a prize of L250 in 1951, she sent him L50 for his bar mitzvah), and effectively lays to rest the feud that erupted in the 1990s.
Comfort Though frequently published as a poet, Spark had no reputation as a writer of prose fiction until 1951, when, out of nearly 6000 entries, her story, "The Seraph and the Zambesi," won a Christmas story contest sponsored by the Observer. The prize money enabled her to make ends meet, at least temporarily. Post-War rationing was an affliction, but so was the deep-seated spiritual hunger that led Muriel first to the Anglican communion, then to the AngloCatholic tradition, and finally to the Roman Catholic Church in May, 1954. Conversion was a watershed experience in Spark's life, giving her not only a sense of identity and spiritual bearings, but a release of creative energies that would eventually result in her first novel, 'The Comforters' (1957). But that success would not achieved without the cost of a serious breakdown due to dependence on Dexedrine as an appetite suppressant.
'The Comforters' drew the attention of two well-established writers, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene; with their support, her career was launched: twenty one novels would follow, with the last, 'The Finishing School,' published in 2004 when she was eighty six years old.
Stannard deserves his due for rendering the first part of Spark's life, up to the publication of 'The Comforters,' with meticulous and evocative detail -- Edinburgh, Africa, post-War London-- come alive. Yet when he enters the second half of Spark's life, charting the Fly-Dutchman voyage that took her from London to New York to Rome until she found a permanent home in Tuscany in the late 70s, he has lost his bearings. He is good at describing places and personalities -- e.g., the years in New York with an office at The New Yorker, a flat in the Beaux Arts Hotel on East 44th Street, a high energy social and professional life with the likes of Blanche and Alfred Knopf, Shirley Hazzard, William Shawn (the legendary editor of The New Yorker who admired her work so much that he devoted an entire issue to 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie'), Lionel Trilling, and Norman Mailer. Likewise, the years in Rome, with a cast of characters including Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, Eugene Walter, William Weaver and a succession of elegant, if ineligible escorts are chronicled with dash and dimension.
Spark's concerns about the rhetoric and style of this biography were well-founded. She was a woman of style. Photos from the 70s onward show her perfectly groomed and coiffed, wearing a little black dress accented by good jewelery (often Cartier) and Ferragamo pumps. And her writing was nothing if not stylish. Stannard's is not. It is filled with clich¿¿s and infelicities. At one point, for example, we are told that, "like Yeats, she was sailing to her Byzantium." Further, Stannard has a most annoying habit: perhaps thinking that its some sort of witty turn, he repeatedly uses the titles of Spark's novels as figures in his own prose, whether it's "a far cry" or "girls of slender means" or "the driver's seat" or, most conspicuously -- perhaps a dozen times -- "public image." He displays a talent for the curiously inane turn of phrase (Spark is called "the high priestess" of this or that several times; "her fame was bush-fire on both sides of the Atlantic"; one of her stories was "a glass of postmodernist champagne among the musty realism of other entries." If only style were all that detracts from this biography.
But 'Muriel Spark: The Biography' disappoints in other ways as well. The account of the last, late Tuscan sojourn is rather sparse: the last 100 pages or so seem not much more than prose re-writing of diary entries. Other, greater flaws become painfully obvious in literary and theological contexts.
In the realm of the literary, several matters need comment. First, it seems most curious that Stannard says so little about Spark's creative process. He relays well-known information about her sense of being a poet, first and always; about her working from a title (once she had it, she had the story, she often said); and about her use of notebooks dispatched from Thin's Stationer's in Edinburgh and Biros that no one else ever touched. But that's no substitute for genuine insight into how this writer wrote.
Moreover,when Stannard considers the novels, he does little more than provide plot summary and snippets of reviews. This professor of literature (at the University of Leicester) never engages in the real work of literary criticism and evaluation. Curious, too, is his refusal draw on writers who clearly had significant impact on Spark's work. Proust, Robbe-Grillet, and perhaps most intriguingly Henry Green are mentioned several times, but Stannard makes nothing more that a superficial effort re: Robbe-Grillet and does nothing more, really, that mention Proust and Green. And to speculate that the brevity of her novels of the 1970s -- 'The Driver's Seat,' 'The Public Image,' 'The Hothouse by the East River,' and 'The Abbess of Crewe' -- was somehow related to her loss of weight, is a "literary" judgment nearly as preposterous as his seeing Muriel's flamboyant maternal grandmother as "an abstract of the female artist."
A related, but even greater flaw in this biography emerges re: Spark's spirituality. Like others, he puts Spark in the same category as Waugh and Greene; that is a hasty and largely meaningless categorization, since the three could not be more different in their understanding (and living of the faith) as well as in the ways in which faith colors the fiction of each. Stannard rightly emphasizes the signal importance of her conversion. Beyond that he makes serious mistakes and betrays either a lack of theological knowledge or a simple refusal to deal substantively with matters of faith and fiction. He does use the right words -- terms like "vocation," "transfiguration," and "sacramental" do appear, but they are used without any nuanced, sophisticated understanding. Take, for example, the last term, "sacramental" about Spark's 1971 visit to W. H. Auden in Austria, Stannard writes, "this meeting was a sacramental moment in her life, cherished for twenty five years until it found artistic expression." Just what does this mean? At least, strictly speaking, it bears no relevance to the Roman Catholic understanding of the term. "Transfiguration" suffers the same fate. Stannard relishes telling of Spark's visit to Mt Tabor, said to be the scene of Jesus' transfiguration; but he is at a loss to explicate one of the bedrock principles of Spark's aesthetic, "the transfiguration of the commonplace,"which, incidentally, is central to the sacramental economy of the Church.
Spark was a serious, thoughtful, if not card-carrying Roman Catholic, deeply committed to the bedrock principles and doctrine of her faith. Though she sometimes did her best to obscure it, she was carefully read in the traditions of the Church Fathers as well as later texts (the Benedictine Rule; The Cloud of Unknowing) and works by contemporary theologians like Karl Rahner and Hans Kung. You would never know that from this biography. In this regard and more, Spark reminds one of Flannery O'Connor, whose absence from Stannard's text is notable and damning. (Spark insisted that her fiction take account of the violent, the grotesque, and indeed, of all the things of earth.) Spark once declared that "everything is absurd without eternal life," and so is a biography of Spark that fails to integrate her religious faith and her work.
Spark sometimes said that she had made three great mistakes in her life, each having to do with a man: one, her husband; the other two, lovers later discarded. I wonder if, at the end of her life, exhaustively revising and correcting the pages of this manuscript that distressed her so, and suffering her last, fatal illness, she didn't revise the count from three to four -- and with justification.
Robert E. Hosmer teaches modern and contemporary British literature at Smith College. His interview with Muriel Spark, "A Certain Plausibility: Muriel Spark in Conversation," appeared in the London Magazine. Forthcoming is 'Shall We Say I Had Fun with My Imagination' : Essays in Honor of Muriel Spark.