Recovering Muriel Spark

Muriel Spark, dead eight years, is enjoying a bit of a revival. Several of her novels are back in print, hip websites praise her, and a smattering of nice reviews has greeted The Informed Air, a collection of journalistic ephemera. (My verdict: Read the essay on cats first, then sample at will.) As welcome as this coverage is, you could read lots of it without learning that Spark, the Scottish novelist whose most famous work is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) and whose masterpiece is The Girls of Slender Means (1963), belongs as surely to the canon of great modern Christian novelists as do Buechner, O’Connor, or Waugh.

Spark tended toward dark comedy, with occasional detours into pure horror. Her novels typically feature young women who stumble into plots involving murder or blackmail (the dramatic forms of death and guilt, those Christian preoccupations), from which they cleverly extricate themselves while narrating the action in unsparing and hilarious aphorisms. (A minor character in 1988’s A Far Cry from Kensington is thus dismissed: “[S]he seemed to live in parenthesis.”) Spark’s tart voice and sordid plots may help account for her absence from the “Faith and the Modern Novel” symposia – although, again, many of those readers can’t get enough of the just-as-cruel, half-as-funny Flannery O’Connor.

Critics who have taken Spark’s faith seriously have fixated on Spark’s “godlike” relationship to her characters, as revealed in her treatment of time and fate: her little jumps backwards and forwards in sequence, her sudden, destabilizing asides (from 1990’s Symposium: “She is dying, now, as they speak”), her tendency to offer a posthumous summing-up where most authors put character introductions. In a famous passage from Miss Jean Brodie, a child named Mary Macgregor makes a trivial classroom mistake; Spark offhandedly lets us know that Mary will lead a dim, unimpressive life before dying in a fire. (Edward P. Jones’s stories and novels have used this device brilliantly, to wholly different effect.) In The Driver’s Seat, she offers us a protagonist who predicts – and precipitates – her own murder. (Martin Amis in London Fields has used this device, at three times Spark’s length, to no effect whatsoever.) Constantly she juxtaposes the finished shape of a life against the little actions, seemingly free, that make it up.

Observing all this, James Wood has written that Spark “not only exercises . . . omniscient authorial control, but also has a somewhat austere and limited sense of individual freedom. The Catholic convert from Edinburgh, who has lived many years in relaxed Italy, turns out to wear a Scottish Calvinist corset after all.” With his usual flair for imagery, Wood burnishes a commonplace in Spark criticism: the supposed contrast between the sunny Catholic God she worshipped and the micromanaging Presbyterian God she emulated. Aside from the fact that I have never found Catholicism particularly sunny – all due respect, but I’m the one who gets to have nonprocreative sex – this author-equals-God formulation ignores a significant party to the transaction: authors, ideally, have readers. Spark’s sublime first novel, The Comforters (1957), illustrates the implications of this by giving us a hero who is simultaneously author, character, and reader: a novelist who comes to realize she is a character in a novel. Far from entrapping her in a predestinarian web, this knowledge brings her to more vivid life; the other characters, like Hamlet’s friends and family, become her straight men. We know Spark suffered similar delusions in the mid-50s (thanks to the era’s amphetamine-laced OTC diet pills: after all, have you ever met a fat speedfreak?). But it’s bracing to learn from The Informed Air that, during this period, Spark was also obsessed with Cardinal Newman’s childhood fantasy that the cosmos included only himself and God. When we read Spark at her best, we become like Caroline, or Newman, aware that the story we read, like the story we live, is only part-real.

“Fiction to me is a kind of parable,” she once said. “You have got to make up your mind it’s not true. Some kind of truth emerges from it.” Notice how she shifts subject from me to you, author to reader; Spark’s parables resemble Christ’s in exactly the quality that also makes her work eerie, fresh and contemporary, a lighter-footed forerunner of postmodern metafiction: they acknowledge their own artifice, and point beyond it to the self-examining reader beyond. Spark’s best novels live in their own aftermath – which they render as fruitfully uncomfortable as the books themselves are deeply pleasurable.


  • Phil Christman writes and teaches in Ann Arbor, Mich. He is the editor of the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing.

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