June 2005

James Morrison

Small, but Perfectly Formed

Muriel Spark

Working for MI6, the British military intelligence outfit, during the Second World War, Scot Muriel Spark described her job as "the propagation of the Allied point of view under the guise of the German point of view," which led to "a tangled mixture of damaging lies, flattering and plausible truths." This early experience at crafting effective propaganda, one of writing’s darker aspects, has undoubtedly contributed to her later skill as a novelist.

The famously Catholic daughter of a Jewish father and an Anglican mother, Dame Spark’s long and continuing career as a writer has consisted most importantly of a singular collection of bleak, funny, and often savage short novels.

When asked recently if she felt she should write longer books, she replied, “Yes, I do… [but] there's nothing I can do about it. I feel I should give them something more to take home for their money.” But when you buy one of Spark’s books, value is exactly what you get. There can be few living writers so expert at the condensed, every-word-must-count brilliance of the finest novellas.

Spark is also one of a number of writers, along with R. K. Narayan and Vladimir Nabokov, who owe a great debt to Graham Greene for supporting them through critical parts of their careers. As Alec Guinness recorded, of Spark, in his journal:

The last time I saw her was in June 1991, at the memorial service for Graham Greene. We sat next to each other; were both required to get up and speak… In her tribute to Graham she spoke of the financial help he gave her when she was a struggling writer. She said, "It was typical of Graham that with the monthly cheques he often sent a few bottles of red wine to 'take the edge off cold charity'." It says something very pleasing about both of them.

She shares with Greene, and Evelyn Waugh, a worldview strongly inflected by her faith, but utterly devoid of sentimentality. Redemption is unlikely, but possible; the mass of humanity wallows in grubby, low-rent sin, without any idea of the ridiculousness of its position.

Spark began her career as a poet and biographer, and a very good one. Her biography of Mary Shelley, for example, is excellent. But it is her novels that show her at her best, and anyone interested in great modern writing should try them. Here I’ll provide an overview of a number of her best books. For anyone who hasn’t read any of her work, start with one of the first three listed below.

The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960): A jet-black comedy about the nature of evil, and starring the Devil in human form, this wonderful morality tale shows just how well-formed Spark’s writing was early in her career. Dougal Douglas (or Douglas Dougal, or Dougal-Douglas, as he variously represents himself) claims to be ghostwriting the autobiography of a fading stage star. His research work, however, starts to bend the lives of his interviewees in terrible, murderous ways. The Ballad is a great introduction to Spark’s strengths and concerns.

 

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961): Spark’s best-known novel, based on her own school experiences in Edinburgh, displays her characteristic dark wit and vivid, yet economical, style. The schoolmistress of the title has an attentive group of adolescent girl pupils as her devoted followers, and she has no qualms about manipulating them for what she sees as good purposes. That Miss Jean Brodie is an admirer of Franco and Hitler, and her own growing power resembling that of a dictator, adds much to the black humour of the tale. The turmoil of so much repressed young female sexuality is wonderfully well done, something Spark would develop even further in…

 

The Girls of Slender Means (1963): Set in a girls’ boarding house during the Blitz, this is my personal favourite among Spark’s early books. The daily intrigues and manoeuvrings among the young women are fascinating enough, but there is more going on here. Underneath the house is an unexploded German bomb—not that uncommon during World War II, as it was often deemed safer to leave them be than risk detonating them by trying to disarm them—and the constant threat of sudden, violent death adds a weird sexual energy to everything that happens in the house. This book is one of the great overlooked highlights of modern British fiction.

 

The Abbess of Crewe (1974): To set a satire on Watergate in a nunnery is the sort of project that most writers would fail to pull off, even in the unlikely event that they thought of it at all. Yet in the conniving, politically poisonous atmosphere of Crewe, the Mother Superior’s decision to bug her followers seems only sensible, and her undoing inevitable. One of the weirdest products of Spark’s unusual output.

 

Aiding and Abetting (2000): Lord Lucan’s disappearance in 1974 is one of the more famous unsolved mysteries of the Twentieth Century. The vicious aristocrat murdered his children’s nanny with a poker, believing the victim to be his wife, made a second (unsuccessful) attempt on the correct woman’s life, and then vanished. His escape was aided by fellow members of the British upper class, people who would rather see one of their own get away with a brutal murder than face common justice. As the marvellous Brewer’s Rogues, Villains & Eccentrics points out, to a British paper such as the Daily Mail common criminals are always referred to as being on the run, while Lord Lucan is merely missing. In Aiding and Abetting, Muriel Spark vividly imagines the homicidal peer’s later life, complicated by the appearance of an impostor who also claims to be Lucan. It’s wonderful, nasty stuff.

 

Finishing School (2004): Whatever the stereotype of the sort of fiction an 86-year-old might produce is, this novella contradicts it. A tight, brief story of literary jealousy and obsession, it describes the increasingly malignant goings-on in the European finishing school of the title. Here a select few students, children of the rich, complete their teenaged years in an environment that combines both unconventional privilege and old-fashioned strictness. As might be gathered, many of Muriel Spark’s books examine small, close-knit communities slowly tearing away from normal society, and the finishing school is one of the most dysfunctional of all.