The inimitable writer on writing, Anne Lamott, mentioned in bird by bird that Muriel Spark was said to have felt she was taking dictation from God every morning—‘sitting there, one supposes, plugged into a Dictaphone, typing away, humming. But this is a very hostile and aggressive position. One might hope for bad things to rain down on a person like this.’
It was the sort of reaction that many less amusing people had to Dame Muriel Spark, fabulously prolific author of 22 stylish and popular novels and 21 other published books, including poetry, plays, short stories and biographies. In particular, her less talented ex-lovers, Howard Sergeant and Derek Stanford, were hostile to her success, according to Martin Stannard, author of Muriel Spark, The Biography, which has just been released in paperback.
Stannard, himself, seems to have had difficulty in maintaining cordial relations with the distinguished writer, although she chose him to write her biography after being impressed by his two-volume biography of her friend and fellow Catholic, Evelyn Waugh. As Stannard explains it, Spark generously gave him her time and access to a staggering array of personal documents and “demanded no veto beyond the right to withdraw the imprimatur of ‘authorised biography’”. As the book has not been published as an authorised biography, we can only assume she was not happy with the result. He explains that he calls her Muriel in the book because he had been writing to her for more than 10 years on first-name terms but this “does not signify that she counted me as a friend”.
The dense, 536 page biography covers, in detail, the extraordinary events in the life of the controversial Scottish author. Reading it, we can feel the immensity of Stannard’s scholarly labours in wading through documentation ranging from invoices for pots of jam or account books to letters to Graham Greene or her long-time confidante and companion, Penelope Jardine. Treading carefully with a litigiously inclined subject seems to have made his style very carefully factual. At the end, despite all the information we have absorbed, the reader doesn’t know Muriel Spark more intimately than at the beginning. Indeed, that is Stannard’s theme: that Spark is almost un-knowable because of her intense desire for privacy.
Nevertheless (a favourite word of Spark’s) you won’t put the book down before the ending. The detail is fascinating. The sad and ambiguous heart of the story is about Spark’s youthful, disastrous marriage in 1937 to Sidney Spark, an older man who suffered from manic depression, with violent outbursts. They lived together in Rhodesia, where their son Robin was born. In 1940, during World War ll, Muriel Spark left her husband and son behind to make the dangerous trip by sea back to the United Kingdom where she hoped to get work and bring Robin over.
She and Robin were never re-united. When he finally came home to the UK, she left him with her parents in Edinburgh while she sent over money from London, where she was struggling to become a professional writer. They were never close after that and open hostility broke out between them when Robin went public, claiming that Spark had denied her Jewishness and that she was that unattractive figure, an anti-Semitic Jew. Muriel Spark pointed out that her mother was not a Jew, only her father, and that Jewishness is handed down through the maternal line. The dispute caused great pain on both sides and, before she died, Muriel Spark changed her will, explicitly leaving Robin out of it.
Early in her career, Spark had two passionate relationships with men who were also writing colleagues. Her experience of their patronage and the misogyny of the British publishing industry at the time were reflected, many years later, in the wonderfully witty autobiographical novels, Loitering with Intent and A Far Cry from Kensington.
After that, Spark seems to have decided that marriage was not for her. She may have had love affairs but the most lasting relationship of her life was with Penelope Jardine, who was her legatee in the will that cut out Robin. Many assumed that this was a lesbian relationship but Stannard’s research suggests otherwise. The impression he offers is of a woman who lived first and foremost for her art. Relationships, the ‘pram in the hallway’, were not conducive to art, so they had to go. Spark arranged her life, with Jardine as her greatest supporter, so that she could write every day.
Stannard gives a thorough and appreciative treatment of the writing of each of Spark’s books, her intentions and the critical response to them. Although this makes for a repetitive structure for the book, each of the critical entries is fascinating. I want to read all the novels, in order, now and the Stannard biography will be a great companion in my reading. He includes a broad variety of critical responses, both from English and American papers and it is amusing to see how different they are and how baffled many of Spark’s reviewers were by her deceptively simple novels.
Martin Stannard has wrestled manfully with truckloads of data surrounding a complex, elusive, and brilliant writer and got to the bottom of some of the bothersome mysteries of her reputation, especially to do with religion and sexuality. The result is a great gift to any student of Muriel Spark.
For the general reader, it’s an interesting book but Stannard is an academic, not a writer. His tone is enquiring, patient and appreciative and his style is plain but without elegance. Although he interviewed Muriel Spark several times and wrote to her frequently, he hasn’t included a lot of her crisp, acerbic wit. When he does, it lights up the page as, for instance, when he quotes her being offered something distasteful, ‘like coitus interruptus or decaffeinated coffee’.
Sandra Hogan is a writer and editor, with a strong background in journalism and government communications. She is the director of WriteBusiness, which offers training, coaching and mentoring to people in business and government who want to improve their writing skills.
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